Google Doodle honors Lucy Wills on what would have been her 131st birthday for her work that changed prenatal care forever.
Born in 1888 near Birmingham, England, Lucy Wills became the one of the first women in the country in 1911 to get degrees in botany and geology from Cambridge University. While working in the U.K. during the 1920’s, Wills learned of the situation of poor female textile workers in India who were suffering from severe and often fatal forms of anemia during pregnancy. She decided to move her work to Mumbai, India to investigate and began researching why this was a growing issue.
From the initial set-up of her research, Wills discovered that the anemia wasn’t caused by a pathogen by studying the stools of women. As she dug further into her investigation, Wills noticed that wealthier women weren’t showing signs of anemia as often, so Lucy Wills theorized that these symptoms could be linked to nutrition, or lack-there of .
To continue her research, Wills studied rats. She found that there were two things that helped the rats: liver supplements and a British food spread called Marmite, which comes from brewer’s yeast and is exceptionally rich in B vitamins. Wills took these findings and started testing the effectiveness of these supplements on pregnant women in India. The results of both the liver and Marmite supplements were beyond positive.
The Asia-Pacific Journal wrote that Wills’ findings and improvements seen in the patients were “amazing” and that the women “experienced a quick return of appetite and an increase in the red cell count by the fourth day.”
Lucy Wills findings were published in 1931 in the British Medical Journal. She admitted in her published work that she didn’t know exactly what was in Marmite or the liver supplements that was responsible for the change in pregnant women. Wills concluded in her report that “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.”
By discovering the use of Marmite, Lucy Wills had found a cheap supplement that women of any class could afford in order to improve the lives of themselves and their babies.
In 1941, “the Wills Factor” mystery ingredient in Marmite, was found to be folic acid. Folic acid doesn’t just help a pregnant mother, but it also helps the developing child, especially during brain development.
Today, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “urges all women of reproductive age to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day, in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet, to help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine.” These recommendations would not be possible if it weren’t for Lucy Wills and her groundbreaking work.
Lucy Wills dedicated much of her life and research to working on links between nutrition and illness by traveling the world in hope of helping communities grow healthier with nutritional supplements.
If you found this article interesting, check out the following for more like it!