These two women revolutionized the medical industry. They were also madly in love.

Martha May Eliot and Ethel Collins Dunham, 1915
Martha May Eliot and Ethel Collins Dunham, 1915 Photo: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting some of the many incredible LGBTQ+ women of both the past and present, women who overcame unimaginable obstacles to change the world.

Martha May Eliot and Ethel Collins Dunham’s astounding medical achievements have largely been lost to history, overshadowed by the pair’s forbidden, impassioned love for one another, a love that persisted despite many efforts to destroy it.

But the effect both women had on the development of women’s healthcare, pediatric health, and LGBTQ+ acceptance in scientific circles cannot be overstated. While not many know their names, their impact lives on in the way our medical establishment operates today.

The hundreds of letters written by Eliot, held today at Harvard Library, provide a remarkable insight into the work of one of the twentieth century’s foremost pediatric and health specialists. They also detail her lifelong love affair with Collins, a fellow doctor. The letters boldly reveal just how openly the two women lived, refusing to conceal their true selves from anyone.

Both wrote to each other whenever they were apart, Eliot declaring over and over that she was “count[ing] the time until you do arrive. I miss you terribly my darling.” This openness in their private lives drew negative attention from many. Men like Senator James Reed (D) publicly called for society to address the problem of female “celibates”, as he called them, whose careers led to, as he argued, the “dangerous and laughable” consequence of women incapable of having babies or caring for them.

A deep & all-consuming love

Eliot was born in 1891 into the powerful and influential Eliot family, who were heavily involved in the establishment of the American education system in the 19th and 20th centuries. With money and a family who valued education behind her, Eliot entered Bryn Mawr College, where, in 1910, she met Dunham. The two fell quickly and deeply in love. 

Dunham was the elder of the two by seven years. She was born in 1883, the daughter of a wealthy executive. She also had a somewhat bumpier road into her chosen career and had taken a break to travel before deciding to study medicine and resuming her schooling.

Eliot was a star straight-A student, but she delayed her graduation by a year so that she and Dunham could apply to medical school at the same time. From the start, the two women were inseparable. Despite their ferocious ambition, every choice they made was to prevent their careers from impacting their personal relationship, which was and always would be the bedrock of their lives. 

Hiding in plain sight

Harvard Medical School refused to accept women at the time, but Eliot applied anyway and was turned down. Both women then applied to Johns Hopkins. When Dunham’s application was refused, Eliot turned down the position they offered her. Both women began to work in the medical field in Boston, where Dunham was so impressive that pediatric trailblazer Dr. John Howland agreed to admit her as a pediatric intern at Johns Hopkins.

With both women now studying medicine, rumors spread about the true nature of their relationship. They were kept apart as much as possible. Eliot was sent to St. Louis Children’s Hospital while Dunham was sent to Newhaven.

Both women excelled and quickly made a name for themselves. Eliot became fascinated by the study of social medicine and became determined to explore the links between living conditions and public health in relation to women and children.

To gain first-hand experience, she opened a clinic in Boston where she deliberately lowered her prices to undercut the established male doctors in the area. With this, she earned herself both their everlasting resentment and the respect of the local people, many of whom turned a blind eye to the fact that soon she was sneaking out of her university accommodation as Yale’s newly appointed physician in the pediatric department to sleep with Dunham.

Eliot was focused on the study and treatment of rickets, a childhood disease linked to poor nutrition and a lack of vitamin D. Working alongside Dr. Edwards A. Park, she developed revolutionary X-ray techniques to make early diagnoses and add vitamin D to children’s diets cheaply and effectively. 

For helping her, Dr. Parks was hauled up before the board and charged with “supporting embattled feminists.” Members attacked him for accepting the two women’s romantic relationship. The courageous Dr. Park would always end his letters by reminding Martha to give his love to Ethel, which was used as proof of his ‘corruption.’ This is just one example of the threats faced professionally by both Eliot and Dunham and those who supported them, but their expertise and determination ensured that the board never succeeded in ousting them. 

Meanwhile, in Newhaven, Dunham was undertaking a study of the health and mortality rate of infants with the support of the U.S. Children’s Department. Soon, the sight of her cheap battered car arriving outside a house signaled that help had arrived for the mother and infant within. She studied infant prematurity levels, assisted in developing and providing better healthcare, and created instruments capable of treating them. 

An unstoppable team

Homophobia, however, continued to follow their careers. In 1935, they moved to Washington where Dunham was made chief of the Department of Child Development with Eliot as her assistant. The appointment horrified many; later the two women recalled that it was this period when they faced the most “aggressive levels of homophobia” of their whole career.

But they ploughed on, and soon they were battling to institute widespread healthcare reform, seeking to redress the balance between the survival rates of rich and poor children. Together, they were an unstoppable team, and slowly they gained widespread professional, if not always personal, acceptance. 

Their reforms quickly yielded results, and both women were appointed to the World Health Organization (WHO). Eliot became the only woman to sign the WHO Constitution, and both women were recognized as world leaders in the field of neonatal and women’s public health. 

In 1957, the American Pediatric Society awarded Dunham the John Howland medal, making her the first woman to receive the organization’s highest possible honor (Eliot was the second in 1967).

Dunham died in 1969 and Eliot in 1978. Dunham’s obituaries focused on her profession and sought to conceal the true nature of her relationship with Eliot. But their romance had been the foundation of their careers and their lives.

Today, their legacies endure. Awards are named in their honor, and their reformist policies are still the bedrock of the American public health system long after the names of their critics have been forgotten, a fact that would surely please them. 

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