If women around the world are having a much safer pregnancy with minimal complications, they have an English woman to thank. 19th Century haematologist Lucy Wills’ research pinpointed the importance of folic acid during pregnancy, which is the key to prevent prenatal anaemia and eliminate the danger of child mortality. At present, pregnant women all over the world are mandated to take folic acid supplements throughout their pregnancy.
Lucy’s early life
Lucy Wills was born on May 10, 1888, near Birmingham, United Kingdom to William Leonard Wills and Gertrude Wills. Her father was a science graduate and the family had always shown a strong inclination towards science. Lucy completed her education from three ace colleges of contemporary times, finally graduating from the London School of Medicine for Women – the first British school for training women doctors, stated The Hindu.
Interestingly, Lucy Wills has a close connection with India. A considerable part of her groundbreaking research was conducted in Mumbai, India (erstwhile Bombay).
Arrival and research in Bombay
A fresh graduate, Lucy decided to pursue medical research rather than practising as a physician. In 1928, Lucy arrived in India and joined the Maternal Mortality Inquiry at the Haffkine Institute in Bombay.
At that time, macrocytic anaemia was a common ailment during pregnancy among the working class women in textile factories of Bombay. Especially, the women from lesser privileged communities were the worst affected. Macrocytic anaemia results from abnormal enlargement of red blood cells during pregnancy, drastically reducing the proportion of haemoglobin in the blood.
While working in close quarters with these women, Lucy monitored their dietary habits. After extensive research, she identified a nutritional factor whose deficiency is responsible for causing anaemia during pregnancy. Uncertain about its nature and properties, the factor was designated as ‘Wills Factor’ upon her name.
‘Wills Factor’ identified as Folic Acid
During this time, Lucy performed laboratory experiments on rats and monkeys who were nourished on the popular breakfast spread Marmite, with added yeast extract. Thereafter, Lucy concluded that this type of anaemia can be prevented by yeast extracts.
Lucy conducted further research at Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor and the Caste and Gosha Hospital in Madras, before returning to the UK to continue the same.
Later research revealed the ‘Wills Factor’ as folic acid, which is a crucial element for pregnant women to combat anaemia, alongside Vitamin B12 and iron, reported The Independent.
Later life work among underprivileged communities
Lucy Willis herself stayed unmarried all her life, but she was the saviour for millions of expecting mothers all over the world. Till her demise in 1964, she was involved in a lot of research in the field of pregnancy health and nutrition. In her later life, she travelled extensively across developing nations, addressing the issues of pregnant mothers in lesser privileged communities.
Today’s Google Doodle pays a fitting tribute to this extraordinary woman, referring to her as “the pioneering medical researcher whose analysis of prenatal anaemia changed the face of preventive prenatal care for women everywhere.”