Fe del Mundo Accidentally Became a Feminist Hero at Harvard Medical School
If you had to describe Harvard Medical School in one word in 1936, you could use the word “male.” The esteemed institution didn’t accept females at the time, though that didn’t stop Fe del Mundo, a brilliant young doctor from the Philippines, from enrolling that year. The Google Doodle honoree, who would’ve celebrated her 107th birthday on Tuesday, is now celebrated as the first female student admitted to the school, though at the time she was as surprised about it as everyone else.
After del Mundo graduated as a physician and valedictorian from the University of the Philippines Manila in 1933, then-President Manuel Quezon, impressed with her talent, offered her a full scholarship for further medical training, anywhere in the world. Del Mundo chose HMS, 8,421 miles away from her home in Manila. What she didn’t realize was that HMS at the time was all-male. What HMS didn’t realize is that she was a woman.
Her biography, written when she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award (Asia’s Nobel Prize counterpart) in 1977 for her work in pediatrics, tells the tale of del Mundo’s surprise upon arriving in Cambridge and being sent to a men’s dormitory. There was no other option, since there were no lodgings designated for women at the time. Upon discovering the mix-up — it appears that the admissions board had assumed she was a man — Harvard officials looked into her application. Finding an impressively strong record, the pediatrics department head accepted her anyway.
HMS, for its part, didn’t officially start accepting female students until 1945. Del Mundo was, curiously, missing from HMS’s history of its first female graduates until Tuesday, but an entry was added around 4:25 pm EST: “1936: Dr. Fe del Mundo comes to Boston to further her studies in Pediatrics, likely at Boston Children’s Hospital.”
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Del Mundo is that she didn’t stay in the United States after leaving HMS, and instead completed further training, going on to earn degrees at the Billings Hospital of the University of Chicago and at the Boston University School of Medicine. She returned to the Philippines in 1941, right before the country was invaded by Japan, despite the opportunities available to her abroad. During the Japanese occupation, she ran a hospice at an internment camp as part of the International Red Cross.
However, she is best remembered — and eventually honored with the title of National Scientist of the Philippines — for her work with children, especially those from poor families. After the war, Del Mundo developed the BRAT Diet — banana, rice, apple, and tea — used to treat children with diarrhea around the world today. She studied dengue disease, a mosquito-born illness afflicting kids and adults alike, and developed children’s immunization strategies against diseases like polio, measles, and chicken pox. For impoverished babies suffering from jaundice, she developed a low-cost incubator made of bamboo. And in the rural areas of the Philippines, she treated children dying of dehydration and starvation.
She was quite radical in her advocacy for family planning and population control, which were and continue to be frowned upon in the Philippines, a strongly Catholic country.
In 1957, she founded the Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City with the money she saved after selling her home and belongings. She lived on the second floor of the hospital for the rest of her life, making rounds in her wheelchair until her death at the age of 99 in 2011.