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Child health pioneer Martha May Eliot: A woman ahead of her time

She was a trailblazer in maternal and children’s health, the first woman president of the American Public Health Association, and the only woman to sign the founding document of the World Health Organization. Yet, for all her accomplishments, Martha May Eliot was a frequent target of potshots for her unconventional life. “Spinster in Steel Specs, Adviser on Maternity,” read a 1949 New York Post headline.

Raised eyebrows notwithstanding, by the time Eliot arrived at HSPH in 1957 to head up the Department of Maternal and Child Health, she was at the peak of a distinguished career, having just completed six years as Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. All in all, she spent more than two decades at the agency, working to address health problems stemming from poverty and other challenges, and over time coming to collaborate with HSPH pediatrician-researcher Harold Stuart Coe, the School’s first Professor of Maternal and Child Health. After World War II, Eliot served on the U.S. delegation to the first-ever World Health Assembly, and in 1949, she moved to Geneva to serve as the organization’s assistant director- general, returning to the Children’s Bureau two years later. Earlier in her career, while serving on the Yale medical faculty, she shared credit for the discovery that the deforming disease of rickets can be prevented with sunshine and cod liver oil.

For all her professional triumphs, Eliot was no stranger to discrimination. After college, as a matter of principle, she applied to Harvard Medical School—which did not admit women at the time—before  enrolling at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1914. After completing medical school, she and her life partner Ethel Collins Dunham, who had also attended Hopkins, hoped to do medical internships together, but Hopkins department chair John Howland refused to accept more than one woman, and that slot went to Dunham. Eliot went on to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, followed by a pediatrics residency at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. (Ironically, Eliot and Dunham would later become the first women to receive the American Pediatric Society’s Howland Medal, awarded to Dunham in 1957 and Eliot 10 years later.)

Eliot paved the way for more equitable treatment of women at HSPH long before her arrival, sponsoring one of the School’s first female degree candidates. In 1917, HSPH became the first Harvard school to credential female students on the same terms as their male counterparts, but that credential was a certificate, not a degree, and when HSPH separated from MIT in 1922, it was agreed that only men would be entitled to receive Harvard public health degrees. That changed in 1936 through Eliot’s sponsorship of pediatrician Hester Balch Curtis. The maternal and child health training grants provided by Title V of the 1935 Social Security Act, administered by Eliot and her agency, presumed that women could earn degrees—a financial incentive that helped tip the balance. In 1936, Curtis and physician Ann Hoague Stewart became the first HSPH women awarded the MPH.

Decades before the gay rights movement gained steam, Eliot and Dunham were something of a same-sex power couple, with a lifelong devotion to each other as well as children’s health. Writes Baruch College historian Bert Hansen: “While Dunham and Eliot are each worthy of individual attention, their shared personal life has such an intimate connection with their careers that a combined narrative better illustrates their close relationship of 59 years. They achieved major professional positions . . . even while they were making careful career choices to maintain the continuity of their domestic partnership. Each was also accorded public honors for leadership in pediatrics, child welfare, and public health.”

In 1948, Eliot served as president of the American Public Health Association, the first woman to hold the position, and since 1964 the organization has given the Martha May Eliot Award to honor “extraordinary health service to mothers and children; to bring such achievement to the eyes of related professional people and the public; to stimulate young people in the field to emulate efforts resulting in such recognition; and to add within the profession and in the eyes of the public to the stature of professional workers in the field of maternal and child health.” Eliot died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on February 14, 1978.

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