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Dr Fe del Mundo: Mother of Pediatric Healthcare

Dr Fe del Mundo: Mother of Pediatric Healthcare

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Dr Fe del Mundo- Pediatrician (1911-2011) 

Poised and Elegant Lady

“She was petite, barely 5 feet tall, with a fragile frame that belied a strong will and an agile mind. She was a fastidious dresser, well-turned out in coordinated tailored outfits, from dainty vintage jewelry to two-toned high heels and hair impeccably coifed… an engaging speaker…”  Heartwarming words by Milagros Belmonte-Reyes, Fe del Mundo’s niece. A woman ahead of her time, chances are higher she would have been a fighter of note during the Coronavirus pandemic as her niece also goes on to say, “ She would beam at us on sight and pat our heads, but stayed away from wet kisses from the little ones.”  Fe del Mundo’s family describes her as a poised, elegant, and well-put-together lady with a good head on her shoulders to complement that. More than a good head, she was knowledgeable and generous, demonstrating the gravitas that comes with a trailblazer who shattered countless glass ceilings as she did in her time. A time when women were underrepresented in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine). Fe del Mundo was not only remembered (post-humous) and celebrated by her family, but being the woman who left a global footprint that she was, Google celebrated her by featuring her on the Google Doodle on 27 November 2018 (her birthday). 

 

Make the circle bigger!: Men playing active roles in driving women’s empowerment. 

Said to have been admitted to Harvard Medical school by mistake, Fe was one of the first women to study medicine during a period when women’s academic options were limited, and their academic work was not acknowledged. There is even speculation that Fe del Mundo only gained admission at Harvard because of her disguise as a man (Harvard started officially accepting female students to its medical school for the first time in 1945). There is no concrete evidence proving that she was a Harvard medical student. Still, she was involved in work with Boston Children’s Hospital and was a Research Fellow in Pediatrics. She initially earned a medical degree at the University of the Philippines, where she came top of her class. She would proceed to further her studies in the United States and specialize in pediatrics, sponsored by her government, as they had noticed that she was one bright spark. At the end of her studies, she earned a master’s degree in bacteriology and studied public health. It is essential to note that Fe del Mundo was able to accomplish many great things at a time when there were not accessible to women simply because she was surrounded by men who believed that she could and should. One of those is Manuel Quezon, president of the Philippines, who sponsored her postgraduate studies abroad (US). Another influential figure who paved the way for Dr. Fe’s success is her father. A successful lawyer in his own right, Bernardo del Mundo supported his daughter in pursuing her dreams of studying medicine, which she always wanted to do when she was younger. Funny enough, becoming a doctor was initially Fe’s sister’s dream, but unfortunately, not living up to adulthood, her sister died aged eleven. Originally a family of eight children, three of her siblings died in infancy, and her sister made four. The sixth of children and four dying very young, Fe was determined to work in medicine and improve the health system and overall lives of children in her home country. Luckily for her, her lawyer father was supportive of her ambitions. Ambitions that went against the status quo may have been considered ridiculous at the time. Women were marginalized and not expected to contribute significantly to science or any academic spaces. By allowing his daughter to study further, Fe Del Mundo’s father can easily be said to have started to pave the way for female trailblazers.  

 

Boston, Massachusetts, USA - June 4, 2016: Daytime view of the Harvard Medical School quadrangle situated in the Longwood Medical Area

An Illustrious Career 

On her return from her studies in the US, Fe del Mundo started working with the red cross only as a volunteer at the height of the brutal Japanese invasion of her country at the time. Her work was mainly helping injured, and sick Filipino children living in concentration camps under Japanese rule. She would later be hailed as the angel of St Thomas because of her humanitarian efforts and tireless work treating more than four hundred children in prison-like conditions. She achieved so much while working for country hospitals and spaces that were not adequately equipped and, during the conflict, selflessly. Throughout her lifetime, she went on to achieve many great things, selflessly giving not only her expertise but her resources. She struggled with obstacles in her efforts to build her first hospital, undeterred she would overcome, and open her pediatric clinic in Manila, funded by a few donations from well-wishers, a small government loan, and mostly her own funds, some obtained by selling her own house. Her pediatric clinic opened in Manila, Philippines, on her birthday in 1957. Still standing today, the Fe del Mundo medical center was initially opened with a capacity of only one hundred beds. The opening of her hospital benefited children sick of general illness and victims/casualties of war too.  

Dr. Fe del Mundo revolutionized medical care in her country, with her impact not limited to her pediatric clinic only but as many spheres as she could reach. She introduced immunization, breastfeeding, and birth control programs. She also established a helpful facility, recognized nationally and internationally even today- the (IMCH) institute of maternal child health. Helping as many as she could, she found creative ways to ensure that healthcare was accessible to marginalized communities. One of her outreach programs centered on promoting wellness in communities without access to doctors. People in these communities would be educated on how to care of and improve their health. 

Furthermore, she facilitated the training of paramedics and midwives in such areas. Her programs were supported by several international bodies, among them the World Health Organization (WHO), International Development and Research Centre (IDCR), and the Institute for Child and Family Health (ICFH). Daring to go where others dared not, Fe del Mundo helped bridge the gap for communities with no access to healthcare and brought groundbreaking medical developments to be marginalized and often forgotten rural communities. One of her groundbreaking inventions was invented in 1941, the bamboo incubator. The invention would go on to save the lives of many premature babies in communities without access to electricity and financial resources. Made out of two traditional bamboo baskets, they would be placed inside each other, and bottles of hot water between them. The hot water would warm the baby, and a hood was attached to provide oxygen for the baby, genius! Overall her efforts substantially improved in decreasing infant mortality rates in the Philippines. Low infant mortality rates are a crucial indicator of a society’s standing on health and welfare matters. 

A woman of many hats, Fe del Mundo’s legacy extends to her roles as a scientist, teacher, and author. In her research work, she plunged into uncharted waters, researching diseases that people knew a little about under post-conflict conditions with her country was still recovering. Immunizations that helped to tackle Polio and measles, deadly child diseases in the 20th century, were based on some of her research. Her research was also vital in discovering treatments for jaundice and dengue fever.  With over one hundred published health work articles, some of Dr fe Del Mundo’s works have been used in India and the United States. Even with full hands, she wrote for a weekly newspaper published in Manila. Much like Question and Answer platforms today, giving parenting and sick children advice.  She built her legacy by training other medical professionals in her country and authored journals and pediatric textbooks.  

 

Accolades and Recognition 

Equally a leader as she was hands-on, her work extended to being president of the Asian Women’s medical International Association. In her home country, Dr. Fe del Mundo was the first-ever woman president of the Philippine Pediatric society and the first-ever woman scientist of the year in a male-dominated industry, a position previously occupied by a long line of 65 males. A member of the Advisory Board of the International Pediatric Association with WHO (World Health Organization), Dr. Fe del Mundo sat on many boards throughout her lifetime. An esteemed woman with a global footprint, her country couldn’t ignore her accomplishments. In recognition of her massive contributions, the Philippines conferred her the highest honor in the country in the 2010-The Order of Lakandula. With greatness that borders couldn’t limit, Fe del Mundo’s lifetime achievements are reflected through several other awards that she received from all over the world. Some of them are: 

  • Outstanding Pediatrician and Humanitarian award from the International Congress of Pediatrics 
  • Elizabeth Blackwell Award for Outstanding Service to humankind 
  • Most Distinguished Alumni from the University of the Philippines 
  • Service Award from the Rotary International 
  • Outstanding leadership in primary Infant Child /Health Care from International Association for Maternal and Neonatal Health  
  • First Woman National Scientist from the Philippines Government 
  • Ramon Magsay Award for Public Service by a Private Citizen SEA 
  • Newscoop Award of the Week ( 1958) from the Philippines Republic Broadcasting System 
  • Outstanding Citizens Awardee for medicine and Public Health from the City of Manila 
  • Carlos P. Romulo United Nations Award from the United Nations Association of the Philippines 

 

Later Life 

“I’m glad that I have been very much involved in the care of children and have been relevant to them. They are the most outstanding feature in my life.”  A woman who expressed her love for children through words and deeds. Dr. Fe del Mundo continued working in healthcare in her old age and lived in her hospital building. Despite never getting married or having her children, Fe del Mundo impacted many children’s lives. An overachiever in academic work and community upliftment, it is commendable that she didn’t allow herself to be consumed by her work and maintained a healthy relationship with her family, many close to her affectionately referring to her as Tita Fe (Auntie Fe). Dr. Fe del Mundo was said to be active even in old age, making rounds in a wheelchair in her hospital.  In August 2011, a few months before turning one hundred years, Dr. Fe del Mundo died from cardiac arrest. She lived a great life and achieved things most would need a few lifetimes to achieve. Her legacy not only lives in the medical and humanitarian space, but a children’s book detailing her life, titled, The Angel of Santo Tomas( Author- Tammy Yee), was released on the Asian market in 2022. 

 One anonymous wise person said that sometimes existing in places that weren’t designed to accommodate you is the revolution. True to Fe del Mundo, who not only lived but thrived in a medical, science, and education system designed for males. In her eight-decade career, she transcended the status quo, excelling in fields most women had never been a part of, making healthcare accessible to the poor, all the while working with limited resources or at the height of  World War 2 and being a citizen of a minority country not counting much in her favor.  An eminent academic and humanitarian, Dr. Fe del Mundo’s remarkable story is one of a woman who revolutionized women’s place in society, armed with a sharp mind and good intentions. Hers was a quiet revolution, with no revolt, marches, or bloodshed. The very foundations of her story highlight the boundless things nations can achieve when they empower women. Her father and her president being an influence in her studies enabled her to take the first crucial steps in her medical career. Great things don’t come out of the status quo; they come out of people with vision, and drive, to prove the difference.”  Dr. Fe del Mundo understood this quite well, applied herself, and transcended the status quo.

 

Edited by Sharon Rosenberg

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