Fe del Mundo, a pediatrician of many firsts, including the first woman admitted to Harvard

As a child, I had this particular knack at getting what seemed like annual cases of both pink eye and strep throat and so I spent many a time at the doctor’s office. I would dutifully take my seat in the “Sick Children” section while I worked on whatever schoolwork I was missing like the goody-two-shoes I was. It was always odd to walk in for my regular checkup and sit on the “Healthy Children” side. I remember staring at the sick side, separated from me by only a fish tank and row of chairs, and thinking that that must have been no match for airborne viruses and I was determined not to miss any more school.

As I shed my adolescence, it seems I left behind my streak of sickness. Sure, every three or so years, I get knocked out by the occasional strain, in the most recent case, an odd flu that saw me wearing my bathrobe and sweatpants around Savannah on a 95 degree, 100% humidity June weekend last year. I don’t consider myself a germaphobe but I certainly take extra precautions to make sure I’ve done everything on my part to stay healthy. That’s why it is so hard for me to figure out why anyone would want to be a pediatrician and spend daily time in the “Sick Children” section.

Of course, this risk is just one of the many reasons pediatricians are so incredible and have my full respect. I don’t think I need to iterate how necessary they are and how fortunate I feel to have had access to good healthcare as a child. This mission to make sure that every child had access to medical treatment was pursued fiercely by Dr. Fe del Mundo, a Filipino woman who devoted nearly every one of her 99 years of life to saving the lives of others.

Fe was born on November 27, 1911, in Manila in the Philippines, the sixth of eight children. Three of her siblings died in infancy, planting early awareness of the lack of healthcare available to children in her country. At the time, there were zero children’s hospitals in the Philippines, a fact that was especially saddening when Fe’s little sister Elisa died at the age of seven of peritonitis, an abdominal infection that could have been easily treatable had the family had access to medical help. Elisa filled a notebook about her aspirations to pursue a career in medicine. In honor of her sister, Fe vowed to take her place.

When she was 15, Fe enrolled at the University of the Philippines and graduated seven years later with a medical degree as the class valedictorian. Her extraordinary performance attracted the attention of the president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon, who offered to pay for her medical studies at any American school of her choice. She chose the prestigious Harvard Medical School to study pediatrics.

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However, there was a slight problem that became apparent when Fe walked into her assigned dormitory to find that it was all-male. In fact, the entire university was all-male and had been since its foundation in 1782, despite the many women who applied. Each female applicant had either been rejected, even when they offered hefty donations, or were forced to give up on enrolling based on strong protests from the male students who felt their mastery at a given field would be a lesser achievement if a woman could also accomplish the same.

Fe’s ambiguous name to 20th-century American ears gave Harvard no reason to think they were admitting a woman. Her strong record from her previous studies, coupled with the presidential scholarship convinced the head of pediatrics to let her stay, establishing her as not only the first woman admitted to Harvard but also the first person of Asian heritage. It would still be ten years before Harvard officially began to admit women.

After graduating from Harvard, Fe completed a residency at the University of Chicago and gained a masters degree from Boston University in bacteriology. She had impressed many fellow doctors who wanted her to stay and work at many hospitals across the country. “I told the Americans who wanted me to stay that I prefer to go home and help the children in my own country,” she said. “I know that with my training for five years at Harvard and different medical institutions in American, I can do much.”

Her timing was less than fortunate. She arrived home in 1941 to witness the beginning of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Santo Tomas University in Manila was converted into a POW camp, interring four to seven thousand American men, women and children. The camp was incredibly overcrowded and, consequently, many of the prisoners, particularly the children, required serious medical attention. Fe volunteered her service to the International Red Cross, who set up a medical center for the children. For her work helping to nurse the children back to health until 1943 when the Japanese shut down the center, many began to call Fe “the angel of Santo Tomas.”

After the country’s liberation, the mayor of Manila enlisted Fe’s help in setting up a government hospital, of which she became the director until 1948. She enjoyed the work she was able to do but became upset over the limitations that the government imposed on her so she set out to start a private hospital that she could run and operate by her own standards for healthcare.

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Children’s Memorial Hospital, which opened in 1957, became the first children’s hospital in the Philippines. However, she found herself swapping the constraints of government for the constraints of limited funding, using her own personal funding to build the small four-story hospital. In fact, some years later, she sold her house to give more money to the hospital for facility upgrades, such as the installation of an elevator, and took up a permanent residence on the second floor for the rest of her life.

Despite the initial financial struggles, the hospital flourished. Once Fe was convinced that operations were running smoothly, she turned her focus to those that the hospital couldn’t care for, particularly mothers and children in rural parts of the archipelago. She took a team of medical professionals out to every possible area of the country to provide treatment to sick children, inspect water sources for potential diseases and give advice to mothers on topics such as breastfeeding. To accommodate areas that did not have access to electricity, Fe designed an incubator out of bamboo and hot water bottles that would regulate the body temperature of premature and jaundiced babies.

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She also intensified her studied into infectious diseases and, using analysis from modern laboratories abroad, published over 150 articles about how the most problematic diseases of the day worked and affected children. She even proposed one of the most effective treatments for diarrhea, called the BRAT diet, which consisted of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast.

Fe also focused on promoting public health for expecting and new mothers. She established the Institute of Maternal and Child Heath in 1966 which worked to train doctors and nurses to effectively help mothers and efficiently coordinate with midwives and other hospitals to improve pre- and postnatal treatment. This institute was the first of its kind in all of Asia and helped to expand Fe’s hospital by bringing in new equipment, professionals and techniques. For founding the Institute of Maternal and Child Health, she received the Elizabeth Blackwell Award.

She spent the next several decades teaching at the University of Santo Tomas and Eastern University in Manila. She encouraged her students to “go out into the provinces to see first hand the problems that exist” and to “translate medical knowledge into a language their patients will understand.”

A whole slew of accolades awaited her including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 1977, the International Congress of Pediatrics Award the same year and the honor of serving as the first woman to be named National Scientist of the Philippines in 1980. She also worked as the president of the Medical Women’s International Association, as an honorary member of the American Pediatric Society, as a consultant to the World Health Organization and as the first female president of the Philippine Pediatric Society.

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She continued to make rounds at the Children’s Memorial Hospital, even when she was confined to a wheelchair, until she died from a heart attack a couple of months before her 100th birthday in 2011.

The five-foot woman once joked that she was interested in pediatrics because it was the only medical field where the patients were smaller than she was. However, it’s clear her that her heart could only be fulfilled by ensuring that the health of all children was well cared for and her legacy continues to thrive in those who recognize that pediatrics is so much more than just dealing with the pink eyes and sore throats in the sick section.