Ethel Collins Dunham and Martha May Eliot dedicated their lives and careers to the care of children. The pair met at Bryn Mawr College in 1910 and both women achieved major professional positions and research throughout their careers. They remained a couple until Dunham’s death in 1969.
Ethel Collins Dunham was born in 1883 in Hartford, Connecticut into a privileged family. She graduated from high school in 1901, and then spent several years traveling. She decided to pursue a career in medicine and enrolled in science classes at Hartford High School and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1914. She began her medical training at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1914 with Martha May Eliot.
Martha May Eliot was born in 1891 in Boston, Massachusetts to a Boston Brahmin family. She enrolled in Radcliffe, but after her first year, went to spend her sophomore year at Bryn Mawr College to pursue a “romantic friendship” with another girl. The relationship did not last, but Eliot met Ethel Dunham, and the two decided to pursue medicine together. Eliot graduated from Radcliffe in 1913, and when Dunham graduated in 1914, they entered Johns Hopkins Medical School together. The two lived together while at school, and attempted to get internships together at Johns Hopkins. Eliot turned down an offered internship at Johns Hopkins because Dunham was not accepted, and took an internship at Peter Brigham Hospital in Boston. Ironically, Dunham was ultimately accepted to Johns Hopkins Hospital. The next year they attempted to coordinate residency, but Eliot took a pediatrics residency at St Louis Children’s Hospital, while Dunham went to New Haven Hospital. The two were unable to reunite until Eliot was invited to be the first chief resident at Yale’s new department of pediatrics.
Both women remained at Yale for many years. Dunham was appointed instructor at Yale School of Medicine in 1920, promoted to assistant professor in 1924 and associate clinical professor in 1927. Eliot also rose through the ranks, serving as instructor, assistant, clinical professor, and then associate clinical professor from 1932 to 1935.
In 1935, Dunham was appointed chief of child development at the Children’s Bureau, where Eliot was appointed assistant chief. Dunham, whose specialty was in newborn babies, and in particular, premature babies, established national standards for the care of newborns. Meanwhile, Eliot was known for her contributions to the studies of rickets, and her public health approach to coordinating studies that established minimum daily vitamin requirements for children to prevent rickets.
From 1949 to 1951, Dunham worked at the World Health Organization, studying premature birth in Geneva. When Eliot was appointed head of the Children’s Bureau in 1951, she and Dunham moved together to Washington, DC. Dunham retired in 1952, and when Eliot resigned in 1957, the women relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Eliot became the head of the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. After retiring in 1960, Eliot continued her work for the World Health Organization and UNICEF, reporting on medical education in Asia and Africa, while also teaching for the American Public Health Association.
Both women had highly decorated careers. In 1948, Eliot was the first woman elected president of the American Public Health Association and was awarded a Lasker Medal. In 1957, Dunham was awarded the John Howland Medal by the American Pediatric Society. She was the first woman to receive the award. Eliot was the second, and was honored in 1967. Eliot was also awarded the Sedgwick Memorial Medal in 1958 by the American Public Health Association (APHA), and in 1964, the APHA commemorated Eliot’s legacy by establishing the Martha May Eliot Award for outstanding service to maternal and child health.
Although Eliot and Dunham had great achievements throughout their careers, they were not strangers to discrimination and homophobia. Eliot, after graduating from Radcliffe College, applied to Harvard Medical School which did not admit women at the time, and both were attacked by Senator James Reed of Missouri in a tirade against the Children’s Bureau in 1921, when he called the bureau out as a place where “the only people capable of caring for babies and mothers of babies are ladies who have never had babies.” Neither woman’s New York Times obituary mentions their relationship, but their records, held at the Center for the History of Medicine and Schlesinger Library shed light onto their public and private lives, as well as their dual contributions to the field of maternal and child health.
For more information on the many contributions of Martha May Eliot and Ethel Collins Dunham, see:
- Child health pioneer Martha May Eliot: A woman ahead of her time
- Dr. Ethel Collins Dunham, Changing the Face of Medicine
- Dr. Martha May Eliot, Changing the Face of Medicine
- Public Careers and Private Sexuality: Some Gay and Lesbian Lives in the History of Medicine and Public Health, Bert Hansen, PhD
- Carrying On: Martha May Eliot, M.D. in To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America – A History, Lilian Faderman
- Dual-career couple, Judith Ann Schiff
- Ethel Collins Dunham Papers, 1950-1965 (inclusive)
- Papers of Martha May Eliot, 1898-1975
The Archives for Women in Medicine is a program of the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The Archives for Women in Medicine actively acquires, processes, preserves, provides access to, and publicizes the papers of women physicians, researchers, and medical administrators.
This content was authored by Joan Ilacqua, former Archivist for Diversity and Inclusion, and was originally published on the Center for the History of Medicine's blog (now defunct). If you have additional questions or comments, please reach out to the Harvard Chan Archivist.