Fe Del Mundo: Who was Harvard medical school’s first female student?

The paediatrician, who is credited with revolutionising medicine in the Philippines, is being honoured in a Google Doodle

Chris Riotta
New York
Tuesday 27 November 2018 19:52
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Fe del Mundo, the first woman to be admitted to Harvard University in 1936, has been honoured with Google’s latest doodle.

However, Dr Del Mundo was a historic first in more ways than one throughout her life. The Filipino paediatrician, who passed away aged 99 in 2011, is credited with revolutionising medicine in the Philippines, founding its first paediatric hospital as well as The Children’s Medical Centre Foundation in 1957, which provided medical care to rural communities lacking insurance.

A humanitarian and award-winning inventor, the doctor pioneered treatment for children with jaundice, creating a series of studies and inventions that led to jaundice-relieving devices and improved incubators.

She broke through Harvard’s tradition of solely accepting men, two years after they officially started to accept women. She recalled in her biography how she was assigned to live in a male dormitory:

“[Del Mundo] humorously relates that when she arrived in Boston and went to the dormitory assigned her in a letter from the director of the hospital housing, much to her surprise she found herself in a men’s dorm. Unknowingly the Harvard officials had admitted a female to their all-male student body. But because her record was so strong the head of the pediatrics department saw no reason not to accept her. Thus, upsetting Harvard tradition, she became the first Philippine woman and the only female at the time to be enrolled at the Harvard Medical School.”

Her early life was shaped by the deaths of three of her eight siblings, who passed away while they were still infants, as well as an older sister, who dreamed of becoming a doctor but died early in life from appendicitis.

Dr Del Mundo studied at Harvard as part of a two-year research fellowship before receiving her Master’s degree in bacteriology from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1940, before returning to the Philippines, where she volunteered with the International Red Cross.

The North General Hospital in which she served as director until 1948 was originally founded after the mayor of Manila asked her to build a makeshift children’s hospital when Japanese authorities shut down the region’s hospice services.

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She went on to lead the Department of Pediatrics at Far Eastern University and her breakthroughs in research surrounding infant care led to commonly practiced methods worldwide, including the BRAT diet, which cures diarrhoea.

Dr Del Mundo continued private practice throughout her 70-year career, while publishing more than one hundred articles and reports on a range of diseases, as well as the fundamental medical book used in programmes across the Philippines, the “Textbook of Pediatrics”.

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