Sister Kenny

Sister Kenny is a 1946 American biographical film about Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian bush nurse, who fought to help people who suffered from polio, despite opposition from the medical establishment. The film stars Rosalind Russell, Alexander Knox, and Philip Merivale.

Sister Kenny
Film poster
Directed byDudley Nichols
Jack Gage (dialogue director)
Produced byDudley Nichols
Written byDudley Nichols (screenplay)
Alexander Knox (screenplay)
Mary McCarthy
StarringRosalind Russell
Alexander Knox
Dean Jagger
Music byAlexander Tansman
CinematographyGeorge Barnes
Edited byRoland Gross
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • September 29, 1946 (1946-09-29) (Premiere-New York City)[1]
  • October 10, 1946 (1946-10-10) (U.S.)[1]
Running time
116 min

The film was adapted by Alexander Knox, Mary McCarthy, Milton Gunzburg (uncredited), and Dudley Nichols from the book And They Shall Walk, by Elizabeth Kenny and Martha Ostenso, and directed by Dudley Nichols.

The "Sister" in the title does not refer to being a religious sister, but rather a rank she had held as a nurse in the Australian Army. It is also a term for a senior RN (which Kenny was not).


In 1911, Elizabeth Kenny returns from nurse school in Brisbane, Australia, to her home in the bush of Queensland with the head doctor at the nearest hospital, Dr. McDonnell. She informs him that she will be a bush nurse near her home instead of taking up residency at the hospital 50 miles away; her own personal experiences growing up in the bush made her want to help those not able to get to a hospital. Dr. McDonnell is incredulous and says she will not last six months in the bush.

Three years later, Sister Kenny visits a ranch to treat a young girl, Dorrie, who is bedridden. She sends a telegram to McDonnell, who says that the infantile paralysis has no known treatment, but "to do the best you can with the symptoms presenting themselves". Sister Kenny notices that if the muscles were truly paralyzed, they could not tense up as they were doing. She wraps Dorrie in hot cloth, and the girl eventually fully recovers, as do five other cases of infantile paralysis that Sister Kenny finds and treats.

Sister Kenny visits McDonnell to tell him of her new treatment, but instead of congratulating her, he tells her she may have caused much harm. Sister Kenny is shocked, but McDonnell eventually comes to believe that her "muscle re-education" shows signs of real promise. He takes her to Dr. Brack, the most senior doctor working on polio, who tells them both that her theories of how to treat the disease go against the science of the past 50 years and cannot possibly be accepted as medical truth. Even when Sister Kenny brings in Dorrie to dance and do cartwheels, Brack contends that Dorrie never had infantile paralysis in the first place.

McDonnell is still supportive of Sister Kenny's treatment and treats one of Brack's discharged patients as a way of proving her methodology. However, because Australian law indicates nurses must be single, Sister Kenny tells Dr. McDonnell she will not be able to continue her practice since she is marrying her fiancé, Kevin Connors. She ultimately puts off her marriage and opens a clinic consisting of Brack's failures. Later, Kevin leaves to fight in World War I, and Sister Kenny follows him to the hospital in England where he is recuperating from a leg injury.

She returns to Australia and tells McDonnell she has no interest in starting a clinic and is worn out by being constantly dismissed by the medical establishment. However, she reads in the paper about a polio outbreak in Townsville and starts up her practice treating the children there. Kevin returns home, since Sister Kenny is going back to nursing. He is incredulous at the news, but she is adamant that she will continue her work despite how her personal happiness will suffer.

Over a decade later, Sister Kenny and Brack still stand by their respective treatments, and she decides to confront him at a symposium in front of many orthopedists. Brack belittles her treatment, but she learns that McDonnell has been working on setting up a Royal Commission so that the Australian medical community will recognize her treatment. She travels around Europe spreading her cure and is visited by Kevin, who is proud of the route she has taken in her life. However, when she returns to Australia in 1939, she learns the Commission condemned her treatment as unprovable and recommended closing down her clinics.

She writes a book about her experiences treating infantile paralysis and goes to America but is given the runaround by doctors in America. Indeed, the attack on Pearl Harbor has shifted the focus of many doctors to war injuries. However, after her treatment is used during a polio outbreak in Minneapolis and is wildly successful, she starts the Kenny Institute. Years later, Sister Kenny is giving a speech and learns that an American commission has refused to say that the Kenny treatment works. The doctors who support her continue to do so, and Sister Kenny is heartened by the large group of children she has treated who run up to her and sing Happy Birthday to her.



The film recorded a loss of $660,000 for RKO.[2][3]

Box office returns were disappointing even in Australia.[4]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1947 4th Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Rosalind Russell Won
19th Academy Awards Best Actress Nominated


  1. "Sister Kenny: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
  2. Richard Jewell & Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. p215
  3. Richard B. Jewell, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, Uni of California, 2016
  4. Variety (6 February 2018). "Variety (March 1947)". New York, NY: Variety Publishing Company via Internet Archive.
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