Pediatrician Breaks Barriers for Women

Bottom line: Dr. Martha Eliot’s distinguished career shattered glass ceilings while improving child health.

When the American Board of Pediatrics began awarding pediatric certification in 1934, five women* were among the first group of certified pediatricians. While all five of the women set the stage for the generations of women in pediatrics who followed, one stood out with a distinguished career that shattered several glass ceilings along the way. 

In celebration of Women’s History Month, this is the story of Martha M. Eliot, MD. Dr. Eliot received certificate #141 from the ABP dated Oct. 1, 1934. 

After earning a medical degree with honors from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1918 and completing residencies at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Yale University, Dr. Eliot received an appointment in 1920 to Yale University’s new Department of Pediatrics, where she taught for 15 years.

Yale Department of Pediatrics: 1920s

As a young physician at Yale, Dr. Eliot studied rickets, and together with Edwards A. Park, MD, established the therapeutic effects of sunlight and vitamin D at preventing and reversing the early onset of rickets.

While teaching at Yale (1921-1935), Dr. Eliot was named director of the Division of Child and Maternal Health within the federal Children’s Bureau in 1924. At the Children’s Bureau, she drafted most of the Social Security Act's (1935) language about maternal and child health, led significant World War II (WWII) projects, and became involved in international child health and nutrition. 

One WWII project was in England, where she studied the impact of defense activities on children by observing the evacuation of city children to live with families in the countryside. Dr. Eliot published a report of her work titled “Civil Defense Measures for the Protection of Children” in 1942. 

In the United States, she directed the Emergency Maternity Infant Care Program, which served the families of 1.5 million American soldiers in struggling hospitals, clinics, and people’s homes. Dr. Eliot received the Lasker Award in 1948 for her work in the United States. 

Martha M. Eliot (left) with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, India’s health minister and president of the Third World Health Assembly, in 1950After WWII, Dr. Eliot served on the U.S. delegation to the first ever World Assembly, the starting point for the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO). She was only woman to sign the founding document of the WHO. She briefly served as the assistant director general of the WHO but returned to the United States and became chief of the Children’s Bureau in 1951. 

In 1957, she became chair of the Department of Child and Maternal Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she stayed until her retirement in 1960. Her service to others continued after retirement as she reported on medical education in Asia and Africa for the WHO and taught for the American Public Health Association.

In addition to her trailblazing career, Dr. Eliot also broke several barriers for women and earned several awards though the years. 

In 1947, she became the first woman elected president of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and was the first woman to receive APHA's Sedgwick Memorial Medal in 1958. In 1964, APHA commemorated her legacy when they established the Martha May Eliot Award to recognize achievements in maternal and child health.

As one of the first women admitted into the American Pediatric Society (APS), she received the APS’s most prestigious award, the Howland Medal, in 1967. 

The ABP is proud that Martha M. Eliot is one of its first women pediatricians certified. Her career was marked by a dedication to promoting health for children and leadership in the field of pediatrics. Her passion is an inspiration for me, and she serves as a role model for women and men alike who work in pediatric health care.

*Martha M. Eliot, MD, Katherine M. Mayer, MD, Helen B. Pryor, MD, Huldah E. Thelander, MD, and Goldie E. Zimmerman, MD

About the Author

Dr. Suzanne Woods

Suzanne K. Woods, MD, serves as the Executive Vice President for Credentialing and Initial Certification at the ABP. She provides oversight for the development of training standards, the tracking and evaluation of residents and fellows, initial certification, and credentialing for both general pediatrics and pediatric subspecialties. In addition, she serves as the ABP liaison to a number of organizations with common interests in graduate medical education and workforce issues. Dr. Woods is board certified and maintaining certification in General Pediatrics and General Internal Medicine.

Top photo: Dr. Eliot, assistant chief of the Children's Bureau visiting a Child Health Clinic in Washington, 1945. National Archives and Records Administration, photograph by Eileen Darby, Graphic House, New York, NY

Middle photo: Dr. Eliot (far left) and the Department of Pediatrics faculty at New Haven Hospital, ca. 1921. Photo courtesy of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

Third photo: Dr. Eliot (left) with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, India’s health minister and president of the Third World Health Assembly, in 1950. Photo courtesy of the World Health Organization Photo Library