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An Ever-Widening Sphere: Dr. Martha Eliot’s Career from St. Louis Children’s Hospital to the New Deal and the Second World War

26th Historia Medica Lecture
Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm
King Center, 7th floor Bernard Becker Medical Library

A free lecture supported by the Becker Library and Center for History of Medicine
Reception to follow the lecture

Dr. Martha EliotThe 26th Historia Medica lecturer, Marion Hunt, earned her PhD from Washington University studying the history of social welfare. Her doctoral thesis analyzed the role of women managers who led St. Louis Children’s Hospital during its early years. Among the many outstanding physicians in the history of Children’s Hospital is Dr. Martha Eliot, the granddaughter of William Greenleaf Eliot, who had been the founder of Washington University and served as its first chancellor.

Born in 1891 to a prominent Boston family, Eliot graduated from Radcliffe College in 1913. Before entering medical school, she worked in the Social Service Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, a position that would reinforce her interest in the social aspects of medicine. Eliot graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1918, and immediately faced the pervasive discrimination against women in postgraduate training when she was denied a pediatric internship at Johns Hopkins by Dr. John Howland (the former Head of Pediatrics at Washington University). Dr. Howland claimed, “It would be such a waste to give one of his few posts to a woman who would, no doubt be married and lost to pediatrics within a year.” Ironically, much later her career at the age of 76, she would be awarded the John Howland Award, the American Pediatric Society’s highest honor.

After being denied at Johns Hopkins, Eliot accepted a pediatric residency at St. Louis Children’s Hospital under McKim Marriott. Despite his attempts to keep her in St. Louis, Dr. Edwards Park offered Eliot a position as chief resident, as well as an instructorship in the Department of Pediatrics at Yale University. Martha Eliot flourished under the leadership of Dr. Park at Yale, and later his successor Dr. Grover Powers, at a time when harsh prejudice against women in academic medicine was prevalent.

House Staff - St. Louis Children's Hospital, 1919
Dr. Martha Eliot (second from right) with the house staff of St. Louis Children's Hospital, 1919.

Late in her career, Eliot served as the assistant director-general of the World Health Organization from 1949 to 1951 and Chief of the Children’s Bureau from 1951-1956. Dr. Eliot is remembered for her broad vision of pediatrics, and specifically for linking clinical and research findings to public health issues. She was instrumental in developing child health care policy. Eliot was vocal about her disapproval of her colleagues’ refusal to take a position on the social reforms affecting children’s lives, such as child labor. Eliot never believed in separating children’s clinical and social problems. In her view, many diseases afflicting the young were intimately related to the social conditions in which they lived.

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