Dr. Fe del Mundo is celebrated in today’s Google Doodle. She was the founder of the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines, and she was conferred the rank and title of National Scientist of the Philippines as well as the Order of Lakandula, one of the highest honors given by the Philippines. She is also often called Harvard Medical School’s, or even Harvard University’s, first woman student.
Del Mundo’s Medical School History
While Dr. Del Mundo was remarkable in many ways, the evidence that she was a medical student at Harvard Medical School is largely anecdotal and not well sourced. As far as my research using Harvard Medical School catalogs and records shows, she earned her Medical Degree from the University of the Philippines Manila in 1933, and in 1936, came to Boston to further her studies in pediatrics. The fact that Harvard Medical School did not admit women students and Dr. Del Mundo already earned her medical degree suggests that she was not admitted as a student, even in error, and I cannot find proof that she graduated from Harvard Medical School.
Instead, it seems more likely that she completed graduate work at Harvard Medical School through an appointment at Boston Children’s Hospital. Women physicians were admitted to courses in the Harvard Medical School Graduate School of Medicine (later called the Courses for Graduates) beginning in the late 19th century. The 1936 announcement of the Courses for Graduates clearly states that women could be admitted to graduate courses: “Women are not admitted to the regular undergraduate classes of the Harvard Medical School. The admission of women to the various courses offered under the department of the School is at the discretion of the instructor in charge of the course. The catalogue usually states in connection with each course whether or not it is open to women.”
The First Women of Harvard
There is very little archival documentation about the graduate courses from this period, and no list of enrolled students, but Dr. Fe del Mundo is listed as an Assistant Physician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a Research Fellow in Pediatrics in 1940. Further suggesting that she was a graduate student and not a medical student, in her autobiographical statement in Women Physicians of the World (1977), Dr. Del Mundo explains “I spent three years of my postgraduate studies at the Children’s Hospital in Boston and at Harvard Medical School, one year at the University of Chicago, six months at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and short terms in various pediatric institutions, all to round out my training.”
Furthermore, other women studied at Harvard University before 1936, such as the women who studied at the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers (later the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) including its first woman graduate Linda Frances James (who completed her certificate in 1917). Two additional women, Ann Hogue Stewart and Hester Balch Curtis, were both awarded the Master of Public Health in 1936.
Given the restrictions placed on student records, and the fact that Harvard Medical School did not celebrate or acknowledge the academic work of women prior to officially accepting women students in 1945, it is difficult to determine if Dr. Del Mundo was Harvard Medical School’s first woman student. Given her degree and course of study, it is unlikely.
Del Mundo's Impact
If Dr. Fe del Mundo is not the first woman graduate of Harvard Medical School, does that mean her story isn’t important or isn’t a part of Harvard Medical School’s history? No. I cannot yet determine if she was the first Filipina or Asian woman admitted to the Courses for Graduates, but I imagine that she is among the first. Currently, the Center for the History of Medicine, in partnership with the Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership, is funding research on Harvard Medical School’s other “firsts,” searching our archives for evidence of students who represent ethnic and cultural backgrounds that have been historically marginalized. I’m not sure who we’ll find in the archives, but at the conclusion of this project, I hope to surface other stories like Dr. Del Mundo’s. I can only imagine the pushback that a woman doctor from the Philippines may have encountered when she came to Boston in the 1930s. Despite not being Harvard Medical School’s first woman student, Dr. Fe del Mundo is still an important and inspirational figure in the history of Harvard Medical School and the history of medicine in the Philippines.
This news post was originally published on the Center for the History of Medicine’s Wordpress site.