Today I give a nod to my own heritage by highlighting one of the most badass Filipina ladies in recent history: Dr. Fe del Mundo.
Fe was born in Manila (the capital city of the Philippines) in 1911, and when she was growing up very few people in the country had access to quality pediatric care for their children. As a result, three of Fe’s eight siblings died in infancy, and when her older sister became sick with appendicitis at age 11, there was nothing her family could do to save her. After these tragic experiences, Fe decided that she would dedicate her life to filling this need for access to quality medical care for children in the Philippines.
When she graduated at the top of her class at the University of the Philippines in 1933, the President of the Philippines offered Fe a scholarship to any institution in the world to pursue her medical degree. She applied and was accepted to Harvard Medical School, an institution which would not officially be accepting women for another 10 years. The admissions office had seen Fe’s name on the application and assumed she was a man, and not until she arrived in Boston in 1936 to begin her education did they realize their mistake. However, at this point the head of pediatrics was so impressed with her qualifications that he advocated for her to stay, and Fe became the first woman to ever attend Harvard Medical School.
After her education at Harvard, Fe would go on to study at the University of Chicago and MIT, and she would earn her Master’s degree in bacteriology at the Boston School of Medicine before finally returning to the Philippines in 1941, shortly before the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II.
During the War, the Japanese placed thousands of Filipinos, including children, into internment camps much like the prison camps that plagued Europe at the time. Fe began working with the International Red Cross, and set up a hospice at the University of Santo Tomas where many sick children were being detained. She would go on to treat everyone she could (over 400 children), and for her efforts she became known as the “Angel of Santo Tomas.” After the Japanese forced her to close her hospice in 1943, she briefly worked as the director of a government medical center in Manila before leaving to establish her own private hospital.
Fe sold her own home and possessions to finance her new hospital, and in 1957 The Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City, the first pediatric hospital to ever be established in the Philippines, opened its doors. After selling her home, Fe would live on the second floor of the hospital and would work around the clock to do the greatest amount of good she could. In fact, Dr. del Mundo would continue to make rounds in her wheelchair in her later years for the remainder of her life until 2011, when she passed away a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
Fe del Mundo not only revolutionized pediatric medicine in the Philippines, but she also continued to do research and publish her findings in medical journals and textbooks, making discoveries that would revolutionize pediatrics across the globe.
I am proud to be able to stand on the shoulders of such amazing Filipina women who came before me. Thank you, Angel of Santo Tomas, for your tireless efforts to help those who needed it most.