Showcasing female STEM superheroes: In Jaslyn Wee’s words
The 16-year-old aspiring scientist from the Philippines was selected as a finalist in this year’s “Champions of Science®—Superheroes of STEM” essay writing contest. In her piece, Jaslyn Wee details the nearly eight-decade career of Dr. Fe del Mundo, whom she aptly describes as a “woman of many firsts.”
A finalist in this year’s essay content, Wee profiles Dr. Fe del Mundo, fondly remembered in the Philippines as the grand dame of pediatrics. Born in 1911, del Mundo was the first woman accepted to Harvard Medical School—more than 10 years before the school officially began admitting women. Her pioneering work in pediatrics helped curb the spread of infectious diseases throughout remote communities of the Philippines. What’s more, her resilience and refusal to adhere to gender norms in a once male-dominated field continues to inspire young women like Wee.
In the essay that follows, Jaslyn Wee beautifully captures the essence of what made Dr. Fe del Mundo a superhero of STEM.
Fe Del Mundo: A woman of many firsts
The golden rays of the morning sun filled the four corners of a baby blue painted hospital room. A 96 year old woman dressed in white could be seen laying in a hospital bed. Beside her stood a man holding a piece of paper declaring, “Congratulations you have been selected this morning as the recipient of the 21st Blessed Theresa of Calcutta award”. The old woman with wrinkly skin looked at the man with piercing eyes that show her youthful drive. She raised a hand as she uttered “No words can express my deep gratitude…”. Her thin lips curled into a sweet smile as she nodded her head acknowledging the presence of the people who came to witness the awe-inspiring moment. She laid in the hospital that she herself built. It was the first hospital established of its kind in her home country, the Philippines. She could still recall the memories of her youth and the risks that she had to take in order to achieve her dreams.
On August 6, 2011, only three months short of her 100th birthday, Fe del Mundo unfortunately passed away. Friends and family came to mourn at her funeral. Many came with a heavy heart as patients and colleagues gathered to remember the doctor’s life. She has been known to be the grand dame of Philippine pediatrics, a national scientist, and the mother of Philippine pediatrics. Despite having stood on a pedestal of medical and scientific achievement, many would recall her as an affectionate cousin, sister, and aunt. She’s described to be an avid story teller as she vividly tells of her journeys as a student and the funny ways that life can surprise you. Despite only having a few interviews about her own life, personal accounts from colleagues and people she has touched offer us a more colourful insight into the making of the brilliant doctor. The woman of many firsts has not only touched the people under her direct care but of millions whom she has helped through rural rehydration and health centers, campaigns on immunization, and even a diet that has saved millions of children around the world. She has not only left a significant mark in Philippine healthcare but also left a story that will continue to be shared through generations. She was buried in the libingan ng mga bayani and received rites that are of a national hero.
[Dr. Fe del Mundo’s success proves that] it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman or what your social background is.
“It all boils down to their faith in her.” Said Dr. Teresa de Leon, a former trainee of Dr. del Mundo. Interviews of colleagues at her wake recount of Fe’s “Magic touch”. Many parents would feel at ease at the mere sight or touch of the doctor. Her trainees would be amazed of the trust that the doctor had with her patients. Fe’s niece, Cailao, even said “When they come here and they see Dr. del Mundo, they’re already relieved”. She says that the doctor’s approach to her patients was unique. It was personal and warm which certainly made a difference. Her clinic had slides and kiddie rocking chairs that created a fun environment for children. The doctor even had a toy collection at the hospital’s entrance that greeted her little patients. “She loved dolls because it was a way to attract children to the hospitals”, Cailao said. Patients were not just patients to Fe, but a part of a family.
The doctor’s true passion was community based pediatrics said De Leon, a mentee of Fe. Her mentor wanted to train community members such as housewives and midwives and teach skills that deal with simple diseases. She did so with her community projects in barangays. She pioneered in improving indigenous health workers and practices in health services. She found how “hilot” or traditional midwifery could be enhanced in the delivery of maternal and child health services. A strategy that she devised included indigenous health workers and practices into the family planning and birth attending framework because during this time, three fourths of reported deliveries were done at home and were attended by these traditional birth attendants.
Dr. del Mundo realized the importance of linking hospitals to its community. This called for a reorientation and community exposure of health personnel, specialists, and paramedics in caring for the community. This enabled a simpler way of coordinating and solving simple health concerns that are relevant and useful to the community. Dr Analuz Fonte, a former trainee of del Mundo, explained how the doctor would train them on the condition that they will go home and serve in their hometowns. Serving in far-flung communities was part of Dr. Tecson’s training, also a former trainee of Dr. del Mundo. This exposure gave hospitals a better understanding of its communities own needs such as vaccination, deworming, immunization, nutrition, and environmental sanitation.
Her contributions to hard to reach areas separated by thick forests and expansive seas did not stop there. Her involvement in these communities allowed her to do research and extension work. She published a study that reported on the status of health and delivery of health services in the community. She was able to devise an incubator that can run without electricity for villages that do not have power. This incubator was made of two baskets with hot bottles sandwiched in between. “We had to do with whatever was available.” the doctor once said.
All of this brings us back to her roots, to when it all started. Born on November 27, 1911 to Bernardo del Mundo and Paz Villanueva, Fe was sixth of eight children. She was born in the “walled city” Intramuros. Her family rented a simple house across the cathedral. Her mother was a housewife noted for her industry and simplicity. She did all the house work, managed a small pastry shop, and sewed all of their dresses. Her Father was a bright lawyer from the small island of Marinduque. Fe and her siblings were educated in government schools as her family often faced financial problems. An allowance was a luxury and was enjoyed as such. The average at the time was 8 children in the family but three of her siblings died during their infancy. She also lost her older sister who was only eleven years old to appendicitis. Among the clothes that her sister had left was a little notebook that young Fe had found. “She kept a little notebook where she wrote that she wanted to take up medicine,” Fe recalled in an interview. “When she died, I decided to take her place.”
Through her high school years in South Manila High School, she had met several women scholars who study medicine from the University of the Philippines. They told her of their stories and what they faced as both medicine students and as women. She has been planning to take up medicine but her family warned her of the hardships involved. Her mother passed away after she graduated high school. She was the most worried for her frail daughter’s health without her. But Fe was determined and her elders soon gave into her choice. In 1928, she took up her doctors in medicine degree. Her family constantly faced financial hurdles. Fe would always be seen in libraries because she wasn’t able to afford the books. One time she almost had to drop out of a course because of the matriculation fee that she could not pay for. A generous aunt came to her rescue and enabled her to continue her studies. During this time, she also had a brother who was famous for being part of the first Summa cum laudes in the University of the Philippines. She saw him as her inspiration to study harder and reach his level. And in 1933 she finished her doctors in medicine as Valedictorian. In the same year, she also placed third on the national board exams.
Choosing a specialization was now the next step. Her professors jokingly advised that Pediatrics would be the perfect option as the patients would be smaller than the barely five foot doctor. She immediately had an opening to be an intern in the private office of her uncle and guardian, who had a clinical pathology and dermatology clinic. “I was assistant for three whole years, by necessity rather than by choice.” The doctor said in a biography. The breeze carried the salty scent of the ocean through the flimsy wooden houses in the small island province of Marinduque. Here she often joined her uncle during his rounds and gained first hand observations for her research. A lot of people would come to her uncle asking for prescriptions and diagnoses of children’s sickness. Most of the cases were incorrectly identified and were given uniform treatment because her uncle did not have enough knowledge in this field. Fe noticed how all the children who had bloated tummies was given the same medicine for children who suffered from diarrhea. “There was no doctor for children and the provincial health officer had no background at all about pediatrics.” She recalled. Fe believed that these children deserved better, that these children needed better care and attention. She thought of all the families she could help and how she can give these children a better chance in life. “I saw how many children were not receiving medical attention and how many were dying,” This fueled her to specialize in Pediatrics and since then she has never stopped putting the Filipino Children first.
It was 1933, the commonwealth era of the Philippines. A time of transition to independence given by the United States of America. This was just before we could hear the violent rifles and see the bloody war under the Japanese occupation during World War Two. Manuel L. Quezon has been nationally elected the commonwealth president. A lot of policies and reforms when it comes to the economy and education have been established during this era. During this time, Fe has just completed her doctors in medicine and soon placed third in the National Board exams. Dr. Jose Hilario, a relative, saw the potential and capabilities of Fe and referred her to be a President Quezon Scholar. She was given an expected and very generous scholarship by the state that would sponsor her studies for any number of years and any specialization that she would like. Even in the stories that she would tell, she would still relate how Dr. Jose Hilario helped her get into a college abroad. The doctor received a phone call from the palace that told her of the scholarship grant offered by the president of the Philippines. This was just the opportunity that the Fe was looking for, “I felt this was to be manna from heaven and could hardly believe my luck”.
Science is a systematic way of satisfying curiosities and finding ways and solutions that could impact and help millions of people all over the world.
Whenever Fe recounts her experiences of studying abroad it would always be laced with excitement and a sense of adventure. She laughs of how she got accepted in Harvard. She chose to specialize in Pediatrics for five years at Harvard Medical School in Boston Massachusetts. During these days, it took months to sail from Manila to Boston. The young doctor then embarked on her journey to becoming the scientist that she is known for today. Upon reaching the renowned institution, Harvard was not only surprised to see her frail and petite stature, they were surprised to see a woman. Apparently, the department of war which was in charge of the Philippine commonwealth scholars mistakenly admitted her as a male. Harvard found themselves in a dilemma because they only accepted male students at the time. Due to Fe’s impressive record and the state sponsored scholarship, Harvard had no choice but to accept her. She was still expected to stay in an all men’s dormitory and was soon discovered to be the first and only woman in the batch. She says that these disadvantages worked in her favour, “I worked doubly hard to prove I was as good as a woman and as a Filipina”. In 1940 she also obtained a master’s degree in bacteriology from the Boston University.
After her studies, all scholars were called to report back home due to the impending World War II. But suddenly, Fe met a terrifying vehicular accident in Honolulu. She suffered a skull fracture that made her stay in the hospital for four months. This immobilized her but she took this situation as a trial and put her time to good use. She began visualizing her dream of building her own Pediatric Hospital. “Instead of indulging in self-pity, I began to design in my mind, the hospital that I would put up in the Philippines, one that would adapt the features of the Harvard Establishment where I was trained”.
In 1941, Fe was back in the Philippines and was fully recovered. War broke out so she volunteered to take care of in an internment camp at the University of Santo Tomas. She was known to be the “Angel of Santo Tomas” for she created a haven for children during the war. Altogether 400 children from five months to fourteen years of age were cared for in the children’s home. She was assigned as the director of the City of Manila Children’s Hospital which was newly established in an improvised school building. After the war, the US forces liberated the Philippines. The hospital was converted to the North General Hospital. Doctor Del Mundo said that it was a real test of endurance and resourcefulness to organize a 500-bed general hospital with 300 employees amid privatization. This institution has now grown to be one of the largest government general hospitals in Manila.
A child at the time was suspected to have typhoid fever but Dr. del Mundo suspected it to be a case of dengue but there was no knowledge on this sickness yet. She began conducting a serological study on her own and sent specimens abroad to confirm her findings. She was correct. She conducted her own studies time and time again at her own time and expense. The lack of proper facilities did not stop her. She sent specimens or blood samples for polio to New York, rubella to Switzerland, measles to London, and chicken pox to Japan. These countries accepted the samples as they were also interested in vaccines and immunization. She laid the foundation for immunization vaccines with her most significant research and even determined the best age for a child to receive a vaccine.
Working in a government hospital proved to be a real challenge for Fe del Mundo. She wanted to escape the bureaucratic constraints to conduct her tests and studies more freely. Her small clinic could’ve only accommodated so much. After serving as the NGH director, she focused her energy into establishing her dream. The young doctor took a big risk, sold her house and most of her belongings, and took a bank loan. She built the Children’s Medical Center, the first of its kind in the Philippines and lived on the second floor of the hospital until she roamed its halls in a wheelchair.
Even at the age of 95 people still described her to be frail but feisty. She never stopped serving throughout her seven decade career. Doctor del Mundo received numerous awards such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, National Scientist award, and Elizabeth Blackwell Award for Outstanding Service to Mankind. But even then the doctor says “The work I’m doing here in this hospital serves very few, it does not reach the hinterland where most help is needed.” The doctor added that her only regret is, “I wish I could still go out into all nooks and corners of the country and bring better care for children.”
Fe del Mundo’s life teaches us of a story of resilience and bravery. This serves as a beacon for young women scientists like me who wish to pursue a career in science. To overcome adversity and defy gender norms of society. Her contribution extends beyond the Filipinos and reaches every child saved from measles, small pox, and polio. And as the citation in her award given by the Philippine Pediatrric Society of America states “She is the Grand dame of Philippine Pediatrics and Medicine. She is an inspiring paradigm, a shining and living example and a universal role model for all paediatricians and physicians everywhere.”
About Superheroes of STEM essay contest
As a leading healthcare company and proud champions of science, Johnson & Johnson is honored to support the next generation of innovators via a commitment to increasing the number and diversity of students in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pipeline. At the Global STEM Alliance Summit this past July, we announced the winner of the second annual “Champions of Science—Superheroes of STEM” essay writing contest. The contest focused on telling stories of inspirational modern-day female superstars in STEM whose work has helped change the trajectory of health for humanity. By telling more stories about women in STEM, we hope to not only raise awareness about women’s contributions to science, but also provide more relatable role models for young women hoping to succeed in STEM careers.