When it comes to silent heroes in the American history of medicine, Martha May Eliot sits quietly, accomplished, having excelled in a time and field where women were seldom welcomed and highly scrutinized. She made major waves in pediatric healthcare and treatment in the United States. Eliot served as a dedicated physician and strong companion to her partner Ethel Collins Dunham throughout her life.
Eliot and Dunham entered school at Bryn Mawr in 1910 where they met and eventually pursued their lives together. Despite the womens’ continued success at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, Eliot was required to find her residency elsewhere. This caused the couple to split until Eliot finished her program. Come 1919 and the two would reunite under the employment of Yale University to serve as professors for an entirely new program in pediatrics following the conclusion of World War I.
In 1924, Eliot moved into the Children’s Bureau as a leader in pediatrics and in the following decade she left her position at Yale to pursue women and children’s care full time. Eliot spent the latter years of her life impacting the women and workings of healthcare and education in our country. Before 1936, Harvard would not permit women to receive public health degrees. Provided the leveraged position Eliot was in, that changed with Hester Balch Curtis when she provided her a sponsorship.
Amongst her pre-war accomplishments, Eliot encouraged the importance of daily health via the use of vitamins and other contemporarily accepted health practices. Eliot’s greatest impact would come with the advent of World War II. It was during wartime that the doctor studied the impact that military defense activity had on children in Europe. Simultaneously, she was expected to run the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care Program in the United States. With such a high volume of women and children in need of care during the war, Eliot, with the financial aid of the United States government, was able to train and deploy medical professionals to assist more than 1.5 million Americans between 1941 and the war’s conclusion.
Eliot’s accomplishments only grew exponentially. From the end of the war to the early 1950s, she would go on to help establish what would be later known as the World Health Organization (WHO) and served as assistant director general until returning to America as a leader of the American Pediatric Society and National Conference of Social Welfare. In 1957, she would take up the last position of her professional career as chair of the department of child and maternal health at Harvard School of Public Health, the same institution that denied her a degree years previously.
Spanning from the 1960s until the end of her life, Eliot became an activist for the WHO and UNICEF, as well as an instructor for the American Public Health Association, which she had previously been appointed president of in 1947.
Apart from one another, their careers are admirable and accomplished, but in a society long from confronting the issue of gay rights in the United States, the private romantic relationship Eliot and Dunham shared outside of their professional careers only adds to the story of resilience in a field and world not willing to be open to their expression and lives as women in the gay community.