No-one in my family can recall the exact date, but I still vividly remember the day nearly 50 years ago when I stood in line with dozens, maybe hundreds, of other 5 year olds at the Cabramatta Town Hall in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, blissfully unaware of the rude shock that awaited me. The purpose of our mission was soon revealed when, escorted by my mother, I entered a small room occupied by a gaggle of nurses in white uniforms looming over a huddle of screaming children. The intensity of their screams, soon joined by my own, was only matched by the unbridled joy of the mothers who eagerly ushered their offspring towards a phalanx of awaiting syringes. Polio may have been defeated, but I was not a happy bunny.
The vaccine worked, and after spending much of my youth in a state of disarray I managed, to my own astonishment, to qualify as a nurse in 1982. I worked as a nurse for around 10 years until I was accepted into the Master of Public Health programme at the University of Sydney in 1995. Wishing to encourage my new found love of scholarship, my mother gave me a book she had found in a charity shop, suggesting I might find it useful for an assignment I was preparing. The book was Victor Cohn's biography of an obscure Australian nurse who had been famous for her treatment of polio in the 1930s and 1940s. Without wishing to sound overly dramatic, by the end of the first chapter I was entranced by the story of Sister Kenny "The woman who challenged the doctors". As a nurse, public health student, and gay man who had lived through the onslaught of the HIV epidemic in Australia during the 1980s, the story of Elizabeth Kenny's battle with medical orthodoxy in the face of a now forgotten epidemic caught my imagination and curiosity hook, line, and sinker.
Nearly 15 years have passed since I first read Victor Cohn's biography of Elizabeth Kenny, and in that time my life has changed enormously. I now live in the County of Suffolk in the United Kingdom, and work as a Lecturer in Primary Care in the School of Health and Human Sciences at the University of Essex. I can scarcely believe my good luck, and owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the academic staff of the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Sydney for their inspiration and support during a rather chaotic period of my life. I can also admit that holding a British and an Australian passport has not been a disadvantage in life.
Since writing my essay on Elizabeth Kenny in 1995 I have scarcely stopped thinking about her extraordinary life, but I have never committed a single thought to paper. In 2008 I decided it was time I did something constructive towards consolidating my observations, ideas, and analyses, and set about the task of writing a series of papers which I hoped would explain my unconventional but always respectful interpretation of the life and work of the woman who I believe to be the most remarkable and intriguing Australian of the twentieth century.