Target Health Blog

Fe Villanueva del Mundo (1911 - 2011)

December 3, 2018

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History of Medicine
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Photo of Dr. Fe del Mundo, a well-known a Filipino pediatrician, known as the National Scientist of the PhilippinesPhoto credit: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56970908

Fe Villanueva del Mundo, was a Filipina pediatrician and was first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School. She also founded the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines. Her pioneering work in pediatrics in the Philippines while in active medical practice, spanned eight decades. She gained international recognition, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 1977. In 1980, she was conferred the rank and title of National Scientist of the Philippines, and in 2010, she was conferred the Order of Lakandula.

Dr. del Mundo was born at 120 Cabildo Street in the district of Intramuros, Manila, on November 27, 1911. She was one of eight children of Bernardo del Mundo and Paz (nee Villanueva; d. 1925). Her family home was opposite the Manila Cathedral. Bernardo was a prominent lawyer from Marinduque who served one term in the Philippine Assembly representing the province of Tayabas. Three of her eight siblings died in infancy, while an older sister died from appendicitis at age 11. The death of her older sister, who had made known her desire to become a doctor for the poor, spurred young del Mundo toward the medical profession.

Dr. del Mundo enrolled at the University of the Philippines Manila (UPM) in 1926, and earned her medical degree in 1933, graduating as class valedictorian. She passed the medical board exam that same year, placing third among the examinees. Her exposure while in medical school to various health conditions afflicting children in the provinces, particularly in Marinduque, led her to choose pediatrics as her specialization. After Dr. del Mundo graduated from UPM, President Manuel Quezon offered to pay for her further training in a medical field of her choice, and at any school in the United States. Sometimes it has been said that she was Harvard Medical School's first woman student, the first woman enrolled in pediatrics at the school, or its first Asian student. However, according to the Archivist for Diversity and Inclusion at Harvard's Center for the History of Medicine:

“Dr. Del Mundo was remarkable in many ways, the evidence that she was a graduate medical student at Harvard Medical School seems to be the case. She completed graduate work at Harvard Medical School through an appointment at Boston Children's Hospital.“

Dr. del Mundo was an Assistant Physician at Boston Children's Hospital, and a Research Fellow in Pediatrics in 1940. 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.“ Dr. Del Mundo returned to Harvard Medical School's Children's Hospital in 1939 for a two-year research fellowship. She also enrolled at the Boston University School of Medicine, earning a Master's degree in bacteriology in 1940. In 1941, she returned to the Philippines shortly before the Japanese invasion of the country. She joined the International Red Cross and volunteered to care for child-internees then detained at the University of Santo Tomas internment camp for foreign nationals. She set up a makeshift hospice within the internment camp, and her activities led her to be known as “The Angel of Santo Tomas.“ After the Japanese authorities shut down the hospice in 1943, del Mundo was asked by Manila mayor Le?n Guinto to head a children's hospital under the auspices of the city government. The hospital was later converted into a full-care medical center to cope with the mounting casualties during the Battle of Manila, and would be renamed the North General Hospital (later, the Jose R. Reyes Memorial Medical Center). Del Mundo would remain the hospital's director until 1948.

Dr. del Mundo joined the faculty of the University of Santo Tomas, then the Far Eastern University in 1954, where she established a small medical pediatric clinic to pursue a private practice. Dr. del Mundo desired to establish her own pediatric hospital and towards that end, she sold her home and most of her personal effects, and obtained a sizable loan from the GSIS (the Government Service Insurance System) in order to finance the construction of her own hospital. The Children's Medical Center, a 100-bed hospital located in Quezon City, was inaugurated in 1957 as the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines. The hospital was expanded in 1966 through the establishment of an Institute of Maternal and Child Health, the first institution of its kind in Asia. The hospital is still up and running.

Dr. del Mundo was noted for her pioneering work on infectious diseases in Philippine communities. Undeterred by the lack of well-equipped laboratories in post-war Philippines, she sent specimens or blood samples for analysis abroad. In the 1950s, she pursued studies on dengue fever, a common malady in the Philippines, of which little was known at the time. Her clinical observations on dengue, and the findings of research she later undertook on the disease are said to “have led to a fuller understanding of dengue fever as it afflicts the young.“ She authored over a hundred articles, reviews, and reports in medical journals on such diseases as dengue, polio and measles. She also authored Textbook of Pediatrics, a fundamental medical text used in Philippine medical schools. Dr. del Mundo was also active in the field of public health, with special concerns towards rural communities. She organized rural extension teams to advise mothers on breastfeeding and child care and promoted the idea of linking hospitals to the community through the public immersion of physicians and other medical personnel to allow for greater coordination among health workers and the public for common health programs such as immunization and nutrition. She called for the greater integration of midwives into the medical community, considering their more visible presence within rural communities. Notwithstanding her own devout Catholicism, she was an advocate of family planning and population control.

Dr. del Mundo was also known for having devised an incubator made out of bamboo, designed for use in rural communities without electrical power.

In 1980, Dr. del Mundo was declared as a National Scientist of the Philippines, the first Filipino woman to be so named. Among the international honors bestowed on del Mundo was the Elizabeth Blackwell Award for Outstanding Service to Mankind, handed in 1966 by Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the citation as Outstanding Pediatrician and Humanitarian by the International Pediatric Association in 1977. Also, in 1977, Dr. del Mundo was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. In 2008, she received the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Award of the AY Foundation. On April 22, 2010, Dr. del Mundo was awarded with the Order of Lakandula with the rank of Bayani at the Malacanan Palace. Posthumously, she was conferred the Grand Collar of the Order of the Golden Heart Award in 2011.

Dr. del Mundo was still active in her practice of pediatrics into her 90s. She died on August 6, 2011, having lived 100 years, after suffering cardiac arrest. She was buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

On November 27, 2018, a Google Doodle was displayed to celebrate Dr. del Mundo's 107th birthday.

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