Inspiration

This Filipina Was the First Female Student at Harvard Medical School

Her desire to stop children from dying from the most common yet preventable diseases led to a lifelong commitment to pediatrics.
IMAGE PUBLIC DOMAIN/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS; rmaward.asia
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Dr. Fe del Mundo is more than just the woman a hospital in Banawe, Quezon City is named after. Her role in improving the medical incubator, despite being one of her most noteworthy achievements, is only the tip of the iceberg of her long and meaningful career as a pediatrician.

Fe Villanueva del Mundo was born on November 27, 1911 in Intramuros, Manila to Bernardo del Mundo, a prominent lawyer from Marinduque, and Paz Villanueva. She studied at Intramuros Elementary School and Manila South High School, where she was consistently on the honor roll. The sixth of eight children, she was inspired to become a doctor by the childhood deaths of four of her siblings, including her youngest sister Elisa who died of peritonitis, an abdominal infection. Elisa kept a little notebook where she wrote that she wanted to take up medicine. “When she died, I decided to take her place,” del Mundo shared in an interview.

Del Mundo entered the University of the Philippines at the age of 15. After receiving an Associate in Arts degree, she proceeded to study at the university’s medical school. In 1933, she graduated with the highest honors, received her medical degree, and was awarded a medal as the “Most Outstanding Scholar in Medicine” by the Colegio Medico-Farmaceutico de Filipinas.

Her decision to specialize in pediatrics is attributed to her internship in her home province of Marinduque. While there, she saw how children were not receiving the medical attention they needed. “There was no doctor for children and the provincial health officer had no background at all about pediatrics,” she shared. This experience inspired her to create a makeshift incubator that did not require electricity. Her invention consisted of two native laundry baskets of different sizes placed one inside the other, with hot water bottles between them and a little hood where oxygen is attached. Aside from this game changing device for rural healthcare, she’s also credited with creating a cloth-suspended weighing scale and a radiant warmer made of bamboo.

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In 1936, del Mundo was granted a scholarship by President Manuel L. Quezon to study at Harvard University Medical School for postgraduate work. When she arrived at her dormitory in Boston, she realized that all of the other students assigned to the building were male. Apparently, the officials at Harvard, an institution that did not start accepting female students until 1949, accepted her without knowing she was female. But because of her impressive credentials, she was allowed to stay and continue her studies, making her the first Filipino and only woman at the time to be enrolled there.

After spending a year at Harvard, she continued her postgraduate studies at Columbia University and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She did her residency at the Billings Hospital at the University of Chicago, and then returned to Harvard for a two-year research fellowship at the university’s Children’s Hospital. Aside from researching on children’s diseases, she also pursued a Master’s Degree in Bacteriology at Boston University and took public health classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Del Mundo returned to the Philippines in 1941 as tensions from World War II began to build up in Southeast Asia. Despite there being many opportunities for her to thrive in the States, she said she “[preferred] to go home and help the children in [her] own country,” and she did just that. On January 10, 1942, in an effort to care for sick and recuperating children in an internment camp at the University of Santo Tomas, she set up the Children’s Home at the old Red Cross building near the university. After three months, a new wing was opened to accommodate expectant and recuperating mothers as well as mothers of children below the age of two.

After leaving the Children’s Home In 1943, del Mundo became director of the City of Manila’s Children’s Hospital, the North General Hospital, and Manila Children’s Hospital. On November 27, 1957, she built the Children’s Memorial Hospital, the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines, but del Mundo’s commitment to improve child health didn’t stop there. She, together with non-stock, non-profit institution Dr. Fe del Mundo Medical Center Foundation Phils., opened the Institute of Maternal and Child Health in 1966, followed by the Institute of Community and Family Health in 1972. The hospital was renamed Fe Del Mundo Medical Center (FDMMC) in 2002.

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Aside from her role in building FDMMC, she held key positions in various medical societies and associations, including professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Far Eastern University, founding president of the Philippine Medical Women’s Association and Maternal and Child Health Association of the Philippines, first elected female president of the Philippine Medical Association, first elected Asian president of the Medical Women’s International Association, and honorary fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She also contributed over a hundred articles, reviews, and reports to medical journals and twenty years worth of pediatric advice via a weekly column in the Manila Sunday Times Magazine.

Del Mundo’s efforts have been recognized by numerous awarding bodies both here and abroad. Her awards include the Elizabeth Blackwell Award as a “Woman Doctor of World Renown,” Ramon Magsaysay Award for “Outstanding Public Service,” and the 15th International Congress of Pediatrics Award as the “Most Outstanding Pediatrician and Humanitarian” in 1977. She was also the first woman to be named “National Scientist of the Philippines” in 1980. Despite all the recognition her work has garnered, she believed that being able to help children is what mattered most. “The satisfaction derived from guiding and serving children is worth much more than a check for services rendered,” she shared. Dr. del Mundo passed away on August 6, 2011, but her legacy lives on through her many contributions to the pediatric practice.

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Paulina Paras
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