Fe del Mundo: A Fearless Female Doctor's Life, in Her Own Words
"I decided to take her place."
On Tuesday, a lot has been written about Fe del Mundo, the deserving recipient of a Google Doodle that honors her 107th birthday. Born in the Philippines, del Mundo was the first woman to attend Harvard Medical School, the inventor of a homespun bamboo incubator, and a pioneer for women and children’s health. But for all her accomplishments, there are very few remaining documents in which del Mundo describes her experience in her own words.
Del Mundo is the author of hundreds of scientific studies, as well as the Textbook of Pediatrics and Child Health, all of which describe the best way to care for others. But in 2007, she granted an interview to The Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism, during which she discussed herself, providing little windows into her life that are widely available to inspire us all.
To learn more about del Mundo’s groundbreaking career, watch the video below.
"“She kept a little notebook where she wrote that she wanted to take up medicine. When she died, I decided to take her place."
On Her Decision to Pursue Medicine
Raised in a household of eight, del Mundo didn’t fully consider a career in medicine until four of her siblings died. In 2007, she told The Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism about one poignant moment that crystallized the path she would follow for the rest of her life: when she found a diary from her younger sister Elisa, who died from an abdominal infection:
“She kept a little notebook where she wrote that she wanted to take up medicine,” recalled del Mundo. “When she died, I decided to take her place.”
Del Mundo later pioneered the BRAT diet, a way to help relieve diarrhea in children — which in some cases, can cause fatal dehydration — through nutrition.
"“I told the Americans who wanted me to stay that I prefer to go home and help the children in my own country. I know that with my training for five years at Harvard and different medical institutions in America, I can do much."
On Her Decision to Leave America:
After excelling at the University of the Philippines Manila, del Mundo was offered admission to Harvard Medical School in 1936, in a sense, by accident. The school, impressed by her qualifications, didn’t pause to consider that she was a woman — the school did not officially admit women until 1945. She went on to a residency at Billings Hospital of the University of Chicago and earned a masters in bacteriology at Boston University before returning to the Philippines in the early Forties, right before the Japanese occupied the country during World War II.
“I told the Americans who wanted me to stay that I prefer to go home and help the children in my own country,” del Mundo said. “I know that with my training for five years at Harvard and different medical institutions in America, I can do much.”
And true to her word, she did much. After returning home, del Mundo became the first woman to lead a government hospital, founded the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines, and became the country’s first female National Scientist. She was also awarded the Order of the Golden Heart by the government post-mortem.
"“Pediatricians must be able to translate medical knowledge into a language their patients will understand. Only in this way can a doctor acquaint their patients with the importance of preventive as well as curative medicine."
On Doctor-Patient Communication:
Del Mundo became a pioneer for rural public health, traveling to far-flung corners of the country to provide medical care to those without the resources of hospitals. While working in Palawan and Marinduque, she helped develop family planning strategies, advocated for proper nutrition, and conducted health exams on infants. Throughout this time, she emphasized the importance of communicating openly with her patients.
“Pediatricians must be able to translate medical knowledge into a language their patients will understand,” she said. “Only in this way can a doctor acquaint their patients with the importance of preventive as well as curative medicine.”
"“Leave the dining table a little less full, a little hungry, and you will live longer."
On Her Own Longevity:
Near the end of her life, del Mundo was lauded for her own longevity and energy. In her later years, she lived on the second floor of a hospital where she continued working until her death.
“Leave the dining table a little less full, a little hungry, and you will live longer,” she said of her longevity philosophy.
Though not the most profound of her breakthroughs, this lifestyle did enable her to live to 99, helping countless people along the way.