Articles > Wade Alexander
Early in March of 2003 I travelled to Australia to Toowoomba in Central Queensland for the Book Launch for my biography; Sister Elizabeth Kenny: Maverick Heroine of The Polio Treatment Controversy. Unbeknownst to me, Frances Tilly, a member of the Southern Queensland University group that sponsors academic interest in Sister’s legacy, had scheduled an interview for me on the local ABC radio station. I arrived at my Motel, answered Francis’ message, learned about the interview, and that I had an hour to unpack, wash up a bit and get to the station. Soon after the host introduced me he asked a very good question which I completely botched. Chalk it up to jet lag, being unprepared or what ever, I missed a chance to let the local listeners know that my book had new information about Sister Kenny.
The ABC host asked, “What did you find that was significantly different from previous biographies.” I answered, “Surprisingly little.” What went through my jet lagged mind was that I found Sister’s unpublished auto biography to agreed in many ways with newspaper articles, her correspondence, and mine and Victor Cohn’s interviews. However, there was a big difference between her account of her maternal ancestors and what I found from Moore family historian Yvonne Tearl, Sister’s nephew Bill Bell, documents in the NSW archives, and the Mitchell Library’s convict indents and shipping papers.
Kenny’s account began with her maternal grandmother Mary Moore, but there were two generations of Irish from Donegal who came to Australia before her. Mary’s grandfather, James Moore, was a convicted horse thief the Irish courts sentenced and transported to Australia for life. His wife and their children followed years later, and settled with him in the Hunter River area of New South Wales. Their stories, which I include in my book, pay tribute to their endurance and courage. Similar tales exist for many Irish-Australian families. But they hid their convict ancestry; calling it “the stain.”
In the 1980s Australian revisionist historians re-examined their history. They changed their country’s attitude from being ashamed of convict ancestry to being proud of it. During those times Sister’s nephew, Sydney Journalist Jack Kenny, came home from the NSW archives and proudly told his wife Mary, “I’ve found my convict.” It was James Moore the first, and the family passed his name down through several generations.
I make the point in my biography that the Moores, including Sister's generation, most likely knew about their convict ancestor. The family memorialised James and his wife Margaret with grand headstones in the Wollombi cemetery. Tearle documented their descendants from there up to Guyra and other towns in the New England area of NSW, where Sister Kenny began her account of her ancestors. Rather than harming her reputation, he ancestors heroic story, which I have told, is a far better than hers.
Like all good Irish, Elizabeth Kenny, was an expert story teller some of which were “tall Tales.” Most were true - good yarns, but some of them got her into trouble. Fortunately for thousands of children, she used her persuasive energy and verbal skills to promote her clinical method for polio treatment. Nevertheless, sometimes she went too far and strayed into areas where her lack of medical knowledge and her use of terms caused problems between her and doctors. She alienated and irritated many of them who could have helped her cause. In several instances she simply did not care, believing they were her enemies anyway so why coddle up to them.
Her life as an obscure untrained bush nurse changed in 1930 after she had her first real success treating a polio victim. It became filled with conflict, contention, and struggle, but she carried on with dogged determination to pass on what she considered to be her gift to humanity; her clinical method that alleviated the pain and after-effects of polio.