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The First Ladies of Philippine Medicine

Though admitted late into the world of medicine, Filipino women nevertheless made their mark early. Some of them were obviously ahead of their fellow women while others pioneered in areas that even their male counterparts had not gone.



    Almost a hundred years ago in 1910, a 21-year-old graduate came home from Pennsylvania with a degree that made her Filipino parents proud. But what made this graduate even more special was that she was the first Filipina to have made it in a field considered taboo for women to get into in her time.


    Dr. Honoria Acosta (later Sison) holds the distinction of being not only the first Filipino woman doctor, but also the first Filipino woman surgeon. The year after she returned from the Women's Medical College in Pennsylvania, she took her residency at the Department of Obstetrics of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH). Among her co-residents who had also graduated from a Pennsylvania medical school was Dr. Antonio G. Sison, who later became dean of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine-and her husband.

    In the same year, she published The Antepartum and Postpartum Care of the Parturient Woman, her first in a long list of studies and medical research. In all, she published 174 papers in various journals, including in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Philippine Journal of Science. She also co-authored a medical textbook used in the United States.

    Another of her firsts was the low segment cesarean section she performed in 1927. According to Dr. Juan Fuentes, a student of hers, she had observed the "muscle-splitting" technique from a Japanese army obstetrician, who performed surgery at the PGH during the Second World War.

    By 1942 she was professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and became the first woman to chair the Department of Obstetrics. She served the college until 1964. Dr. Acosta-Sison died on January 19, 1970, having laid the foundation for Filipino women doctors to climb on.

Dr. Carmencita Noriega-Reodica


    First woman Secretary of Health. Dr. Carmencita Reodica- is an obstetrician and became a medical specialist of the National Family Planning Office of the Ministry of Health in 1984. She rose from the ranks to become assistant secretary after the EDSA revolt. As Secretary, she oversaw the implementation of a massive campaign against polio from 1996 to 1997 and began the Philippine Measles Elimination Campaign (PMEC) that would have 26 million children immunized against the disease after her term.

Dr. Teresita Altre

    First woman orthopedic surgeon

Dr. Gloria T. Aragon

    First woman dean of the UPCM and director of the PGH (1979-1983).

Dr. Aleli Guzman-Quirino

    Performed the first abdominal operation in the Philippines

Dr. Helen Abundo

    First Filipina cardiologist and first woman president of the Philippine Heart Association (1964-65)

Dr. Lilian Lee

    First female pediatric neurologist.

Dr. Solita Camara-Besa

    First Filipina to specialize in physiology biochemistry; first to do a nationwide serum cholesterol survey.

Dr. Gloria Anonas

    First Filipina doctor to specialize in nutrition; taught at the UPCM during the Japanese occupation.

Dr. Eustacia M. Rigor

    First woman dean of the UST College of Medicine

Dr. Carmen Salgado-Ora

    First woman president of the Philippine College of Physicians (1964-1966)

Dr. Elena-Ines Cuyengkeng

    First woman dean of the UERMMMC 1971-1975

Dr. Thelma-Navarette-Clemente

    The only physician to be named director of the Development Bank of the Philippines

Dr. Carmen G. Lopez

    First woman to chair the Board of Medical Examiners



    First in a list of Who's Who in Philippine Pediatrics is pioneer Filipino woman pediatrician Dr. Fe del Mundo, looked up to by her colleagues as the "medical stateswoman."

    With a career that spans more than six decades-made memorable by having cared for 400 children of the Allied Forces during the Second World War, putting up her own hospital, and running a foundation-Dr. del Mundo to this day holds regular clinic.

    At 91, retirement is farthest from the mind of this recipient of the 1977 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service and the International Congress of Pediatrics' Most Outstanding Pediatrician and Humanitarian.

    But what made Dr. Fe Del Mundo decide to become a disciple of Hippocrates in the first place?

     "I really thought of taking up medicine in my early years because of my sister who died. Among her belongings was a small notebook where she wrote that she wanted to take up medicine. When she died, I decided to take her place," she recalls.

    Yet another sign that led her to medicine came in high school when Dr. del Mundo was tasked to do a survey. "I surveyed Marinduque during the [American] occupation, and I saw how many children were dying and how many were not receiving medical attention. There was no doctor for children at the time� and the provincial health officer had no background at all [about pediatrics] � but [since] there was no other doctor, all the town people went to him."

    Named outstanding medical graduate of UP-PGH in 1933, Dr. del Mundo was offered scholarship by then President Manuel Quezon, allowing her to specializein pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School, which at the time, she said, was not accepting women applicants. But because she was a Presidential Scholar and she came from far away, Harvard opted to take her in. Was she the first woman in Harvard Medical School then?

    "The first coming from this far," she says.

    During the Second World War, she took care of the children of American soldiers, for which the US government honored her for "unflagging and selfless dedication and sacrifice."

    After the war, she shifted her focus to Filipino children and began putting together the foundations for a children's hospital. What is now the Fe del Mundo Medical Center Foundation (FDMMCF) began in 1948 as a small clinic along Mendiola Street in San Miguel, Manila. In 1952, Dr. del Mundo laid the first cornerstone of the Children's Memorial Hospital in Banawe, Quezon City.

    In 1969, Dr. del Mundo became the first woman president of the Philippine Medical Association. In 1980, she was named National Scientist.

    "Women make good pediatricians and they can very much influence parents in the care of children," says Dr. del Mundo, noting that most pediatricians are women, proving that they had assumed this role very well. She adds: "I feel that if you give the world the best that you can, the best will always come back to you. It's worth exerting all your efforts to make the best of what you have and apply them in your practice because it's a big help, and somehow [one that is] well rewarded."



    Dr. Herminia Lopez-Cifra is the country's first pediatric intensive care specialist. An advocate of the rights of women doctors, she was head of the Philippine Medical Women's Association. She also founded the Philippine Society of Critical Care Medicine.

    "I have a commitment to help alleviate the status of women doctors; women, we must admit, belong to the 'at-risk' group," Dr. Cifra says.

    Dr. Cifra believes that the goals of the PWMA, which address concerns of women and children, are aligned with her own. Her experience as a mother and pediatrician has led her to conclude that women doctors can effectively prepare mothers for risky delivery.

    Dr. Cifra says her usual cases involve multiple problems. "The disadvantages of being in critical care is the timing of the calls. Whatever you're doing you have to leave and go. But of course there's fulfillment, happiness in seeing the parents look up to you. These are priceless."

    She herself looks up to Dr. Fe del Mundo for her unfaltering dedication to the promotion of women and children and for her hard work in uplifting Filipino women doctors.

    She values commitment, persistence, and humility. "You can lose your humility along the way, but after more reflection, I have the ability to correct it and come back to earth," she says.

    Dr. Cifra is grateful for having seen the development of perinatal medicine as a specialization working in tandem with ob-gynecology. She recalls the days when death was almost imminent for premature babies. "I had to go all over Manila to find incubators and save babies. Perinatal medicine has improved the survival odds a lot, and I am glad to be part of that transformation."


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