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Plastic Surgeon

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 school.

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.



First Board Certified Woman Plastic Surgeon

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