Lucy Wills, an English haematologist, is the focus of today’s Google Doodle. She’s considered to be a pioneer in the field of preventive prenatal care for women. May 10th would have been Wills’ 131st birthday.
“Today’s Doodle celebrates English haematologist Lucy Wills, the pioneering medical researcher whose analysis of prenatal anemia changed the face of preventive prenatal care for women everywhere.” states the Google Doodle. “She discovered what came to be known as the “Wills Factor”… Later research proved the factor to be folic acid, which is now recommended to pregnant women all over the world.”
Here’s what you need to know about Wills:
1. Her Family Sparked Her Interest In Science from An Early Age
Wills was born on May 10, 1888 in Sutton Coldfield. She came from a family of scholars; as her great-grandfather had been involved with the British Association for the Advancement of Science and wrote papers on meteorology. Her maternal grandfather James Johnson was a well-known doctor in the Birmingham area, while her father William was a science graduate of Owens College Manchester.
It was her father who nurtured her interest in botany, geology, and other natural sciences. Her brother Leonard was similarly brought up, and he applied these interests to his own career. In 1903, Wills attended the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which was one of the first British boarding schools to train female students in science and mathematics. Her examination record was strong, and by 1907, she had moved on to Newnham College Cambridge.
At Newnham, Wills was strongly influenced by the work of botanist Albert Charles Seward and paleobiologist Herbert Henry Thomas, with the latter having worked on carboniferous palaeobotany. According to Bayer, she graduated from Newnham with a degree in botany and geology in 1911.
2. She Became One of the First Female Medical Research Scientists In the 1920s
When WWI broke out, Wills volunteered as a nurse in Cape Town. She returned to London in 1915, and attended the London School of Medicine for Women; which was one of the first medical school that trained women as doctors in the UK. She became a legally qualified medical practitioner with the qualification of Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians London awarded in 1920.
She also received the University of London degrees of Medical Bachelor and Bachelor of Science awarded a few months later. She was 32. Upon receiving her certification, however, Wills chose not to practice as a physician, but to research and teach in the Department of Pregnant Pathology at the Royal Free. She traveled to India in 1928, where she began her seminal research work on macrocytic anaemia in pregnancy.
According to Vox, Wills became aware that poor female textile workers in India were suffering in large numbers from anemia during pregnancy. Anemia, which is a condition that develops when your blood lacks healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin, can fatigue, potential heart problems, and can sometimes be fatal during pregnancy.
3. She Discovered the ‘Wills Factor’ As a Treatment for Anemia
Wills decided to study the effects of anemia on pregnant albino rats. According to Bayer, these rats were fed the same diet as the Bombay women, and similarly died before giving birth. “Wills made an exhaustive search for pathogens in feces from the women with anaemia,” reports the Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health. But “no evidence of an infective cause could be established.”
Wills eventually discovered that the anemia could be prevented by adding brewer’s yeast to their diet, which otherwise lacked B vitamins. She selected a yeast extract that was known as Marmite, and the treatment proved successful.
The result “was amazing,” added the Asia-Pacific Journal. “They experienced a quick return of appetite … and an increase in the red cell count by the fourth day.” Wills published her findings in a 1931 edition of the British Medical Journal, where her use of the Marmite was dubbed the “Wills Factor.”
4. Her Research Would Lead to the Discovery of Folic Acid In 1941
While her findings were pivotal in treating anemia, Wills was initially unsure as to why Marmite was the solution. “At present it is only possible to state that in Marmite, and probably in other yeast extracts, there appears to be a curative agent for this dread disease which equals liver extract in potency, and has the advantage in India of being comparatively cheap and of vegetable origin,” she reported to the British Medical Journal.
The treatment known as the “Wills Factor” would be renamed in 1941, when folic acid was first isolated from spinach. Despite no longer bearing her name, Wills’ research is still recognized as laying the groundwork for its subsequent use. She continued to work upon her return from India, serving as a pathologist in the Emergency Medical Service during WWII. She was appointed the head of pathology at the Royal Free after WWII, and helped establish the first haematology department there. She remained the head of pathology until her retirement in 1947.
Wills was never married and had no children. She was close to her siblings and the rest of her family, however, and she maintained several lifelong friendships. Some of her most notable friends include Christine and Ulysses Williams, whom she worked with at Royal Free; and Margot Hume, who graduated from Cambridge and with whom she owned a cottage in Surrey.
5. She Continued to Study Nutrition & Anemia Until Her Death In 1964
Wills continued to work long after her retirement. Google writes that she enjoyed outdoor activities like mountain climbing, skiing, and general travel, but she never relinquished her passion for medical research. She developed her research on nutrition and anemia in places such as Jamaica and South Africa until her death on April 26, 1964.
In her obituary for the British Medical Journal, Wills was described as a “tireless” spirit who changed anemia research forever. “Lucy Wills even in her seventies was always a tireless worker and seeing her example other people found themselves working harder than they had believed possible,” the obit read. “Though impatient with laziness and with half-baked opinions, she was compassionate to other human failings. She held strong convictions on social questions and steadily upheld them as a borough councilor in Chelsea during the last decade of her life.”
“She had wide interests, particularly loving books, gardens, music, and the theatre, and enjoying life always with keen intelligence and humor,” the obit added. “Her generosity and magnanimity, combined with outstanding ability and resolution, made friends of all who ever worked with her and found her worthy of profound respect and deep affection.”