Eliot, Martha

Martha Eliot

United States Children’s Bureau

For administrative achievement in the organization and operation of the Emergency Maternal and Infant Care Program of the Children’s Bureau. Read about the achievement.

For more than two decades, Dr. Martha Eliot has been a courageous and inspiring leader for improvement in standards of medical care for mothers and infants. As director of the Division of Child and Maternal Health, Children’s Bureau, US Department of Labor, and subsequently as assistant and associate chief of the Bureau, she has been a militant advocate of increasing government participation in the improvement of health services.

The passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 with the allotment of federal funds to the states for the provision of direct services brought new responsibilities and new opportunities. It is impossible to evaluate fully at this time the effect of the new services made possible by these funds upon the health of mothers and children throughout the nation. It is not without significance, however, that during this period maternal and infant mortality rates dropped sharply. One cannot look at these years of achievement without seeing in them a continuing theme, a calm and determined insistence that a better quality of care could and must be available to all mothers and children.

Early in the war, it became apparent that, among the many problems resulting from the dislocation of populations and the development of large military establishments distant from medical centers, medical services for mothers and children were not being maintained at a satisfactory level. This difficulty was further aggravated by the depletion of the limited medical resources of many of these communities, inevitable in a country at war.

The rapidly increasing birth rate associated with the war made increasing demands for obstetrical and pediatric services for the wives and children of servicemen, all too frequently in communities where these services were at a low level. Martha Eliot was quick to recognize the need for new methods to meet these new problems. Funds allocated to the states for general maternal and child hygiene were promptly diverted to meet this emergency need. Out of this beginning grew a nationwide Emergency Maternal and Infant Care program, organized and operated by Dr. Eliot, to provide adequate medical service for the wives and infants of servicemen of the four lowest pay-grades, financed through generous appropriation by Congress.

This huge program was extraordinarily difficult to administer, for the need for quick action did not permit slow and cautious planning or the leisurely arbitration of differences of opinion among the many interested groups. A new pattern for efficient cooperation between government and hospitals and physicians and community agencies was developed, which worked.

As a contribution to the mental health and the morale of the men in the armed forces as well as their families, it made a unique contribution to the success of our war effort. Millions of mothers and babies benefited by the program. Quite possibly, the greatest good that history will attribute to the program will be the demonstration of the possibilities of government cooperation with hospitals and with physicians and nurses in the provision of good medical service.

It is not surprising that other nations and various international groups have called upon Dr. Eliot for advice and counsel. She gives unstintingly of herself, not only for the solution of post-war problems at home, but also through the US Children’s Emergency Fund and the World Health Organization, to the problems of the mothers and children of war-ridden countries throughout the world.