Dr. Fe del Mundo: National Scientist

In the early years pediatrics focused almost exclusively on the care of sick children, especially in countries like the Philippines where there was a high childhood mortality rate. Slowly, however, the field expanded to include preventive medicine. Pediatricians began to recognize that their role was more than just healing the sick child; they had to encourage healthy lives and prevent sickness in the first place. One of the pioneers in the recognition of this expanded role for Filipino pediatricians was Dr. Fe del Mundo.

At a time when few doctors went to the United States to specialize del Mundo sought and worked hard to obtain any grant to study in the U.S. Unexpectedly she was called by President Manuel L. Quezon who appointed her in 1936 for one of two fellowships offered by the Commonwealth government and was accepted at Harvard University Medical School for postgraduate work.

She humorously related that when she arrived in Boston and went to the dormitory assigned to her, much to her surprise she found herself in a men’s dorm. Unknowingly the Harvard officials had admitted a female to their all-male student body–her
record was so strong the head of the pediatrics department saw no reason not to accept her. Thus, upsetting Harvard tradition, she became the first Philippine woman and the only female at the time to be enrolled at the Harvard Medical School.

After spending the academic year 1937-38 at Harvard del Mundo went to New York where she continued postgraduate studies at Columbia University and Mount Sinai Hospital, subsequently taking up a residency at the University of Chicago’s Billings Hospital for the academic year 1938-39. She returned to Boston for a two-year research fellowship at the Harvard Medical School Children’s Hospital. Along with her research on children’s diseases at Children’s Hospital she found the time and energy to pursue a program of study at Boston University which led to a master’s degree in bacteriology in 1940. She also took classes in public health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her five years in the U.S. were made possible by the scholarship grant from the Philippine government.

Early 1941 brought signs of the involvement of Southeast Asia in the Second World War and del Mundo was summoned by the government to return home to Manila. Japanese forces entered Manila January 2, 1942 and almost immediately some 5,000 American, British and other foreign nationals were herded into an internment camp set up at the University of Santo Tomas—which consisted of three buildings on one city block in the center of the city. Thinking that the internment would last but a short time, some of the parents left sick or convalescent children with friends or maids. Three such American children were del Mundo’s patients and she asked herself how she could render some greater service in a field in which she believed herself qualified.

Lying awake one night, unable to sleep, she finally saw a way—taking care of internee children whose parents would be willing to leave them under her care. With the help of Albert Holland, one of the most active internee leaders, she was able to persuade the Japanese of the need for opening a children’s home outside the camp. She opened the Children’s Home on January 10, 1942, in a small Red Cross building. In just over three weeks the school was housing 130 children and a staff of 25. Three months later a wing of the school became an annex to accommodate 27 women internees who were either expectant or convalescent mothers, or mothers of children below the age of two.

Recognizing the usefulness of the facility the Japanese camp authorities decided to take over its management, keeping her as director until February 1943. Shortly before del Mundo left as director she was given a “community service” award by the internees. In the space of one year and a half she had mothered some 400 children and ever since had continued to receive letters from her former wards and their parents recalling her wonderful work.

After leaving the Children’s Home in 1943 del Mundo became director of the City of Manila’s Children’s Hospital, a 100-bed facility in what was once an elementary school. By this time the Philippine population, and particularly the children, were also suffering the ravages of war and occupation. During the liberation of Manila in 1945 she was asked by the U.S. military authorities to convert Children’s Hospital into an emergency hospital because of the heavy civilian casualties incurred during the fight for the city, and by the end of the year it was known first as PCAU 5 (Philippine Civil Affairs Unit) Hospital
and then as North General Hospital (NGH) and housed-about 550 sick and injured civilians. Del Mundo remained as director and senior pediatrician at NGH until 1948, the first woman to head a government general hospital.  She invested not only her time and talents in the hospital, but so much of her own money that when she left in 1948 she had scarcely enough funds to pay for moving out her belongings.

Soon after her return to the Philippines she became director for one year of the newly established Manila Children’s Hospital, and at the same time she set up her own private practice. Using her own home, she began taking in a few patients. As her “Little Clinic” took in more and more children she was driven not only from her own bedroom, but from house to house in the neighborhood in search of more space. And she began to consider once more her vision of a modern pediatrics center.

Encouraged by friends she decided to embark upon building a hospital—the first part of her dream to build a center for both curative and preventive care. On November 26, 1957 the Children’s Memorial Hospital, with a 100-bed capacity, was inaugurated and dedicated to the children of the Philippines.

But del Mundo’s dreams went beyond the hospital. She wanted to build a medical center which would focus equally upon preventive medicine and would include research facilities and a program for delivering medical services to the rural areas where most of the people of the Philippines live. In 1964 the Children’s Medical Center (Foundation) Philippines, Inc. created under the same board of trustees an Institute of Maternal and Child Health (IMCH) which was inaugurated in 1966. The IMCH has remained the most useful and effective private affiliate of the Population Commission and is now recognized both nationally and internationally for its MCH and family planning activities and contributions to the national programs.

In 1973, realizing the trend of maternal and child health concerns and thrusts to the family and community, del Mundo changed the focus and broadened the scope of IMCH through a new Institute of Community and Family Health (ICFH). Besides the IMCH, which is a part of the new institute, ICFH includes the care of adolescents; an extension office for outreach health programs in four doctorless and underserved communities in Pampanga and Bulacan provinces, to render medical services and particularly for Primary Health Care (PHC)—to help the people learn to take care of their own health; training of medical and paramedical personnel in community health work; and recruitment and In its four years of existence research has been a major activity of ICFH and prestigious international and national agencies have supported its various programs and studies: United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), Western Pacific Region; Rockefeller’ Ford and Asia foundations; World Neighbors; International Development Research Center (IDRC), Canada; the Netherlands Organization for International Aid; the German Food for Hunger Agro-Action Program; and in the Philippines the Commission on Population, the Population Center Foundation and the Maternal and Child Health Association. The ICFH’s team researches on hilot (traditional birth attendant) training and community programs on nutrition among children have been widely commended.

Del Mundo’s talents and energies were never devoted exclusively to the ICFH or to the earlier institutions she created and managed. From 1956 until 1976 she was professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Far Eastern University and is presently Professor Emeritus at that institution. She also served on the boards of a number of Philippine organizations such as the Association of University Women, the Mental Health Association, and the University of the Philippines Medical Alumni Society. In 1946 and 1947 she was vice president and president respectively of the Manila Medical Society, and was three-term president of the Philippine Pediatric Society (1951-1953). She was founder and first president of the Philippine Medical Women’s Association (1949-1954) and was the first woman to be elected president of the Philippine Medical Association in its 65-year history (1969-1970). She sat on the National Research Council and the founding president of the Maternal and Child Health Association of the Philippines.

Her activities were not limited to the Philippines. She was the first Asian elected president of the Medical Women’s International Association, 1962-1966, and was on the Advisory Board of the International Pediatric Association from 1966 to 1970. She was on the Expert Advisory Committee, Maternal and Child Health, of the World Health Organization (WHO); a member of the WHO Technical Advisory Group on Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever in the Philippines; on the Medical Advisory Board, Foundation for International Child Health (New York); and an Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Since 1941 del Mundo had been a steady contributor—with more than 100 articles, reviews and reports on original research studies, cases and clinical trials—to medical journals, primarily in the Philippines but also in the United States and India. She has published regularly in the Journal of Philippine Medical Women’s Association, Nutrition News, Philippine Journal of Pediatrics, and Journal of the Philippine Medical Association. She wrote a weekly column in the Manila Sunday Times Magazine for 20 years (until the newspaper stopped publication) called “Baby and You.” In this popular column she gave advice and guidance to parents for preventing childhood ailments.

Del Mundo’s contribution to the health of Filipino children and to the world’s understanding of childhood diseases has brought her repeated honors. In one or another of her multiple roles as practitioner, administrator, organizer, teacher, scholar, researcher or as author of books and scientific papers, she had been the recipient of awards, citations, plaques and testimonials almost yearly since she graduated from medical school. She was given among others, an Award of Merit as “Founder and First Director of the North General Hospital” (1948); a Diploma of Merit for “Recognized Leadership as a Medical Researcher and Organizer and [for] Significant Contributions in the Field of National and International Pediatric Medicine” by the Philippine Federation of Private Medical Practitioners (1959); the Most Distinguished Alumnus for 1960 Award from the University of the Philippines Medical Alumni Society; the Presidential Award of Merit by the Civic Assembly of Women of the Philippines (1961); Award of Merit “for her lasting contribution to the art and science of medicine especially in the field of pediatrics” by the Philippine Pediatric Society (1963) and Distinguished Service Award by the Philippine Medical Association (1964). In 1966 del Mundo received the prestigious Elizabeth Blackwell Award presented to women doctors of world renown by Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, New York.

More recently she was honored as the Most Outstanding Woman in Medicine by the Federacion International de Abogadas (1968), and the Most Distinguished Alumna of the University of the Philippines by the University of the Philippines Alumni Association (1972). She received honorary doctorates of science from Medical Women’s College of Pennsylvania and Smith College in the United States, both in 1970. She was given the Ayala Science Award in Medical Science for 1974 and in 1977, she received the Most Distinguished Pediatrician and Humanitarian Award from the International Pediatric Association. Download full biography

“Biography of Dr. Fe del Mundo,” in Magsaysay Awardees Digital Collection, Item #371, http://www.rmaf.org.ph/madc/items/show/371 (accessed August 8, 2011)

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