We are saddened to report the passing on Friday, August 28 in San Francisco of Dr. Marion Moses, who as a nurse and later a doctor aided Cesar Chavez during his first and last long public fasts for nonviolence and against pesticides, respectively, and became a national authority on the pesticide poisoning of agricultural workers. Dr. Moses turned a weekend in Delano into a lifetime of service helping Cesar and farm workers combat the perils of pesticides.
Born one of eight brothers and sisters in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1936, Marion Theresa Moses’ father was a food salesman and her mother a homemaker. The family moved to Charleston, West Virginia, where she grew up in a modest Catholic household. She was deeply affected when her younger sister, Margaret Rose, died at age one when Marion was eight. Marion always wanted to be a doctor, but her father believed women went to nursing school. Marion was the first in her family to go to college, earning a B.S. degree in nursing at Georgetown University in 1957.
Duty as a staff nurse in neurology/neurosurgery at Moffitt UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco was followed by a stint at Charleston General Hospital. Marion earned a master’s degree in nursing education at Columbia University Teachers College in New York in 1960 and taught at Charleston General before returning to San Francisco as head nurse in the medical/surgical unit of Kaiser Hospital.
Studying for a degree in English at UC Berkeley, Marion saw a sign on campus about the fledgling farm workers’ union needing medical help. She drove to Delano in her words “for a weekend and stayed five years,” from 1966 to 1971, serving at a health clinic in a trailer on the movement’s Forty Acres property just west of town. The first time she met Cesar Chavez he asked what she knew about pesticides, which he saw even then as a bane for farm workers. Thus began a lifetime focus on health impacts from agricultural poisons on field laborers.
“Marion always had a strong social conscience,” her brother Maron Moses said. “She was taken by the commitment of Cesar and those around him.” Like Cesar and everyone in the movement, Marion was “paid” $5 per week plus room and board.
Marion was Cesar’s nurse during his first long water-only fast of 25 days to rededicate the union to nonviolence. She was constantly monitoring Cesar’s condition in a tiny room at the Forty Acres co-op gas station. She almost had to bully him into accepting some liquid minerals in his drinking water to avoid organ failure.
Cesar endured debilitating back spasms after the fast and was bedridden for many months. Marion attended to him at his small wood-frame house on Kensington Street. She would scold him when he worked too hard. “She was a taskmaster, saying whatever was on her mind to anyone, including Cesar,” noted fellow union staff member Kathy Murguia. Marion would tell people meetings with Cesar to “give him a break” because he needed rest.
Cesar’s constant pain raised fears about his leadership of the movement. So Marion appealed to Paul Schrade, western director of the United Auto Workers who was close to both Cesar and the Kennedys. Within two weeks after speaking with Senator Ted Kennedy, Dr. Janett Travell, President Kennedy’s famed back doctor, drove with Paul to Delano. Dr. Travell worked with Marion examining and observing Cesar over two days before properly diagnosing a skeletal imbalance. Dr. Travell prescribed treatments, exercises and a collapsible rubber, wood and light metal rocking chair that gave him his first relief from the spasms. He was able to resume regular duties. (The chair still sits behind Cesar’s desk in his preserved office-library at the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument at Keene, Calif.)
Cesar sent Marion to New York City later in 1968, to help organize and raise money for the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott. She soon met feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who credited Marion with Steinem’s embrace of the farm workers’ cause. Marion was sleeping in a bare dormitory room. “Why don’t you come stay with me?” Steinem asked, and Marion slept in her loft while they worked together on the boycott, often all night, and became close friends.
Marion arranged for Cesar to meet with social activist Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, in the back pew at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan in 1968, and they spent hours talking at a nearby coffee shop.
Still, Marion’s childhood dream was to be a doctor. “She understood she could only do so much as a nurse,” brother Maron recalled. “She would say no one was listening to a Nurse Moses, but they would listen to a Dr. Moses.” Cesar also encouraged her to become a physician because she would be more valuable to the movement. “Cesar’s vision was to be the first union in the country with full-time doctors and health clinics,” Maron said.
So Marion earned a pre-med degree at UC Berkeley and enrolled at age 36 at Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia, graduating in 1976. She interned at the University of Colorado, and her residency in occupational medicine was at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
While at Temple and Mount Sinai, Marion became close with Dorothy Day. One day in 1977 when Marion was at Mount Sinai, she was sitting next to Day in the backyard of her modest cottage in the Spanish Camp section of Staten Island. Day placed her hand in Marion’s and said, “It’s so nice to have a woman doctor.” That was how Dorothy Day recruited Dr. Moses to become her personal physician. “Marion’s years of medical care and caring for Dorothy literally added years to Dorothy’s life,” notes Tamar Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s daughter.
Dorothy Day wrote in her diary about a visit from Marion in 1979, when they discussed the Pope’s “male chauvinism,” for not allowing women to give communion, and they spoke of birth control and abortion. Day wrote that Marion “is a strong feminist. I am not, though I can see all the problems.”
Cesar Chavez called and asked Dr. Moses to become medical director of the movement’s National Farm Workers Health Group, formed in the 1970s and operating medical clinics for farm workers across California. She was there from 1983 to 1986.
Her education about pesticides began during Marion’s first spell in Delano in the 1960s. It grew over the decades. From 1988 to 2016, she was founder and director of the non-profit San Francisco-based Pesticide Education Center. Dr. Moses conducted workshops about farm workers and pesticides around the U.S., did much advocacy work and testified before numerous congressional committees. The number of research projects, advisory panels, commissions, committees and summits she led or participated in is too long to list.
Her many published works included two volumes of a book, Harvest of Sorrow, an educational tool for farm workers in English and Spanish that was also made into a professionally produced video narrated by actor Martin Sheen, plus another book, Designer Poisons.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Marion and Cesar collaborated as he organized the union’s third grape boycott focused on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children. She helped expose cancer clusters in the small farm towns of McFarland and Earlimart where field worker children came down with cancer in unexpected numbers. Farm workers affectionately called Marion La Doctora.
Dr. Moses and Dr. Fidel Huerta, Dolores Huerta’s son, were the main attending physicians by Cesar’s side throughout his last, and longest, public fast of 36 days in summer 1988 at the Forty Acres near Delano. Marion is featured in the full-length feature documentary Cesar’s Last Fast that premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2014.
Marion retired in 2016. She maintained a Spartan lifestyle after a lifetime of service while taking very little for herself, relying on Social Security and very limited savings. She passed away from natural causes on August 28 in San Francisco. Her ashes will be interned in the grave of her baby sister, Margaret Rose, in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Dr. Marion Moses is survived by five remaining siblings, Martha Moses, Maron Moses (wife, Betty Jennings), Marcella Miller, Martin Moses (wife, Norma) and Marlene Moses; nieces Paula Petersen, Lisa Miller, Jennifer Moses and Rachel Moses; and nephew Brendan Moses.
Dr. Moses requested donations in her memory go to the Catholic Worker, 36 East First Street, New York, New York 10003.