Lucy Willis was an English hematologist and physician researcher. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, she conducted research in India about macrocytic anemia of pregnancy, which is a life-threatening disease characterized by the enlargement of red blood cells. Susceptible to this disease are pregnant women with inadequate diets as well as those from the tropics. Lucy Wills discovered a nutritional factor in yeast that can prevent and cure the disease. It is called the Wills Factor, later called folate, and is a naturally occurring form of folic acid.
Lucy Wills was born on May 10, 1888 and died on April 26, 1964. Every year, some people, especially those in the field of medicine, celebrate Will’s birthday in order to commemorate and honor her.
Lucy Wills Profile Summary
|Birthday:||May 10, 1888|
Sutton Coldfield, England, UK
|Date of death:||April 26, 1964|
|Age at death:||
76 years old
|Place of death:||
Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Newnham College, London School of Medicine for Women
research on pregnancy
Lucy Wills was born on May 10, 1888 in Sutton Coldfield to William Leonard Wills (1858–1911), a science graduate of Owens College (later part of the Victoria University of Manchester, now part of the University of Manchester), and Gertrude Annie Wills née Johnston (1855–1939), only daughter of a well-known Birmingham doctor, James Johnston. The family had a strong interest in scientific matters. William Wills had been involved with the British Association for the Advancement of Science and wrote papers on meteorology and other scientific observations. He was particularly interested in botany, zoology, geology, and natural sciences generally, as well as in the developing science of photography. Lucy’s brother, Leonard Johnston Wills, carried this interest in geology and natural sciences into his own career with great success.
Lucy Wills was brought up in the country near Birmingham, initially in Sutton Coldfield, and then from 1892 in Barnt Green to the south of the city. She first went to a local school called Tanglewood, kept by a Miss Ashe, formerly a governess to the Chamberlain family of Birmingham.
Before the end of the 19th century, English girls had few opportunities for education and entry into professions. Lucy Wills was able to attend the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Newnham College Cambridge, and the London School of Medicine for Women.
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In September 1903, Lucy Wills went to Cheltenham, one of the first British boarding schools to train female students in mathematics and science. Will’s record on her exams was good. She passed the Oxford local Senior, Division I in 1905; the ‘University of London, Matriculation, Division II’ in 1906; and ‘Part I, Class III and Paley, exempt from Part II and additional subjects by matriculation (London).
In September 1907, Wills began her studies at Newnham College. She was strongly influenced by Albert Charles Seward, a botanist and Herbert Henry Thomas, a geologist. She finished her course in 1911 and obtained a Class 2 in Part 1 of the Natural Scineces Tripos in 1910 and Class 2 in Part 2 (Botany) in 1911. Although she was allowed to take part in university examinations, she was ineligible to receive a degree solely for being a woman.
1920 to 1928
Wills decided to research and teach in the Department of Pregnant Pathology at the Royal Free. She worked with Christine Pillman on metabolic studies of pregnancy.
Work in India
In 1928, Wills began her research on macrocytic anemia in pregnancy in India. This is a condition wherein red blood cells become enlarged. Poor women and those with dietary deficiencies suffered a more severe form of this disease. Dr. Margaret Balfour from the Indian Medical Service asked Lucy Wills to join the Maternal Mortality Inquiry by the Indian Research Fund Association at the Haffkine Institute in Bombay, which is now Mumbai.
Anemia of pregnancy
Wills observed a relationship between the dietary habits of different classes of Bombay women and the likelihood of them becoming anemic during pregnancy. She found out that poor Muslim women were the ones with both the most deficient diets and the greatest susceptibility to anemia.
This anemia became later known as ‘pernicious anemia of pregnancy’. However, Wills was able to demonstrate that the anemia she observed differed from true pernicious anemia, since the patients did not have achlorhydria, an inability to produce gastric acid. Moreover, while patients responded to crude liver extracts, they did not respond to the ‘pure’ liver extracts (vitamin B12) which had been shown to treat true pernicious anemia. She theorized that there must have been another nutritional factor responsible for this macrocytic anemia other than vitamin B12 deficiency. For some years this nutritional factor was known as the ‘Wills Factor’, and it was later shown, in the 1940s, to be folate, of which the synthetic form is folic acid.
Wills decided to investigate possible nutritional treatments by first studying the effects of dietary manipulation on a macrocytic anemia in albino rats. This work was done at the Nutritional Research Laboratories at the Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor. Rats fed on the same diet as Bombay Muslim women became anemic with pregnant ones dying before giving birth. The rat anemia was prevented by the addition of yeast to synthetic diets which had no vitamin B. This work was later duplicated using rhesus monkeys since the rat results were tainted by a lice infection which may have skewed those results.
Back in Bombay, Wills conducted clinical trials on patients with macrocytic anemia and established experimentally that this type could be both prevented and cured by yeast extracts, of which the cheapest source was Marmite.
Wills came back to the Royal Free Hospital in London from 1938 until her retirement in 1947. During the World War II, she was a full-time pathologist in the Emergency Medical Service. By the end of the war, she was in charge of pathology at the Royal Free Hospital and had established the first hematology department there.
After her retirement, Wills travelled extensively, including to Jamaica, Fiji and South Africa, continuing her observations on nutrition and anemia. In Fiji she, along with New Zealander Dr. Muriel Bell, was responsible for carrying out the first multi-ethnic nutritional survey of women and children in Fiji (1950). They studied the source of anemias, protein and vitamin deficiencies there. Their work was based on some flawed assumptions about the causes of these issues, while at the same time their recommendations were responsible for the introduction of free iron tablets for anemic pregnant women and attempts to provide infants and children with increased protein intake through feeding programs at schools and health centers.
Lucy Wills never married though she was close to her parents, her siblings, and their children. She enjoyed a number of close lifelong friendships, including with Christine and Ulysses Williams, with her Cambridge contemporary Margot Hume (with whom she jointly owned a cottage in Surrey whose botanical garden they cultivated), and with Kait Lucan (the Dowager Countess of Lucan, mother of John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, the disappearing earl), who was a fellow Labor Councilor in Chelsea. Wills died on 26 April 1964.
The first paper of Wills, about plant cuticles, was published in 1914. She worked on two more papers during the 1920s before she worked in India. Four of her studies in India were published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 1930 and 1931. When she returned to England, she worked on more papers about tropical macrocytic anemia.
Some of her main publications are as follows:
- Wills, L. (1914). “I. Plant Cuticles from the Coal-Measures of Britain”. Geological Magazine. Cambridge University Press (CUP). 1 (09): 385–390. doi:10.1017/s0016756800152987. ISSN 0016-7568. OCLC 4668925529.
- Wills, L.; Warwick, Joan (1924), “The Adenoid Child: A Histological and Clinical Study”, QJM, 17 (66): 162–169, doi:10.1093/qjmed/os-17.66.162, ISSN 1460-2725, OCLC 4934740950
- Pillman-Williams, EC & Wills, L (1929), Studies in blood and urinary chemistry during pregnancy: blood sugar curves. Quarterly Journal of Medicine 22 493–505
- Wills, L & Mechta, MM (1930), Studies in ‘pernicious anaemia’ of pregnancy. Part I Preliminary report. Indian Journal of Medical Research 17 777–792
- Wills, L & Talpade, SN (1930), Studies in ‘pernicious anaemia’ of pregnancy. Part II A survey of dietetic and hygienic conditions of women in Bombay. Indian Journal of Medical Research 18 283–306
- Wills, L & Mechta, MM (1930), Studies in ‘pernicious anaemia’ of pregnancy. Part III Determination of normal blood standards for the nutritional laboratory’s stock albino rat. Indian Journal of Medical Research 18 307–317
- Wills, L & Mechta, MM (1930), Studies in ‘pernicious anaemia’ of pregnancy. Part IV The production of pernicious anaemia (Bartonella anaemia) in intact albino rats by deficient feeding. Indian Journal of Medical Research 18 663–683
- Wills, L (1931), Treatment of ‘pernicious anaemia’ of pregnancy and ‘tropical anaemia,’ with special reference to yeast extract as a curative agent. British Medical Journal 1 1059–1064
- Wills, L (1933), The nature of the haemopoietic factor in Marmite. Lancet 221 1283–1285
- Wills, L (1934), Studies in pernicious anaemia of pregnancy. Part VI. Tropical macrocytic anaemia as a deficiency disease, with special reference to the vitamin B complex. Indian Journal of Medical Research 21 669–681
- Wills, L & Stewart, A (1935), British Journal of Experimental Pathology 16 444
- Wills, L & Clutterbuck, PW & Evans, BDF (1937), A new factor in the production and cure of certain macrocytic anaemias. Lancet 229 311–314
- Wills, L & Evans, BDF (1938), Tropical macrocytic anaemia: its relation to pernicious anaemia. Lancet 232 416–421
- Wills, L (1945), Nutrition surveys. London School of Medicine Magazine 6–7 NS 2–5
Here are some frequently asked questions about Lucy Wills:
Q: Who was Lucy Wills? A: Lucy Wills was a British hematologist who made significant contributions to the field of prenatal nutrition. She is best known for her discovery of the link between folic acid and the prevention of anemia during pregnancy.
Q: When was Lucy Wills born?
A: Lucy Wills was born on May 10, 1888.
Q: Where did Lucy Wills study?
A: Lucy Wills studied at several universities, including Cheltenham College, the London School of Medicine for Women, and the Royal Free Hospital.
Q: What was Lucy Wills’ contribution to prenatal nutrition?
A: Lucy Wills discovered that a nutritional factor, later identified as folic acid, could prevent anemia in pregnant women. Her research showed that a deficiency of folic acid was the cause of megaloblastic anemia in pregnant women, and that folic acid supplementation could prevent and treat the condition.
Q: When did Lucy Wills make her discovery?
A: Lucy Wills made her discovery in 1928 while working in India, where she observed that pregnant textile workers who ate marmite, a yeast extract rich in folic acid, had a lower incidence of anemia than those who did not.
Q: What awards did Lucy Wills receive for her work?
A: Lucy Wills received several awards for her work, including the Cameron Prize for Therapeutics of the University of Edinburgh in 1938 and the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1956.
Q: When did Lucy Wills pass away?
A: Lucy Wills passed away on April 16, 1964.
Q: How has Lucy Wills’ work impacted prenatal nutrition?
A: Lucy Wills’ discovery of the importance of folic acid in preventing anemia during pregnancy has had a significant impact on prenatal nutrition. Today, folic acid supplementation is recommended for all pregnant women to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in their babies.