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Last Word: An Immigrant's World

In her recently published fictionalized memoir (names were changed), Rosary Scacciaferro Gilheany ’49 recalls her mother, Josephine Motta, who graduated Barnard in 1924 with a chemistry major and dreamed of being a doctor like her Sicilian-immigrant father. Gilheany also comments on medical issues and attitudes facing women that were addressed by Josephine’s father at the turn of the previous century. Below, excerpts from A Tale of Two Families: Sicily to New York City in the 1900s begins with a description of Josephine’s life just after the death of her mother.

There were a few blocks to walk from the subway to the [Clark School of Concentration], a private preparatory school designed to get students through quickly. The curriculum was very individualized. Josephine was 19 years old and should have been in her second year of university, but her home duties had held her back. She hoped it would only be two years before she would be admitted to the university. It was difficult resuming her studies, especially since she had to manage her father’s household, too.

The mourning period would go on for the remainder of the year. Josephine was still wearing black including the stockings. The Italians and other southern Europeans were especially strict, but wearing mourning clothes was fairly common even among the “Americans” in the upper classes. Josephine had been given special permission by her father to resume her piano lessons...her father missed the sound of music in the house.
He had to give up his Sunday afternoons with visitors in the music room, and, of course, gave up going to the opera.

[At the school], Josephine walked nimbly down the hall to her classroom. There was only one other student at her grade level, a red-haired young man. Papa would be upset if he saw that she had a male classmate. “Hi, Jo, did you do your homework? Those math problems were hard!”

“My father helped me and explained them to me. I need math for the chemistry I’ve got to take if I want to go into medicine.” 

In the meantime, Dr. Motta was looking...at the health problems around him. He was concerned about the rate of infant mortality among the immigrant population. There had been an interesting study about babies who were breast fed, reporting that they did not contract tuberculosis. Also, when babies were breast fed, they were unlikely to have diarrhea—a major cause of infant deaths....

Another issue of interest to the doctor was the current ideological conflict between the city’s American “society” doctors, led by those in New York City, and the country physicians who were in the rest of the United States. The city doctors wanted to limit the practice of midwifery because they said there were more deaths among both the mothers and infants when only midwives attended births, a safety issue. Others in the general public thought that physicians did not want to lose patient fees to competition, and it was rumored that, “doctors could not stand the idea of being ‘equal’ with midwives (credentialed or not), possibly even being bossed around by them.”

Practically speaking, there were so many babies being born that there were not enough physicians to go around. Midwives were necessary. The immigrant physicians, Dr. Joseph among them, supported midwives being licensed....

The doctor had invited some of his colleagues to his house for dinner and a discussion afterwards about these issues and the possibility of more research within their group. It should be an interesting evening whether or not it lead to further research projects. He wondered if Josephine would want to sit in on the discussion since she was interested in medicine. Actually, he had discussed all these health problems with her. But it would not be a good idea to include her. The conversation might go beyond her, and his colleagues would not accept her being there, both because of her youth and her gender. How ridiculous!

Josephine thought so, too....

-Illustration by Veronica Grech