Alma Dea Morani M.D
Plastic Surgeon, A Woman of Notoriety
For your information I would like recount some happenings
about a grand woman who I came to know about while attending
a meeting in Washington D.C..
My daughter Marca Donella Capuano R.N. was instrumental
in supplying the final details through her conversation with
Dr. Morani and in editing my initial draft.
The Northeastern Society of plastic surgeons consists of
surgeons in the New England and the Atlantic Coastal States
who have met yearly to share their knowledge and experience
about the specialty. A lecture was presented to the Society
during its most recent meeting on Saturday, October 12,
1996. During the lecture I was taken by the accomplishments
of Dr. Alma Dea Morani, a woman surgeon, plastic surgeon,
teacher, artist, cosmetic surgeon, philanthropist, patron
of the arts and a persistently dynamic human being at the
age of ninety plus !! The following is a mingling of both
the lecture, my phone conversation and Marca's with Dr.
Morani at her home in Philadelphia.
The original paper was written by Mark P. Solomon, MD and
Mark S. Granick, MD of the Medical College of Pennsylvania.
The speakers entitled the lecture: Alma Dea Morani, MD :
A Pioneer in Plastic Surgery. Dr. Morani was born of immigrant
Italian parents in New York, NY during the first few years
of the twentieth century. Her father Salvatore Morani had
brought traditional skills with him from his home in Calabria,
Italy. He earned his fees by his profession as an accomplished
sculptor. Dr. Morani recalls that he was quite successful
in his artistry as he was commissioned to produce sculptures
for the City of Philadelphia. He was sought out as a sculptor
to the degree that he was not a 'starving artist'. Indeed
in the 1920's when his daughter applied to New York University
and subsequently to medical school, it was fortunate for
the plastic surgical community and the people they care
for that her family could afford to send Alma to medical
She comments that she was a 'good student', which meant
she was and 'excellent student'. She was accepted immediately
on application in to the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania,
and graduated in 1931. Please reflect, genteel reader, in
the 1930's women were the homemakers, cooks, mothers, sewers.
Few had paying jobs, and most were only able to get (maybe
not even) a high school education. It is difficult to imagine
what it took to get into an all Women's Medical College
especially when most other medical colleges were closed
to the 'gentler' sex. Already an unusual human as a woman
physician of Italian decent in the 1930's, she further became
more unusual when she began a residency in general surgery.
As you may know General Surgeons are the surgeons who remove
stomachs and spleens, gall bladders and colons. They were
able to save lives or to watch people die. They were and
still are the doctors who show up in the middle of the night
to stop someone from bleeding to death. They were and are
the ones who save the lives of accident victims. In the
thirties general surgery meant more than what it is today.
They set bones, repaired injuries of the chest and neck,
and fought infections such as TB with surgical drainage,
not antibiotics. Anesthesia was many times hit and miss.
The surgeon had to pull open and HOLD OPEN the abdomen to
do the work as the use of muscle relaxation during surgery
was rare. A physically strong person she must have been.
I can picture her with her cigarette in hand (yes she admitted
to smoking ) discussing a difficult general surgical 'case'
which ended in the hours before dawn, ready to begin the
grueling day's work only a few hours later. As a physician
whose training involved general surgery, I can only marvel
at the strength and stamina, perseverance and talent it
must have took to be a general surgeon in the 1930's.
Alma Dea Morani, MD practiced general surgery for ten years
partially because she wanted to but partially because she
had to. The influence of her father persisted. Her desire
to sculpt the human form was strong. She had applied and
was rejected by plastic surgery programs in Philadelphia,
New York, Boston and elsewhere. But she persisted. She won
a scholarship from the Sorroptomist Women's Club to study
with Dr. Barrett-Brown for one year in Saint Louis. Dr Barrett-Brown
was a founder of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive
Surgeons. As Dr. Morani recalls, Dr Barrett-Brown said she
could come to Saint Louis, but she should not expect to
operate, merely observe. This was the norm in the forties.
Yet a better teacher than Barrett-Brown was not available
!! And so the first woman plastic surgeon came to be in
1943. She returned to Philadelphia to begin practicing her
new skills at the Women's Medical College.
As you may or may not know, the first years in the life
of a plastic surgeon's especially, in the early 1940's were
not 'Beverly Hills' years. The specialty of Plastic surgery
was young. Burns, war wounds, industrial accidents were
the mainstay of plastic surgery. These were difficult problems
that would have caused others to shrink from their goals.
Alma Dea persisted. In a man's world she rose to the rank
of Clinical Professor of Surgery. She became the original
role model for a whole generation of women physicians, surgeons,
and plastic surgeons. These women in turn, acted as mentors
for many others to pursue careers in plastic surgery. At
the meeting her trainees were asked to stand. One trainee
in particular Dr. Mary McGrath, articulated her respect
for Dr. Morani. Dr. McGrath has testified before Congress
on many woman's issues and in particular breast implants
and breast reconstruction after cancer surgery.
The idea for the Robert H. Ivy Society was proposed by Alma
Dea while studying plastic surgery with her 10 male peers.
She said she proposed that they "form a group to talk about
their work and 'the boys' all voted that it was a good idea.
We named it for our teacher, Dr. Ivy, and that's how it
all started". Dr. Ivy just happens to be a world renowned
plastic surgeon and one of the founders of the American
Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons (along with
Dr. Barrett-Brown). The society persists to this day. Dr.
Morani was also involved in world issues and never shied
from politics. She was very interested in woman's issues
internationally, health care, and medical education.
Throughout all of this, she maintained her interest in art,
not only as a collector, but as an artist herself. She created
her own works and collected artwork until just recently.
Dr. Morani funded and founded the Morani Gallery of Art
at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann University.
This facility is the only ongoing art gallery and collection
at any medical school in the United States. Among the pieces
she donated are busts of her mother and father (her own
artwork), wooden sculptures from the Philippines, and paintings
from her personal collection. Alma Dea believes that art
should be seen and moved throughout the world. She donated
the artwork of her father as well as her own to schools,
churches and art galleries.
Dr Morani was long ago recognized by her colleges at the
University of Pennsylvania. As a tribute to her, the Chair
of Surgery at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann
University was endowed in her name. I know of no other woman
surgeon, or woman plastic surgeon for whom a Chair of Surgery
has been named.
She continues to serve as an inspiration to those who cross
her path in the Philadelphia-New York axis. For example,
Solomon and Granick spoke at the conference with fascination
about their interview. At her apartment in Philadelphia,
they said she spoke about her accomplishments and travels
throughout the world, but she had a tinge of sadness. They
said she wished she could "get around" like she used to
when she was younger. The interview time seemed to fly and
the clock struck two. Suddenly all her reminiscing with
that air of sadness disappeared and she abruptly stood up,
summarily ending the interview. She apologized, "I'm very
sorry. I have a dinner engagement in New York tonight and
the limo is going to arrive soon!" I guess she still does
get around at ninety-plus!
From medical students to practicing physicians of all types,
men and woman alike, certainly because of her accomplishments
and ideas and the realization that through an active participation
with the world of art we become stronger, more humane physicians.
We can be proud of Alma Dea Morani, M.D., a Pioneer in Plastic
Surgery, the first woman in America to obtain the title
End of a life
The June 2001 issue of the Plastic Surgery News published the passing of Alma Dea Morani. She was 95 years old and passed away on Jan 27, 2001. She is survived by nieces and nephews. She helped many.
ALMA DEA MORANI M.D.