Dr. Alma Dea Morani is best known as the first woman plastic surgeon in the United States. A keen artist as well as a talented surgeon, Dr. Morani's work in the emerging specialty of plastic surgery truly unified the art and the science of medicine.
Alma Dea Morani was born in New York City in 1907, to Amalia Gracci Morani and Salvatore Natali Morani, a sculptor and painter. Her father wanted his daughter to be a sculptor too. He felt that medicine was too aggressive a career for women and that she would waste her artistic talents. He also believed deeply in the value of religious iconography to aid and comfort people, and wondered just how his daughter should contribute to people's quality of life. As a fifteen-year-old Girl Scout her scout leader gave her training in advanced first-aid. This training, in addition to an abiding interest in biology, inspired Alma Morani to become what she called "a repair doctor."
After graduating from New York University in 1928, Morani earned her M.D. from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1931. After a year as the first woman college surgical intern at St. James Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, she returned to Woman's Medical College as the institution's first woman surgical resident from 1932 to 1935. In 1935, she became an assistant surgeon, a post she held until 1938. She was growing tired of the routine of general surgery required of her to gain entrance into the American College of Surgeons. Between 1938 and 1941, Dr. Morani began to take a serious professional interest in what she viewed as the more creative field of plastic surgery, and in 1941 she was admitted to the American College of Surgeons.
After spending six years trying to find a training course that would accept women, Dr. Morani spent 1946 in St. Louis studying with the renowned plastic surgeon, "Colonel" J. Barrett Brown, M.D. Her fellowship, from a Philadelphia professional organization called the Soroptimist Club, only allowed her to observe, not operate. Making the best of these restrictions and using her skills and training as an artist, she made good use of her observations, making sketches and taking pictures before and after surgical procedures. Her strong work was eventually noticed by Colonel Brown, and he finally allowed her to assist him in surgery "on Saturdays when everybody else went to play golf," letting her complete a true clinical fellowship. While Dr. Morani described her experiences in St. Louis as an "incomplete internship," she earned the praise of the difficult Colonel Brown who had specifically noted her persistence and intelligence.
Dr. Morani returned to Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1948, where she served in varied capacities for the next twenty-seven years. She was a lecturer in general surgery until 1950, assistant professor of surgery until 1954, lecturer in plastic surgery until 1970, and finally clinical professor of general surgery and plastic surgery until 1975. Dr. Morani established Philadelphia's first Hand Surgery Clinic in 1948.
During World War II, Dr. Morani volunteered at Valley Forge Hospital performing reconstructive surgery on wounded soldiers and, through a long-standing involvement with the Medical Women's International Association, including its directorship from 1972 to 1974, she traveled the world, raising money for clinics in the Philippines, Taiwan, Russia, and the Balkans.
Throughout her life, Dr. Morani maintained her skills as an artist and art collector. When she gave up surgery in 1972 at age 65, she turned her attention to the role of art in medicine, lecturing on the subject, publishing several key articles, and creating the Morani Gallery of Art in 1985 at Woman's Medical College, making the institution the only medical school in the country to boast its own art collection. Although she and her father argued on and off for thirty years about her career choice, she knew that he always respected her opinion and her choices. As he conceded on his deathbed, she probably made the right choice, as "surgery better helped the living."