Hall of Fame or wall of shame?
L-R: Jakob Heine, Karl Medin, Ivar Wickman, Karl Landsteiner, Tom Rivers, Charles Armstrong,
John Paul, Albert Sabin, Tom Francis, Joseph Melnick, Isabel Morgan, Howard Howe,
David Bodian, John Enders, Jonas Salk, Franklin Roosevelt, Basil O'Connor.
The Polio Hall of Fame is a series of sculptures commissioned to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the incorporation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. The installation is located at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Warm Springs, Georgia, USA. The Hall of Fame commemorates the contribution made by seventeen prominent individuals in the battle to defeat poliomyelitis. In 2008 four organisations, Rotary International, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Center for Disease Control, and UNICEF, were inducted to the Hall of Fame in recognition of their contribution to the elimination of polio in developing nations.
There can be no disputing the importance of the contribution of the individuals and organisations recognised in the Hall of Fame, but there can also be no excuse for the omission of Elizabeth Kenny from this august group. Prior to Kenny's campaign for the reform of treatment methods, medical science had endorsed the use of electricity, blistering, ice baths, injections of urotropin, encasement in plaster casts, nasal sprays, and the injection of human convalescent serum. All these therapies proved to be useless, some were plainly barbaric, and most were the scientific equivalent of witchcraft. The approach proposed by Elizabeth Kenny is still considered the most effective mode of treatment for the after effects of poliomyelitis and a range of paralysis inducing illnesses.
It is true that Elizabeth Kenny was guilty of incorporating the work of others in to her own without due recognition, but the same can be said of Jonas Salk. Few would deny him respect for his achievements simply on account of this human frailty. Kenny, like Salk, was admired by millions despite her flaws. Unfortunately, she also made many enemies, and prominent amongst them was Basil O'Connor, President of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Quite simply, Elizabeth Kenny's absence from the Hall of Fame is most probably the result of O'Connor's final shameful act of revenge against the woman he privately detested, but was compelled to publicly endorse for fear of losing public support for his fund raising activities.
O'Connor had the good fortune to outlive Elizabeth Kenny and witness the phenomenal impact of mass immunisation on the scourge of polio. History isn't just written by winners, it's also written by survivors. How different the Hall of Fame would be if the die had rolled in Kenny's favour.