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Living History: Greek immigrant found her calling as a midwife

Published April 12, 2014 5:57 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the early 20th century, streams of Greek men as young as 14 poured into Utah to work the mines, smelters, mills, rail yards and road beds. Hoping to earn steady wages and return to their homeland, these immigrants lived in tents, powder-box shacks, railroad cars and crowded boarding houses. By 1910 they numbered more than 4,000. Greek women immigrants numbered fewer than 10. Among them was a midwife known as Magerou.

Georgia Lathouris lived in a small Peloponnesian village in southern Greece. One afternoon while walking into a mountain pasture where her family was tending goats, the 14-year-old heard a woman shouting. The woman, pregnant, was harvesting wheat, experienced contractions and was unable to get down the mountain. Taking the mother-to-be into a nearby cave, Georgia delivered a healthy baby and discovered a profession.

Georgia assisted many pregnant women in her village, but with no dowry was resigned to be single and childless. Then she met Nikos Mageras, a tall Austrian sent to build bridges in their region. Smitten, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox couple relinquished the traditional settlement and married.

Raising families in the 1890s amid national instability was tenuous. The country's resources were drained, exports dwindled, construction faltered, and jobs were impossible to find. In 1901, Nikos traveled alone to the American West. Reaching Utah, his efforts to open a boarding house were thwarted — he was burned out three times. But in 1909, the family reunited in neighboring Snaketown, west of Magna. There, Nikos opened a saloon and Magerou assessed their new surroundings.

There was widespread disease, unsanitary housing conditions, poor medical care, greedy labor agents and hostility towards immigrants. Company doctors were feared.

"A dollar a month was deducted from their wages for medical care, [but] the men felt they were coldly treated, like animals, not human beings," historian Helen Z. Papanikolas wrote in "Magerou: The Greek Midwife." "Amputations were hastily performed, and as uneducated as the laborers were, an amputation was the end of self-reliance and the beginning of descent into penury."

Magerou treated ailing workers relaying advice first through her husband until they (Greek, Italian, Austrian and Slav men) trustingly asked for her counsel. When she saved a baker and a judicial officer from doctor-recommended leg amputations, her reputation soared.

By the 1920s, immigrant communities swelled with weddings and births. Industry improved both housing and medical care. But women wanted only Magerou.

"Scream! Push! You've got a baby in there, not a pea in a pod!" the midwife, with seven children of her own, was known to shout. She prescribed mothers butter to regain strength and bathrobes and ample coal to keep warm. She insisted on cleanliness.

Early on, the midwife blended specific aspects of modern medicine with folk healing. She warmed olive oil and baby blankets in coal ovens and sterilized cloths in boiling water. She trimmed her fingernails, thoroughly scrubbed her hands, and wore gloves. Detecting birthing abnormalities, she'd call for a doctor and willingly assist.

Magerou also had favorite remedies: store-bought leeches used for bleeding cured most maladies, soap scraps pressed into wounds stopped bleeding, and crosses cut into swollen flesh drained off "bad" blood.

She treated pneumonia and bronchitis with cups of heated red wine and cloves or whiskey and tea, and applied mustard plasters on backs, chests, and soles of feet. She alleviated rickets by touching patients' joints with the stem remains of a burnt bay leaf during three separate, moonless nights. She used whiskey as an anesthetic, and set bones with a powdered resin, egg white and "cleaned sheared wool" cast bound over with cloth.

Magerou practiced midwifery par excellence for over 60 years. She never lost a mother or a newborn child.

Historian Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Salt Lake Tribune columns. She may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com.