Lucy Wills : Everything About English Haematologist And Physician Researcher

Lucy Wills

Lucy Wills was the pioneering Haematologist of England. She did extensive research on the fatal macrocytic anemia in Pregnant women and discovered the factor which affects it. By doing so she, not only lifted herself out of the heavily biased social stigma prevalent during those times of women not being suitable for science but also pulled back millions of women and their unborn babies from the death door. She continues to be a lifesaver and an inspiration even after 56 years of her death.  

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Family background

Lucy Wills started her life in Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham, England, born in the house of William Leonard Wills and Gertrude Annie Wills on 10th May, 1888. She was the third child out of four, in the family. She had an elder brother Leonard, an elder sister Edith and a younger brother Gordon. The Wills were well-off, with the family sickle and scythes business, named ‘Wills and Son’, founded by Lucy’s grandfather, doing well.

Wills was born with the scientific legacy, passed on to her by her great-grandfather William Wills, who was professionally in the field of law but wrote scientific papers also, on meteorology and many other observations. He was also a member of The British Association for the Advancement of Science. Wills’ father also showed a keen interest in science specifically in Biology and Natural Sciences and graduated with a science degree from Owens College, University of Manchester.  Her brother Leonard Wills was one of the leading British geologists of his generation.

Looking up to her father Lucy also grew up with a strong interest in science and her education and interest was encouraged by her father. In 1892 the family shifted to Barnt Green. She began her elementary education there, in the Tanglewood school. Then she was sent to Cheltenham boarding school, which was one of the first British schools to initiate teaching science and maths to women, founded by Dorothea Beale, a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Wills academic records were fine.

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Higher Education

Wills passed Newnham entrance in 1907. And took admission in Cambridge’s second women’s college after Girton, The Newnham college. Her elder sister Edith also studied there. The university did allow Women to sit in the examinations but didn’t grant them a degree, back then. She had a major influence of Albert Charles Seward, botanist and Herbert Henry Thomas, paleontologist during her college years. She completed her course in 1911, did not receive a degree but a certificate was provided for the double honors in Geology and Botany. Later in 1928, she was awarded an honorary degree in MA, from Cambridge.

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Will’s father and elder sister passed away in the same year, in 1911. She along with her mother and younger brother traveled to Sri Lanka to meet some relatives, later in 1911. From there, Wills went to South Africa in 1914 to meet her friend from back in Cambridge, Margaret Hume, who was then a lecturer in Botany in Cape town. Wills and Hume shared a deep interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud and Wills was thinking to take up Psychiatry for further studies. But when the World War broke out in August 1914, she volunteered as a nurse in a cape town hospital and this led her to take up a further step in the field of medicine.

She returned to England and applied for the ‘London Royal free School of Medicine for Women’, University of London, the first school of medicine for women and got enrolled. The college had strong allies with India. The first Indian woman with a degree of gynecology and obstetrics, Dr. Jensha Jhirad passed a year before Wills from Royal free. Wills qualified as a certified medical practitioner in 1920  as the licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and was awarded degrees of Bachelor of Science and Medical bachelor from the University of London.

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Research work in India

Wills did not continue with practicing as a physician and instead worked with Christine Pillman (Girton Cambridge graduate) in the Department of Chemical Pathology, Royal Free. In 1926, Minot and Murphy published their research on the dietary treatment of pernicious anemia, which had a huge impact around the world+. Around the same time, Dr. Margaret Balfour was working in Mumbai, India on fatal pregnancy anemia which was prevalent in poor women. Since Royal Free School had links with India, so Dr. Balfour contacted Wills to get involved in ‘Maternal Mortality Inquiry’ at the Haffkine Institute, Bombay. 

Lucy Wills began her research in India in 1928 at Haffkine Institute. She shifted her work to  Pasteur Institute Coonoor (1929) and Gosha Hospital Madras (1931) also. During these years, she did back and forth between India and Royal free, London. 

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Poor women, especially those employed in the textile industry, were the most affected ones by macrocytic anemia or pregnancy anemia. She did search for any bacterial infections in these women by observing their stools and living conditions but nothing significant was found. Then, Wills focused her research on dietary habits of the suffering women, probably inspired by Minot and Murphy’s dietary treatment of pernicious anemia. She came to the conclusion that some deficiency in their diets was possibly the reason for this anemia. Back then, it was referred to as the ‘pernicious anemia of pregnancy’ but Wills cleared that there is a difference between the true pernicious anemia and pregnancy anemia i.e. achlorhydria, the inability to produce gastric juices, which is a significant characteristic in pernicious anemia was absent in pregnancy anemia. Also, the source rich in vitamin B12, pure liver extracts, which was discovered as a treatment for pernicious anemia, did not work as a treatment for pregnancy anemia.

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The Wills Factor

Wills attempted to find the deficient nutrient. Robert McCarrison, Sakuntala Talpade and  Manek Mehta also helped Wills with her research. She began by studying the effects of dietary manipulation on albino rats. She fed the diet consumed by the targeted poor Muslim women of Mumbai, to the rats, that was oatmeal and wheat flour. She noticed the pregnant rats becoming anemic and 29% dying before giving birth. Though, she suspected another bacterial infection caused by lice, in the rats might be manipulating these results.   

So, she took up her research on monkeys. She fed them with the same diet. She observed monkeys also becoming anemic. One of them was doing very poorly, its blood count went very low. Wills had tried feeding Vitamin A and vitamin C to fulfill the deficiency but it was not effective. She desperately fed it with Marmite, which was a by-product of beer brewing, a type of commercial yeast and rich in vitamins,  specifically rich in Vitamin B as found by the analysis of Harriette Chick. It showed a dramatic improvement in its health. The pure liver extract, rich in vitamin B12, which was helpful in treating pernicious anemia had no significant effect but Crude liver extract was equally helpful as the marmite. So, the conclusion drawn was there was some potent extrinsic factor which was present in marmite and also animal extract. This factor came to be known as the ‘Wills Factor’. The exact substance was not named until 1941, when it was extracted out of spinach and named as Folic acid from folium (Latin for leaf) or the vitamin B9. 

Wills started with twenty-two women and the result was remarkable.  From then, till today Folic acid has been a prescription from doctors around the world to all the women during their pregnancy and has significantly helped women suffering from macrocytic anemia

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Return to England 

Wills returned to England during the beginning of World War II and served as a full-time pathologist in the emergency medical service. 

After the war, Wills came back to Royal Free School and Hospital, London. She became the head of the Pathology Department there and also established a Haematology department there. She also published many research papers during this time like The nature of the hematopoietic factor in Marmite (1933), British Journal of Experimental Pathology (1935), Tropical macrocytic anemia: its relation to pernicious anemia (1938) are a few examples.

After her retirement in 1947, Wills traveled to many places like South Africa, Fiji, and Jamaica, continuing her research in anemia and dietary needs. She also cultivated a botanical garden in a cottage in Surrey, along with her friend Margaret Hume. She also enjoyed many outdoor adventures like skiing and hiking.


Death and Legacy

Lucy Wills passed away on 26th April 1964. The British Journal released an obituary on her death mentioning her as a tireless hard worker, remarking her generous, kind and enthusiastic attitude and paying honor to her remarkable achievement. In the year 2019, Google has also paid her tribute, on her 131st birthday by creating a Google Doodle on her. This once again brought her in people’s memory, to be honored and cherished.


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