During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers like Fe Del Mundo, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.
Born: Nov. 27, 1911, Intramuros, Manila, Philippines
Died: Aug. 6, 2011, Quezon City, Philippines
Best known for: Being the first female medical student at Harvard University and revolutionizing pediatrics
Fe del Mundo, a Filipina pediatrician, was the first woman to be admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1936, more than a decade before the school officially began admitting women.
Del Mundo was born in the Philippines in 1911. Her passion for medicine came at an early age, deciding to become a doctor after her older sister died of appendicitis at the age of 11. Del Mundo enrolled in the University of the Philippines in 1926 where she earned her medical degree and studied pediatrics. Del Mundo graduated in 1933 as the valedictorian, prompting the president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon to offer her a full scholarship to continue her graduate work at any school in the U.S. she chose. She picked Harvard Medical School.
The first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. was Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849. Yet, through the 1930s, many schools did not allow women to apply. The first woman to apply to Harvard Medical School was Harriet Hunt in 1847, but she was rejected after students protested against her and three other Black students.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Harvard Medical School had begun backing down on its stance against women applicants, especially after World War I and the Great Depression led to a shortage of applicants. Anecdotal reports say Del Mundo applied for post-graduate studies, although there is no physical proof she graduated from Harvard Medical School as a student. During these debates on admissions policies, the college reportedly received Del Mundo’s application. Not realizing her gender, they admitted her. Reports say she arrived at the college to discover she was assigned to an all-male dorm. Fortunately, the head of the pediatrics department vouched for her to stay and administrators decided to make an exception. She was the first and only woman to be enrolled at the time.
Del Mundo continued her education at the University of Chicago and the Boston University School of Medicine and returned to the Philippines in 1941, where she began humanitarian work. She started her professional career with the International Red Cross and set up a hospice center at an internment camp during Japan’s invasion. She was dubbed the “Angel of Santo Tomas” for her work helping children who were detained at the University of Santo Tomas.
The Japanese shut down her hospice in 1943, but the mayor of Manila asked her to establish a government hospital. After working there for several years and growing frustrated with government constraints, she decided to leave and start a private hospital. To help fund it, she sold her home and nearly all her belongings. Her efforts paid off in 1957 when she opened the Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City — the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines.
The hospital focused on bringing medical care to poor rural families, saving children who were dying due to dehydration and helping people plan their families. In addition to her day-to-day work with her new hospital, Del Mundo also helped establish the Institute of Maternal and Child Health — an organization that worked to train medical professionals.
While practicing at her hospital, she also continued her research into infectious disease and made breakthroughs in the treatment and immunization of jaundice. One of her first discoveries was the bananas, rice, applesauce and toast (BRAT) diet, which is still recommended by doctors today to relieve diarrhea and other stomach issues.
Del Mundo published more than one hundred articles and reports in various medical journals throughout the length of her career. Her research focused on public health issues, including helping rural mothers and their children and improving coordination among hospitals, doctors and midwives. Del Mundo also wrote the Textbook of Pediatrics that medical schools in the Philippines still use today.
Towards the end of her career, Del Mundo became the president of the Medical Women’s International Association. She was also the first woman to be president of the Philippine Pediatric Society, an honorary member of the American Pediatric Society and a consultant to the World Health Organization.
Because Del Mundo sold her home to fund her hospital, she actually spent much of her later life living within the hospital, in a small apartment on its second floor. She stayed there, working regularly and making rounds to check on patients, right up until her death in 2011, just months before turning 100.