For Ada Lovelace Day: Lucy Wills

October 7, 2011 at 1:01 am (Good Science) (, , , , , , , )

Lucy Wills was the haematologist who discovered folate, publishing reports of her studies into ‘anaemia of pregnancy’ in the Indian Journal of Medical Research.

Born in England and educated at Cheltenham College for Young Ladies at the time of Dorothea Beale (the Principal of said college) and Frances Buss, Wills went on to Newnham College, Cambridge and received a double first honours degree in Botany and Geology. After working as a volunteer hospital nurse during World War One, Wills became a medical student (attending the London School of Medicine for Women).

In 1928, Wills went to India to investigate a life-threatening anaemia of pregnancy, surveying the diets and social conditions of women in Bombay and finding that those who were poorly nourished were anaemic. Vitamin A concentrate and vitamin C-rich diets were tried without success and Wills then decided to study diet and macrocytic anaemia in pregnant rats. Anaemia was prevented in these rats by adding yeast to their diet, which led to trials of yeast or yeast extract. [Note: the yeast was tested for vitamin B content by Harriette Chick.] Another group received liver extract and both groups improved.

For reasons of cost, Wills recommended that yeast extract be used “prophylactically and therapeutically in pernicious anaemia of pregnancy” and Wills’ factor became a synonym for folic acid, while Wills’ anaemia was used as an alternative name for nutritional macrocytic anaemia.

Lucy Wills went on to research iron supplementation and the effects on haemoglobin levels and health in a randomised, placebo-controlled trial. This research, which began in 1943, was interrupted by a flying bomb incident. From the Lind Library:

Lucy Wills returned to London at the outbreak of World War II (Firkin 2000), where she continued her work on anaemia, and on the effect of diet on health and illness. In her 1933 paper in The Lancet, she had described her systematic experiments as ‘clinical trials’ (Wills 1933). However, the placebo-controlled test of iron supplementation in pregnancy done with her colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital appears to be the only report of a formal test of a treatment comparing two groups of people (Wills et al. 1947). Wills and an all-woman cast of researchers started their experiment in 1943, to address the question:

Can it be shown that the pregnant woman whose haemoglobin has been raised by the routine administration of iron is in any way better off than her, untreated, sister? (Wills et al. 1947).

And that question, they said, could only be answered by comparing results in comparable women, “some receiving and some not receiving routine iron treatment from the very beginning of pregnancy”. We do not know what path led them to conclude that a trial using alternation either to a haematinic preparation or to a placebo was what they needed to do.

We owe a lot to pioneering nutrition researchers such as Lucy Wills, Widdowson and McCance, and Harriette Chick. It’s a shame that they aren’t as well remembered as they deserve to be.

Links/Sources

http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/reprint/108/9/1377 [PDF – “A Biographical Sketch”]

http://www.bloodmed.com/home/hannpdf/bjh2822.pdf [PDF – “The History of Folic Acid”]

http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/illustrating/articles/lucy-wills-1888-1964-the-life-and-research-of-an-adventurous.pdf [PDF of the Lind Library article linked to in the opening paragraph]

http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/illustrating/records/haemoglobin-levels-in-pregnancy-the-effect-of-the-rationing-sch/images.pdf [PDF – haemoglobin levels in pregnancy, rationing, and iron]

Ada Lovelace Day website

1 Comment

  1. Early Modern Notes » Ada Lovelace Day: Women in the history of science, medicine and technology said,

    […] For Ada Lovelace Day: Lucy Wills « Stuff And Nonsense haematologist who discovered folate (folic acid) […]

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