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1947: Sister Kenny's treatment plan cured young Hannibal polio patient

Gov. Dwight Green of Illinois, holds 7-year-old Margaret Carenen of Hannibal, Mo., as he visited the recently established Sister Elizabeth Kenny Clinic at Centralia, Ill., on Feb. 11, 1948. Looking on is Miss Ethel Burns, Kenny technician. Margaret (Peggy) suffered an acute attack of polio recently, but at the time of this photo was a convalescent. The governor expressed himself well satisfied with the operation of the clinic. (AP photo) Front page, Hannibal, Mo., Courier-Post Feb. 14, 1948

Note: Peggy Carenen and the author this article, Mary Lou Montgomery, are half-sisters, both daughters of Mary Louise Robinson Carenen Spaun.


Sister Elizabeth Kenny’s name is often spoken when the topic of infantile poliomyelitis is discussed. Sister Kenny, a native of Australia where nurses were referred to as “Sister,” took on a world-wide crusade during the 1940s, offering a treatment plan for polio victims which vastly differed from traditional doctor-prescribed programs.

Her plan was to exercise muscles affected by polio instead of the doctor-recommended treatment of immobilizing the affected muscles. (Wikipedia)

In July 1948, at the height of the polio epidemic in the United States, Kenny’s polio treatment center in Minneapolis offered 160 patient beds, and a sister clinic at Jersey City had another 100.

Closer to home, an old mansion was converted into a clinic at Centralia, Ill., east of St. Louis, and opened in August 1947. This clinic had a capacity of 50 patients.

Typical November

November began in 1947 much the same as it did in 2016, with temperatures fluctuating between warm and cold. Marion County experienced the first frost of autumn 1947 on Nov. 5. But a few warm days always follow that first frost, and then winter sets in.

Margaret (Peggy) Carenen, was a 7-year-old second-grade student at Hannibal’s Stowell school that fall. There was no school lunch program in those days, and students could either take sack lunches or walk home to eat. Peggy’s parents were divorced, and she lived with her mother, Mary Louise, and younger brother David at 1200 Union St. It was an easy walk of just a few blocks, and a nice mid-day break from classes.

She vividly remembers walking home on one particular mid-November weekday.

“I walked home for lunch, and for some reason on that particular day Mom was gone at lunchtime. I told the babysitter I didn’t feel well. It was completely fake, a lie,” Peggy said. The babysitter believed her and let her stay home that afternoon.

“Right after that I got sick – my body was sick. My lie came true. I was not able to walk well, that was my first indication that something was wrong; I couldn’t straighten my legs, like when you get a cramp; that is a symptom. I wasn’t physically sick or internally sick. I had trouble walking. I pretty much started staying in bed right after that,” Peggy Carenen Rice, now age 76, remembers.

“The city or whoever quarantined our house; no one was to go in or out for two weeks. It took them that long to have them find out what was wrong. My great grandmother, Florence Carenen, lived in the 900 block of Union, and would come up and talk to me through the window,” Peggy said.

Then the diagnosis came: Peggy had polio.

“When they decided what I had, they decided I should go to Centralia, Ill., to the (newly opened) Sister Kenny Hospital. It was (Sister Kenny’s) theory that they would use hot pack treatment and therapy to treat polio.

“Surprising, little Hannibal had a connection with her,” Peggy remembers. “I didn’t need to go in an ambulance, but I’m thinking there was no other transportation. Mother didn’t have a car. I believe she rode up with me, about 200 miles.” Peggy was transported to Centralia on the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, 1947.

Her mother went back to Hannibal to care for Peggy’s younger brother. From there, 7-year-old Peggy was on her own. Surrounded by the hospital staff, treatment began in earnest.

“They took blanket strips, like an army blanket, tubs of water like a washing machine, and walked around to the patients, wringing out with a wringer this blanket material. It was a steamy kind of material wound around, still wet. And they wrapped it around different parts of my body, except my face, hands and feet. Then they took a dry blanket piece and wrapped it around on top of the wet steamy blanket and they would pin it. Several times a day. In addition they would take me to the therapy room and do exercises, stretching my arms and legs, all physical body therapy.

“Imagine sitting up on a flat surface and having your legs stretched out in front. They told me when I could bend over and touch my nose to my legs, I was able to go home. That they promised. I think I almost made it. I used to be able to do it, but I can’t anymore.”

Little Peggy was woefully homesick for her mother during her six-month stay at the Kenny clinic. “When Mom could visit, she would take the train from Hannibal to Centralia, and she did that occasionally. I would write her letters, ‘If you will come visit me I will stay here one more week.’ I would negotiate with her.

“I know that no one else came to visit, in a town where we didn’t know anyone. I imagine Mom came once a month; not as often as I thought she should.

“I do not remember how I got home from Centralia. I don’t remember who picked me up. I was supposed to keep up my exercises after I got home, I was supposed to have shoes that had a soul built up on one side, because my left leg was a little more affected. I think I only had one pair of shoes like that. No one kept up, or made sure I kept up with exercises.”

Regardless, her recovery from polio was nearly complete. “Sister Kenny’s cure was right on target. I was aware that a lot of kids had braces from other hospitals, and usually had their braces for life, which enabled them walk or move, but not curing polio, basically like mine was.”

Peggy missed most of her second-grade year at Stowell School, but she didn’t miss out on her education. “I took school at the hospital, a certain amount of time every day. We would get to sit in a chair with an arm on it and do our school work, for which we were graded. I was able to pass the second grade by going to these classes.”

At mid-May 1948, she was released from the hospital and came home to Hannibal. “It was fun and exciting to come back, kinda of neat.” She visited her old classroom and schoolmates. “I only went a couple of days. I had already passed the second grade and advanced. After that I didn’t go to that school anymore. I started third grade at Mark Twain.”

Contracting polio

Peggy has a theory of how she contracted polio. The summer of 1947 brought heavy flooding to Hannibal, and the area around the National Guard Armory was surrounded by water, which had backed up from Bear Creek. She played in the contaminated water, and believes she obtained the polio virus from that source.


Vaccinations to prevent polio began to be made available to the public in the mid 1950s. By the time her children were born in the 1960s, Peggy made sure that they were protected. “When my kids were small I jumped on it, they just sucked on a sugar cube,” which contained the vaccine.

Clinic closes

Just three months after Peggy’s treatment ended, Dr. Herbert Kobes, director of the division of services for crippled children in Illinois, said the Kenny clinic failed to meet standards set by the division’s professional advisory committee. The Daily Independent, Murphysboro, Ill., reported that the institution did not have services of an orthopedic surgeon and a pediatrician immediately available on a round the clock basis.

As the result of this finding, the state agency, which handled the referral of most Illinois infantile paralysis patients, would not refer polio patients to the Kenny clinic at Centralia for treatment.

In July 1948, the clinic had 27 patients, none of whom were referred from the state agency.

Without the referrals and subsequent state funding, there were few options for keeping the clinic open. That announcement was the beginning of the end for the Centralia polio clinic.

Parkinson’s Disease

Peggy, who has lived in Kansas City, Mo., all of her adult life, has had few lasting effects from her bout with polio. But in 2013, at the age of 73, she contracted what she at first thought was a rebound of her childhood ailment. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which, with the help of her doctor, is well controlled with a combination of medication and physical activity.

Ironically, Sister Elizabeth Kenny also contracted Parkinson’s disease. She announced that she had the incurable affliction in 1951, and died a year later, at the age of 72.

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