About Martha May Eliot
Martha May Eliot (April 7, 1891-February 14, 1978) , was a foremost pediatrician and specialist in public health, an assistant director for WHO, and an architect of New Deal and postwar programs for maternal and child health. Her first important research, community studies of rickets in New Haven, Connecticut, and Puerto Rico, explored issues at the heart of social medicine. Together with Edwards A. Park, her research established that public health measures (dietary supplementation with vitamin D) could prevent and reverse the early onset of rickets.
Martha May Eliot was a scion of the Eliot family, an influential American family that is regarded as one of the Boston Brahmins, originating in Boston, whose ancestors became wealthy and held sway over the American education system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her father, Christopher Rhodes Eliot, was a Unitarian minister, and her grandfather, William G. Eliot, was the first chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. The poet, playwright, critic, and Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot was her first cousin.
During undergraduate study at Bryn Mawr College she met Ethel Collins Dunham, who was to become her life partner. After completing their undergraduate education, the two enrolled together at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1914.
In 1918, Elliot graduated from medical school at Johns Hopkins University. As early as her second year of medical school, Dr. Eliot hoped to become "some kind of social doctor." She taught at Yale University's department of pediatrics from 1921 to 1935. For most of these years, Dr. Eliot also directed the National Children's Bureau Division of Child and Maternal Health (1924–1934). She later accepted a full-time position at the bureau, becoming bureau chief in 1951. In 1956, she left the bureau to become department chairman of child and maternal health at Harvard School of Public Health.
During her tenure at the Children's Bureau, Eliot helped establish government programs that implemented her ideas about social medicine, and she was responsible for drafting most of the Social Security Act's language dealing with maternal and child health. During World War II, she administered the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care program, which provided maternity care for greater than 1 million servicemen's wives. After the war, she held influential positions in both the World Health Organization and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). From 1949 to 1951, Eliot worked as an assistant director for WHO in Geneva. In 1959, Martha accepted a post as chair of the Massachusetts Commission on Children and Youth, a position she held for a decade.
She served as the chief architect of health provisions for children in the 1935 US Social Security Act, that mandated that every state establish child health services. In 1946, she served as the vice chair of the US delegation to the International Health Conference and on behalf of the US, signed the constitution that established the World Health Organization (she was the only woman to sign WHO's constitution).
Martha Jane Eliot shared her personal life in a long emotional and domestic partnership with Ethel Collins Dunham, also a pioneering female pediatrician, who was made the first female member of the American Pediatric Society and was awarded its highest award, the Howland Medal in 1957.
Lilian Faderman, the landmark scholar, writes: "[At] Bryn Mawr..she met a twenty-six year old freshman, Ethel Dunham. From 1910 to Ethel's death in 1969, the two women were inseparable. As a couple, Martha Eliot and Ethel Dunham..succeeded in times that were as unsympathetic to professional women as they were to lesbians. Their domestic satisfaction crept constantly into Martha's letters back home: "E. keeps me out doors which is great. This P.M. we are going canoeing. Tonight we are having supper here - oyster omelet, a concoction of Ethel's - and apple sauce and toast and nutbread." " Their partnership nourished and sustained them through their entire adult lives. In the 1970's, during Martha's travels for WHO, they wrote day after day: "Dearest, it was hard to say goodbye and I shall miss you terribly.. Ever and ever so much love, my darling"; "How I count the time until you do arrive. I miss you my darling".
Bert Hansen writes: "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 at Yale, at Harvard, and in government, 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."
Awards and honors