Born on November 27, 1911, Dr. Fe del Mundo was a Filipina of many firsts. Her numerous accomplishments include breaking down the walls of gender inequality through sheer academic excellence, bringing much-needed medical care to women and children during World War II, and contributing to our knowledge and treatment of lethal diseases in the Philippines.
When an important date or significant event comes along, Google honors it with a special banner called a Google Doodle. Today, the popular search engine showcased a remarkable Filipina, Dr. Fe de Mundo, in honor of her 107th birthday.
Here are five noteworthy facts about this pioneering Filipina pediatrician.
1. Her brilliance helped pave the way for gender equality at Harvard.
Del Mundo was born in Manila on November 27, 1911. It was her older sister’s death from appendicitis that cemented her desire to pursue a medical career.
She graduated at the top of her class from the University of the Philippines, Manila in 1933. Her experiences with sick and malnourished children in Marinduque and other provinces prompted her to specialize in pediatrics.
Through grit, determination, and a stroke of luck, del Mundo received a scholarship offer from President Manuel Quezon in 1936. She successfully applied for admission at Harvard University Medical School. However, Harvard had a tradition of not accepting female applicants at the time. (Dr. Harriot K. Hunt was nearly accepted in 1850, but was turned down due to outrage from the college’s all-male population.)
However, with an academic record as strong as del Mundo’s, Harvard’s pediatric department decided that the time had come to buck tradition. Nine years after del Mundo’s admission, Harvard began openly accepting female students.
2. She actively provided medical care during one of the worst times to be a female doctor in the Philippines.
After completing her studies (which included earning a Master’s degree in bacteriology at the Boston University School of Medicine), del Mundo returned to the Philippines, where she tended to women and children during World War II.
Initially, del Mundo operated from the Red Cross building near the University of Santo Tomas. Eventually, del Mundo set up a medical facility at what is now the Holy Spirit College from 1942 to 1944, during the Japanese occupation.
Her tireless efforts in caring for her patients earned her the nickname “Angel of Santo Tomas.” This would also lead to her becoming the first Filipina head of a government general hospital, the North General Hospital (now the Jose R. Reyes Memorial Medical Center), in 1945.
3. Out of sheer frustration, she built her own hospital — the first of its kind in the Philippines.
However, del Mundo didn’t enjoy how doing her job involved so much red tape. Her frustration prompted her to establish the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines, the Children’s Medical Center.
Through donations, an Php 800,000 government loan, and the sale of some of her own posesssions, del Mundo successfully established the 100-bed hospital on her birthday in 1957. She expanded the hospital in 1966 with the Institute of Maternal and Child Health — another first not just in the Philippines, but in Asia as well.
As del Mundo had to sell her home to fund the hospital, she took up residence on the second floor. There, she remained on active duty even well into her wheelchair-bound years.
4. She didn’t let inadequate resources stop her from bringing medical care to rural communities.
Due to the absence of electricity in many rural communities, life-saving technology was often out of their reach. One of the ways del Mundo got around this was by designing a bamboo incubator. This makeshift device requires only readily available materials to build, and does not run on electricity. It features a cloth-suspended scale for weighing, a bamboo radiant warmer, and two native laundry baskets.
“I put in hot water bottles all around between them. I put a little hood over it and attached oxygen for the baby,” she said in an interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. “We had to do with whatever was available.”
5. She made history (for the nth time) as the Philippines’ first female National Scientist.
During her lifetime, del Mundo won numerous awards and recognition for her outstanding work. Among these was the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, which she received in 1977.
She became the Philippines’ first female National Scientist in 1980, in recognition of her work in Pediatrics. The rank of National Scientist is awarded to science practitioners with “distinguished individual or collaborative achievement in science and technology.”
In 2010, del Mundo was awarded the Order of Lakandula, rank of Bayani, as a Filipina who lived a life “worthy of emulation.”
Del Mundo passed away in 2011 due to cardiac arrest, and was buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) in Fort Bonifacio.
Cover photo: Amazing Women in History
Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.