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Martha May Eliot, M.D.

Martha May Eliot (April 7, 1891-February 14, 1978), a pioneer in maternal and child health, was a leading pediatrician and an important architect of postwar programs for maternal and child health. Born into a prominent family in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Eliot graduated from Radcliffe College and afterward worked for 1 year in the Social Service Department at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1918, she graduated from medical school at Johns Hopkins University. She taught at Yale University's department of pediatrics from 1921 to 1935. For most of these years, Dr. Eliot also directed the National Children's Bureau Division of Child and Maternal Health (1924-1934). She later accepted a full-time position at the bureau, becoming bureau chief in 1951. In 1956, she left the bureau to become department chairman of child and maternal health at Harvard University School of Public Health.

As early as her second year of medical school, Dr. Eliot hoped to become "some kind of social doctor" (1). Her first important research--community studies of rickets in New Haven, Connecticut, and Puerto Rico--explored issues at the heart of social medicine. The studies, undertaken with Edwards A. Park, M.D., and funded by the Children's Bureau, sought to prevent a disease with potentially fatal consequences for both child development and maternal safety. Drs. Eliot and Park established that public health measures (dietary supplementation with vitamin D) could prevent and reverse the early onset of rickets (2-4).

During her tenure at the Children's Bureau, Dr. Eliot helped establish government programs that implemented her ideas about social medicine. In 1934, Dr. Eliot and the Children's Bureau drafted most of the Social Security Act's language dealing with maternal and child health. During World War II, she administered the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care program, which provided maternity care for greater than 1 million servicemen's wives. After the war, she held influential positions in both the World Health Organization and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Dr. Eliot's service to public health earned her many honors. She was one of the first women admitted into the American Pediatric Society; she received that organization's top honor, the Howland Medal. In 1947, she became the first woman elected president of the American Public Health Association (APHA); she also was the first woman to receive APHA's Sedgwick Memorial Medal; and in 1964, APHA established the Martha May Eliot Award, an annual prize recognizing achievements in maternal and child health.


  1. Schmidt WM. Some kind of social doctor: Martha May Eliot, 1891-1978. Pediatrics 1979;63:146-9.
  2. Eliot M. The control of rickets. JAMA 1926;85:656-63.
  3. Eliot MM, Park EA. Rickets. Hagerstown, Maryland: WF Prior, 1938.
  4. Harrison HE. A tribute to the first lady of public health (Martha M. Eliot) vs. the disappearance of rickets. Am J Public Health 1966;56:734-7.

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