Eliot, Martha May (1891–1978)

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Eliot, Martha May (1891–1978)

American expert on child health who helped found the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Born on April 7, 1891, in Dorchester, Massachusetts; died in 1978; daughter of the Reverend Christopher Rhodes Eliot (a Unitarian cleric) and Mary Jackson (May) Eliot; attended the Winsor School, in Back Bay, Boston; graduated from Radcliffe, B.A., 1913; M.D., Johns Hopkins, 1918; lived with Ethel Collins Dunham (1883–1969, a noted pediatrician) for 55 years.

Martha May Eliot, who was born on April 7, 1891, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, would spend 30 years working for the U.S. Children's Bureau, earning an international reputation as an expert on child health. Her schooling included one year at Bryn Mawr (1910); three years at Radcliffe (1911–13); and four years in medical school at Johns Hopkins (1914–18). At Bryn Mawr, Eliot met fellow medical student Ethel Dunham ; the two would live together, separated only occasionally by work assignments, until Dunham's death on December 13, 1969.

Following her graduation from Johns Hopkins, Eliot was house officer at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. She then worked as an intern at the St. Louis Children's Hospital in St. Louis (1919–20) and the Children's Clinic of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (1920–21) before rejoining Dunham at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven in 1921. Dunham was one of New Haven Hospital's first house officers, while Eliot worked in the newly established pediatric department with Dr. Edwards A. Park . Eliot and Dunham also took positions as instructors in pediatrics at Yale, teaching there for the next 14 years. Both advanced to assistant professorships and associate clinical professorships while Eliot did major research on the prevention and control of rickets with cod liver oil, sponsored by the U.S. Children's Bureau.

In 1924, under the urging of Bureau chief Grace Abbott , Eliot and Dunham began to work simultaneously at Yale and the U.S. Children's Bureau—commuting between New Haven and Washington, D.C. On becoming assistant chief of the Bureau in 1935, Eliot moved with Dunham to Washington, where Dunham also took a position with the Bureau as director of the division of research in child development. Dunham would be responsible for the ground-breaking Standards and Recommendations for the Hospital Care of Newborn Infants, Full Term and Premature (1943).

While at the Bureau, Eliot helped found two advocacy organizations: the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). She was also the first woman elected president of the American Public Health Association (1947).

In 1949, Eliot and Dunham moved to Geneva where Eliot was assistant-director of the World Health Organization for two years. In 1951, they returned to Washington when Eliot was made chief of the Children's Bureau. When Eliot retired in 1957, the two moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Eliot served for three years on the Visiting Committee at Har-vard University's School of Public Health before becoming one of the few women to join the faculty of Harvard as a full professor (Professor of Maternal and Child Health). On retirement, Eliot led the Massachusetts Committee on Children and Youth. After Dunham died at home of bronchopneumonia in 1969, Martha May Eliot retired.

suggested reading:

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1948.

related media:

Papers and recorded interviews are with the Martha May Eliot Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

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