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Susan Green

A Review of the Film Sister Kenny

(17 February 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 7, 17 February 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Amid the welter of unthrilling whodunits, nauseatingly noisy and elaborate musicals, the saccharine romances, the film story of Sister Kenny, Australian bush nurse and discoverer of a revolutionary treatment for infantile paralysis, seems out of another movie world.

For many years this reviewer happens to have followed Sister Kenny’s progress. My reaction to the film was that the production under review is basically true and not overdramatized. Director Nichols deserves praise for presenting Kenny’s self-sacrifice, simply and acceptably. The love affair between Sister Kenny and her army captain whom she wants to marry but does not, is without maudlin overtones.

It is certainly not the usual run of things in capitalist society for an individual to give up personal happiness and success for something bigger than the individual. Drafted soldiers may rationalize their plight by believing they are sacrificing themselves for something bigger, or a few individuals, deluded into an idealistic response to the propaganda of the ruling class, may volunteer their lives in war. It is entirely different for a lone woman, a nurse in the Australian bush, who has by her own wits, restored a paralyzed child to health after being assured by the most eminent orthopedist in Australia that there was no cure for polio, to devote her life to the inch-by-inch struggle for recognition of her method.

The film’s presentation of Kenny’s battle against orthodox orthopedia, especially in the person of Dr. Brack, provides some dramatic scenes. One is where Dr. Bracks’ “recovered” patient appears all trussed up in braces, while Kenny’s patient, a little girl who had been paralyzed in both legs and in the back, appears wearing no braces and able to turn cartwheels. Another good scene is where Kenny confronts Dr. Brack as he is demonstrating a polio case before a group of doctors, with ensuing fireworks.

It is not only because what Kenny discovered is not written in the books that the Dr. Bracks have fought her so savagely. Imagine a mere nurse, a bush nurse, being successful with simple methods, when they, with their complicated trusses and braces, have failed. Again and again Dr. Brack is shown reminding Kenny that she is a nurse, that she has taken an oath to help doctors and not to teach hem.

Philip Merivale, cast in the role of Dr. Brack, gives an excellent performance of a sincere-enough stuffed shirt, the victim of his orthodoxy and self-importance. Rosalind Russell as Sister Kenny succeeds in portraying a real personality. She is said to have spent a great deal of time with Sister Kenny before making the picture. Alexander Knox, cast as the Australian doctor between whom and Kenny there is a deep friendship, does an understanding job and wins the sympathy of the audience as representing the type of doctor whose investigating mind helps to establish new methods of treating disease.

Of Contemporary Interest

Such films as Pasteur and Madame Curie are of the past, so to speak, while Sister Kenny is of the present. The plague of polio has still to be fought. An audience realizes this while watching the film and is impelled to take sides for or against Sister Kenny. A reasonable reaction to the film is that Sister Kenny’s ideas should have been received with scientific objectivity instead of a prior opposition. True scientific inquiry would have called for a thorough investigation of all the patients Kenny had cured in the epidemic that struck her community in the Australian hinterland. Instead, every obstacle was placed in her way and she was barred from treating new cases, where her methods are most effective. Still she cured and improved many children given up by the orthopedists as incurable. These are really facts, not Hollywood fiction.

While there is still much to be learned about polio in order to control and prevent its ravages, today more and more general practitioners and pediatricians employ the Kenny treatment, having given up the orthodox methods as unsuccessful. The same is true of hospitals. The “Kenny packs” and Kenny ideas are used, even though Kenny is not given the recognition she has earned. In deference to orthodox orthopedia and to the big-business power of conservative medicine, Kenny’s horn is not tooted too loudly by the profession. As one whose family has benefited by Kenny’s revolutionary though simple treatment, this reviewer welcomed the film version of her life.

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