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Fe Villanueva del Mundo (1911-2011)

Fe Villanueva del Mundo (1911-2011)

A humanitarian, clinician and researcher, she came to the United States for pediatrics training, then returned to her home country of the Philippines to start a children’s hospital. She worked to decrease the spread of infectious diseases and wrote the first Filipino textbook of pediatrics.


It can be difficult to separate the true accomplishments of Fe del Mundo from the mythology – which is unfortunate, because her true accomplishments are impressive enough. She was one of eight children, and her younger sister, Elisa, was the one who wanted to be a doctor. Elisa died of an abdominal infection (some sources say at age 7, others at 10) and this inspired del Mundo to study medicine.

She is sometimes said to be the first woman to attend Harvard Medical School or the first Asian at Harvard Medical School, which is unlikely, as she received her medical degree from the University of the Philippines Manila in 1933, and Harvard has no record of her in the medical school. She did do a pediatric research fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital from 1939-1940, and she spent a year at the University of Chicago and six months at Johns Hopkins as well.

In December 1940, del Mundo and her sister vacationed in Honolulu, where they were in a car accident. After months recuperating in Hawaii, they returned to the Philippines shortly before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The two sisters opened a clinic in Japan-occupied Manila focused on the care of infants and children - primarily the children of American and British civilians living in internment camps.

She is credited as the inventor of the bamboo incubator: a way of regulating the temperature of vulnerable newborns in a bamboo basket. This is not based on a patent or a publication, and news stories of the time do not mention it; the attribution comes from a 2007 interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, in which she recalls resourcefully placing babies in bamboo laundry baskets with hot water bottles around them, hoods on top and oxygen attached.  

After del Mundo’s first clinic closed, she became the director of the Manila Children’s Hospital, which became a General Hospital after the war. In 1951 del Mundo decided the city needed another children’s hospital. She started with a 15-bed clinic. By 1957, she had a 107-bed building that also cared for 100 outpatients a day: the Children’s Memorial Hospital. She took an appointment as head of pediatrics at the Far Eastern University Medical Centre, and trained pediatric residents as well.

She published papers on infectious diseases in children: gastroenteritis, dengue, tuberculosis, helminths. (She is also sometimes said to have invented the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, apples, toast – for gastrointestinal distress, but the diet was first described in 1926, when she started medical school.)

In 1966 del Mundo was elected the first Asian president of the Medical Women’s International Association. That same year she was awarded the Elizabeth Blackwell Award for “outstanding service to mankind.” In 1976, she published the first Filipino Textbook of Pediatrics and Child Health, updated in 1982 with a second edition. In 1977 she was named Outstanding Pediatrician and Humanitarian by the International Pediatric Association. In 1980, she became the Philippines’ first female National Scientist, and in 2010 – at age 98 – she was awarded the Order of Lakandula, rank of Bayani, as a Filipina who lived a life “worthy of emulation.”

She died shortly before her 100th birthday. The hospital she founded is now called the Fe del Mundo Children’s Hospital. Truly this was a life worthy of emulation, without exaggeration.


Ilacqua, Joan. "Dr. Fe del Mundo."


Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD


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