The Curious Case of Fe del Mundo — The First Woman to Get Into Harvard University Medical School

Henner Townlove
Sep 18 · 8 min read

But she wasn’t supposed to be there, or so the legend goes

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Portrait of a young Fe del Mundo from Geni

As of 2020, according to College factual, Harvard university, is ranked at #181 in male to female diversity, with the undergraduate population comprising of 5,020 males and 4,930 females. That’s 48.5% females to 51.5% males, which is a very balanced ratio. However, this balanced ratio hasn’t always been that way. Prior to 1999, Harvard University was predominantly an all-male school before it officially merged with Radcliffe college, which was an all-women’s institution. This doesn’t mean that there were no women attending Harvard prior to 1999 though, Radcliffe college (opened in 1879), was already the designated “Harvard Annex” for Women. Various graduate schools in Harvard also accepted women as early as 1920.

Which brings us to the curious case of Fe del Mundo. Del Mundo, according to her biography, was the first woman to be admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1936. This is where it gets complicated. The issue with this claim is that Harvard Medical School did not accept women, not until 1945 — that’s nearly a decade after.

When Del Mundo was asked by The Medical Observer if she was the first woman in Harvard Medical School, she simply says,

“The first — coming from this far.”

Del Mundo also recounts being surprised upon arriving in Cambridge, having been assigned to a men’s dormitory since there were no lodgings designated for women at the time. She reported the mix-up but was accepted anyway.

“[Del Mundo] humorously relates that when she arrived in Boston and went to the dormitory assigned her in a letter from the director of the hospital housing, 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. But because 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.”

[source: 2018 news report from The Independent ]

Del Mundo essentially infiltrated the school, breaking all the rules, and finished her studies there.

As to why Harvard only accepted men into their ranks, it had something to do with society at the time. Much of the United States’ early history was structured on patriarchy. Most families were organized according to patriarchal tradition. Man was to provide and be the source of income, while the woman was at home tending to the children. This is a result of indoctrinated christian teachings. These indoctrination is the same reason why from its christian roots in the 1636, to the later part of the 1879, Harvard University has always been a male dominated-institution. With the only women presence being workers and donors or helpmeets to fathers, husbands, and sons. There were virtually no female students at harvard.

It was this same reason, on 1879, Radcliffe College was made. Also called “the Annex”, Radcliffe essentially functioned as the female coordinate institution to Harvard. The Harvard and Radcliffe relationship was tumultuous to say the least. In the1930s, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell considered Radcliffe a burden on Harvard’s resources and began refusing to sign Radcliffe diplomas. Women from Radcliffe were still viewed as inferior and most of the achievements of Radcliffe students were undermined by Harvard officials. Which in a way, also mirrors the relationship Harvard has with women in general. If anyone knew the misogynistic practices of pre-21th century Harvard, none would know them better than the women of Radcliffe.

It’s safe to say that del Mundo’s presence in Harvard Medical School was not ideal in the eyes of Harvard officials. But before delving any further, it is important to note that first, Fe del Mundo was a woman, and women during these times were considered inferior to men — both physically and intellectually; second, she was also member of a visible minority — she was filipino to be exact. So when she said she was the first one “coming from this far”, she meant the Philippines.

This combination of being a woman and a visible minority, as well as breaking the rules probably did not bode too well on Harvard’s behalf. To this day, there are no documents that were archived proving that Fe del Mundo has even attended the school.

Google doodle

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Fe del Mundo as featured on Google Doodle

On November 27, 2018, Google Doodle celebrated what would be renowned pediatrician Fe del Mundo’s 107th birthday.

On the Doodle page, it wrote:

A gifted student who became the first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School, del Mundo returned home after completing her studies in the U.S. During World War II, she set up a hospice where she treated more than 400 children and later became director of a government hospital.

Joan Ilacqua, an archivist for diversity and inclusion at Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine, caught wind of the Google feature, she immediately did some digging. According to her:

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.

Ilacqua would also say in an interview by Inverse that, Harvard Medical School, had “…poor record-keeping on women’s achievements at the time.”

Now, many of you might be thinking — she could have just been lying?

Well, possibly.

However, her studies at Harvard were paid for by the president of the Philippines himself.

Yes, “the” President.

Years back, after graduating as class Valedictorian in the University of the Philippines Manila, President Manuel Quezon offered to pay for her training in a medical field of her choosing, the offer was at any school in the United States. Apparently, she picked Harvard. This is perhaps the more official types of backing anyone has ever gotten.

There is speculation that Harvard — in an attempt to correct itself from the embarrassing mix-up — deliberately erased any record of del Mundo’s time there.

However, Harvard archivist, Ilacqua further added that del Mundo was probably not admitted as a student at all. Instead, it seems more likely that she completed graduate work at Harvard Medical School through an appointment at Boston Children’s Hospital.

A few days after the Google Doodle was shared to the world, a peculiar 1936 entry suddenly appeared on the History of Women at HMS. The entry says:
“1936 — Dr. Fe del Mundo comes to Boston to further her studies in Pediatrics, likely at Boston Children’s Hospital.”

The angel of Santo Tomas (Angel of St. Thomas)

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Photo of Dr. Fe del Mundo sourced from Fe Del Mundo Medical Center

Dr. Fe del Mundo was a very distinguished and honourable individual herself. She was a gifted student and had many accomplishments to her name outside Harvard. She earned her medical degree in 1933, graduating as class valedictorian in the University of the Philippines College of Medicine.
Her reason for pursuing medicine was to fulfill the dreams of her sister who passed away at the age of 11. She also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1977 for her work in pediatrics. The award is Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize.

In her Google doodle page, the complete text says:

“I’m glad that I have been very much involved in the care of children, and that I have been relevant to them,” says Filipina physician Fe del Mundo. “They are the most outstanding feature in my life.”

Born in Manilla on this day in 1911, del Mundo was inspired to study medicine by her older sister who did not herself live to realize her dream of becoming a doctor. Also known as “The Angel of Santo Tomas,” del Mundo devoted her life to child healthcare and revolutionized pediatric medicine in the process.

A gifted student who became the first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School, del Mundo returned home after completing her studies in the U.S. During World War II, she set up a hospice where she treated more than 400 children and later became director of a government hospital. Frustrated with the bureaucracy, she eventually sold her house and belongings to finance the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines. Del Mundo lived on the second floor of the Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City, making early morning rounds until she was 99 years old, even in a wheelchair.

When she wasn’t treating patients she was teaching students, publishing important research in medical journals, and authoring a definitive ‘Textbook of Pediatrics.’ She established the Institute of Maternal and Child Health to train doctors and nurses, and became the first woman to be conferred the title National Scientist of the Philippines and received many awards for her outstanding service to humankind.

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Photo of Harvard by Benjamin Rascoe on Unsplash

Harvard has had a long history of undermining women’s achievements, especially women of color. So it’s understandable that we today would like to get some actual proof of an asian lady’s triumph and determination to break through the misogyny and the stereotypes. However by the off chance that the records did not exist at all, it’s probably not too much of a loss.

Perhaps, we’re too focused on the superficial things.

Maybe it’s not a question of whether she did go to harvard or not.

Let’s just forget about Harvard for a second, and focus on her as a person.

Was she a good person? — Yes, she was. She was one of the greatest.

She helped an entire nation kickstart pediatrics, and opened her own hospital for sick children…

A harvard degree simply does not compare to that.

Thanks for reading, and thank you, Dr. Fe del Mundo.

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Henner Townlove

Written by

Hi, there. I mostly write science stuff✚Optimistic that humanity survives the 6th Mass Extinction✚Love my Toyota✚Environmental Monitoring Technician✚CANADA

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Henner Townlove

Written by

Hi, there. I mostly write science stuff✚Optimistic that humanity survives the 6th Mass Extinction✚Love my Toyota✚Environmental Monitoring Technician✚CANADA

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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