Margaret Giannini, Champion of People With Disabilities, Dies at 100

After meeting the parents of children with a range of disabilities, she decided almost on the spot to start a clinic to treat such children exclusively.,


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Dr. Margaret Giannini, a pioneer in treating developmental and physical disabilities, died on Nov. 22 at her home in San Diego. She was 100.

Her son Louis J. Salerno confirmed the death.

Dr. Giannini, an internationally recognized expert in the care of people with disabilities, was the catalyst behind what is now the Westchester Institute for Human Development in Valhalla, N.Y., north of New York City, one of the world’s largest facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

A pediatric oncologist at New York Medical College, she was summoned one day in 1950 to the office of the chairman of her department, Dr. Lawrence B. Slobody. He introduced her to several parents whose children had a range of disabilities; they had not been able to find a doctor in New York City willing to provide them with general medical care.

Recognizing the obvious need, Dr. Giannini decided almost on the spot to start a clinic that would focus exclusively on such children. That year, she founded the Mental Retardation Institute on the Upper West Side, which she said was the first of its kind in the country. She worked out of a basement because others in the building did not want children with visible problems coming through the lobby.

“If ever a vital need and the right one to fill it were well met,” The Daily News wrote in 1970, “it’s in the person of Dr. Margaret Giannini and the field of mental retardation,” the commonly accepted term of that era.

By 1971, she had raised more than $7.5 million to establish a new building in Valhalla. The institute provided diagnosis, evaluation and therapy. It also trained professionals and students in psychology, social work, speech, audiology, nutrition and rehabilitation.

Dr. Giannini was dedicated to helping people with disabilities “before it became respectable,” she told The Daily News.

“There was a feeling of hopelessness about it,” she said. “I think the feeling of many physicians was, ‘What do you want to bother with that for? You can’t do anything anyway — it’s just time-consuming and draining.'”

She credited President John F. Kennedy and his family, especially his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, with helping to change attitudes and direct money toward research. The Kennedys took up the cause after they disclosed that another sister, Rosemary, had been born with intellectual disabilities and lived most of her life in an institution after undergoing a lobotomy.

One of the many people who were referred to Dr. Giannini’s institute was Emily Perl Kingsley, a writer for “Sesame Street,” who in 1974 had given birth to a son, Jason, who had Down syndrome. Her obstetrician told her that there were no good alternatives to institutionalizing him, a common approach back then. When Ms. Kingsley refused, the doctor referred her to Dr. Giannini, who took Jason under her care.

Ms. Kingsley’s experience served as the basis for a made-for-television film, “Kids Like These” (1987), written by Ms. Kingsley and starring Tyne Daly and Richard Crenna.

Dr. Giannini portrayed herself in the movie. She was thrilled to join the Screen Actors Guild, her son said, and cherished her card for years.

Margaret Joan Giannini was born on May 27, 1921, in Camden, N.J., the youngest of four girls. Her father, Francisco Giannini, a member of the prominent operatic Giannini family of Philadelphia, died of a sudden illness when she was a young girl. Her mother, Rose (Giordano) Giannini, struggled to raise the family by herself through the Depression, working in a beauty salon and taking on odd jobs like selling gum.

Margaret, known as Peg, worked after school in the nurse’s office of the nearby Campbell Soup factory. It was there that she developed her interest in medicine.

She started college at Boston University but left after a year because of economic hardship. She returned to Camden and enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia.

After her third year, she planned to go to medical school at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, which later became part of Drexel University College of Medicine. With World War II underway, students who wanted to become doctors were being accelerated through their programs.

She never graduated from Temple and needed one more credit, in organic chemistry, to meet the pre-med requirements at Hahnemann. The only university nearby that was offering organic chemistry over the summer was Villanova, which at the time accepted only men. She enrolled anyway, but after she had attended class for a week, officials insisted she leave. Her professor offered to give her private lessons and said that if she could pass the exam, he would give her the credit she needed. She passed and began medical school in the fall of 1941.

She graduated in 1945 — one of three women in the class, Hahnemann’s second to accept women — and did her internship at New York Medical College in Valhalla. A friend there set her up on a blind date with Dr. Louis J. Salerno, who had just returned from service as a major in the Army at the end of the war. They married in 1948 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

She kept her own name, which was highly unusual in that era. She and her husband were both professors at New York Medical College (she taught pediatrics; he taught obstetrics and gynecology), and she wanted to minimize any confusion.

In addition to her son Louis, she is survived by three other sons, Robert, Justin and Mark Salerno; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1988.

Dr. Giannini’s work at the Mental Retardation Institute, of which she was director from 1950 to 1978, drew the attention of President Jimmy Carter, who appointed her the first director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (now the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research).

After Mr. Carter lost the 1980 election, she joined the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she expanded her work to encompass physical disabilities related to military service, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, blindness, deafness and other problems.

In her second presidential appointment, President George W. Bush named her the principal deputy assistant secretary for aging at the Department of Health and Human Services. There she got to know Tommy Thompson, the secretary of the department, who appointed her director of the department’s office on disability in 2002.

“She wanted to make sure that people who were underprivileged or had a handicap had the same chance as anybody else,” Mr. Thompson said in a phone interview. “She was a constant doer, always in motion, always doing something for somebody else.”

She received scores of honors and awards throughout her life before retiring from federal service in 2009 at age 88. But she never really stopped working. A week before she died, she was pressing Congress to establish a federal holiday for people with disabilities.

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