Fe del Mundo's "Inspirational" Harvard Achievements Weren't Well Documented

"I think Dr. Fe del Mundo is an incredibly inspirational person."

Several stories memorializing Google Doodle honoree Dr. Fe del Mundo on Tuesday recalled the moment the Filipino physician became the first female student at Harvard Medical School in 1933, years before the school formally allowed women to enroll.

Among those enthralled by the brilliant doctor’s story was Joan Ilacqua, archivist for diversity and inclusion at Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine. But while poring over the records, Ilacqua discovered some parts of the popular del Mundo story that weren’t documented in Harvard’s archives.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Ilacqua wrote: “What do you do if a Google Doodle about your institution isn’t quite right? If you’re me, you freak out all day and try to write something coherent about what we know and what we don’t know.”

She tells Inverse that, “In trying to parse out her story, it was important to me to show how we do historical research, what we can glean from the archives, and what we can or can’t prove based on the evidence we have.” The archives suggest that del Mundo, who would have had her 107th birthday on Tuesday, celebrated many firsts at Harvard Medical School, but because of poor record-keeping on women’s achievements at the time, it’s hard to definitively say which ones.

In a previous article on del Mundo, Inverse described how the National Scientist of the Philippines and award-winning pediatrician became known as Harvard Medical School’s first female student.

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.

But as Ilacqua points out in her own deeply researched article for the Center for the History of Medicine, “the evidence that she was a medical student at Harvard Medical School is largely anecdotal and not well sourced.”

fe del mundo
Poor record keeping on Harvard's part means many chapters in del Mundo's story are undocumented.

What most likely happened is that del Mundo, who had already graduated from medical school at the University of the Philippines Manila before coming to America, enrolled at Harvard as a graduate student. There’s no record of her graduating from any HMS undergraduate medical program — as a doctor, she wouldn’t have needed to — but she was likely one of the first females to attend graduate school at HMS. While women were not allowed to pursue an undergraduate degree at HMS, by 1936 they were allowed to undergo graduate training, Ilacqua writes.

Not meaning to detract from the importance of del Mundo’s contribution to Harvard, Ilacqua hopes to shed light on the reasons why the doctor’s story is not well documented in the first place. The fragmented record of del Mundo’s years at Harvard offers clues about the school’s attitudes towards women and minorities at the time. HMS, writes Ilacqua, did not “celebrate or acknowledge the academic work of women prior to officially accepting women students in 1945.” Being a woman from a far-off nation — perhaps admitted accidentally for graduate studies — it’s unlikely that del Mundo’s achievements were recorded in a way that they deserved.

“I want to celebrate the participation of people associated with Harvard Medical School who are not well documented, and I wonder what can we do moving forward to have the most accurate representation of who was here, who wasn’t here, and why,” says Ilacqua.

Over the span of del Mundo’s illustrious career, which spanned over eight decades, it is, perhaps, understandable that the story outpaced the woman behind it. Asked in 2002 by the Medical Observer whether she was the first woman at HMS, she only said: “The first coming from this far.”

For this and her countless other achievements in children’s health and disease prevention, she is now finally getting the recognition she deserves. HMS’s history of its first female graduates, for example, didn’t include del Mundo before Tuesday, but at around 4:25 p.m. Eastern, an entry was added: “1936: Dr. Fe del Mundo comes to Boston to further her studies in Pediatrics, likely at Boston Children’s Hospital.”

“I think Dr. Fe del Mundo is an incredibly inspirational person,” says Ilacqua, “and I think that her story is so important and certainly worthy of being seen by so [many] people.”

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