Due to the groundbreaking work of British scientist Lucy Wills in the 20th century, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presently recommends every woman who is planning on or is already pregnant to take 400 milligrams of folic acid – a prenatal vitamin – everyday to help prevent birth defects.
Google paid tribute to Wills on her 131st birth anniversary through an animated doodle which showed the scientist hard at work in her laboratory, trying to prevent anemia (deficient red blood cells) in women through the consumption of the popular breakfast spread Marmite. Although the doodle did not show it, she tried to do this by adding yeast extract to the diets of rats and then monkeys. The extract was later identified as folic acid.
“Today’s Doodle celebrates English hematologist Lucy Wills, the pioneering medical researcher whose analysis of prenatal anemia changed the face of preventive prenatal care for women everywhere,” Google Doodle wrote in a blog post. Here are a few facts about Wills, courtesy CNET and Vox:
She was born in Birmingham, England, in 1888. At a time when educational opportunities were improving for young women, Wills attended Cheltenham College for Young Ladies in England – a boarding school which taught women science and mathematics. In 1911, she received a certificate in botany and geology at Cambridge University’s Newnham College, which was the only form of graduation available to her as the university had not begun handing degrees to female students.
In 1920, she became a legally qualified medical practitioner, after earning bachelor’s degrees in medicine and science from the London School of Medicine for Women. After getting her degree, Wills decided to pursue a career in research and teaching.
Working as one of the few female medical research scientists in the United Kingdom, she became aware of the female textile workers in Bombay [presently Mumbai], India, suffering from anemia during pregnancy. As a result, they suffered from fatigue, potential heart problems, and diarrhea, which often turned fatal.
One of the first facts established by Wills through her research was that anemia was not caused by a pathogen (a bacteria, virus, etc.). According to a 1988 article in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health, “Wills made an exhaustive search for pathogens in feces from the women with anemia,” but “no evidence of an infective cause could be established.”
After that, she found that there was a correlation between the dietary habits of the women and the likelihood of them becoming anemic during pregnancy. She studied rodents and discovered there were mainly two things that helped – liver supplements and a spread called Marmite. The latter was made out of brewer’s yeast after it had become concentrated, having been used to make alcohol. Marmite, although tasted salty, was rich in Vitamin B.
Wills’ observations held true when she administered liver supplements as well as Marmite to the female textile workers. “They experienced a quick return of appetite … and an increase in the red cell count by the fourth day,” according to the Asia-Pacific Journal.
In a 1931 edition of the British Medical Journal, Wills admitted she didn’t know what was the special ingredient in liver supplements or Marmite that worked to eradicate anemia. The secret ingredient was dubbed “the Wills Factor” until 1941, when it was identified as folic acid. Wills never married or had children. She died at the age of 75.