Lucy Wills Biography


Who is Lucy Wills

Lucy Wills, (May 10, 1888 – April 16, 1964) was a leading English hematologist. He did important work in India in the late 1920s and early 1930s on macrocytic anemia of pregnancy. Her observations led her to discover a nutritional factor in yeast that prevents and cures this disorder. Macrocytic anemia is characterized by an enlargement of red blood cells and is potentially fatal. Poor pregnant women in the tropics with inadequate diets are particularly susceptible. Later it was shown that the nutritional factor identified by Wills (the “Wills Factor”) is folate, the natural form of folic acid.

Lucy Wills Biography

Early life

Generations of the Wills family lived in or near Birmingham, England, a city known as “the workshop of the world” for its numerous factories and industries. Lucy Wills was born on May 10, 1888 in the vicinity of Sutton Coldfield. His paternal great-grandfather, William Wills, had been a prosperous Birmingham lawyer from a Unitarian Non-Conformist family (see Messiah Church, Birmingham). One of his sons, Alfred Wills, followed him to the law and became notable as a judge and mountaineer. Another son, Lucy’s grandfather, bought a cutting-edge tool shop in Nechells, AW Wills & Son, which manufactured implements such as scythes and sickles. Lucy’s father continued to run the business and the family was comfortably in a good financial situation.

Wills’ father, William Leonard Wills (1858-1911), graduated in science from Owens College (later part of the Victoria University of Manchester, now part of the University of Manchester). His mother, Gertrude Annie Wills née Johnston (1855-1939), was the only daughter (with six siblings) of a well-known Birmingham physician, Dr. James Johnston. The family had a great interest in scientific matters. Lucy’s great-grandfather, William Wills, had participated in the British Association for the Advancement of Science and wrote articles on meteorology and other scientific observations. His father was particularly interested in botany, zoology, geology and the natural sciences in general, as well as in the development of the science of photography. His brother, Leonard Johnston Wills, took this interest to geology and the natural sciences to his own career with great success.

Wills was raised in the country near Birmingham, initially in Sutton Coldfield, and then since 1892 in Barnt Green south of the city. First he went to a local school called Tanglewood, maintained by a Miss Ashe, formerly a governess of the Chamberlain family of Birmingham.


English girls had few opportunities for education and entry into the professions until the late nineteenth century. Wills was able to attend Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Newnham College Cambridge and the London School of Medicine for Women.

In September 1903, Lucy Wills went to the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which had been founded in 1854 by Dorothea Beale. Wills’ older sister, Edith, was in the same house, Glenlee, two years ahead of her.

The Wills test was good. He passed the ‘Oxford Local Senior, Division I’ in the fall of 1905; the ‘University of London, Matriculation, Division II’ in the fall of 1906; and ‘Part I, Class III and Paley, exempt from Part II and additional subjects by registration (London), entry into Newnham’ in 1907.

In September of 1907, Wills began his studies at Newnham College, Cambridge, a university for women. Wills was strongly influenced by the botanist Albert Charles Seward and by the paleobiologist Herbert Henry Thomas, who worked in coal paleobotany. Wills finished his course in 1911 and obtained a Class 2 in Part 1 of the Natural Science Tripos in 1910 and Class 2 in Part 2 (Botany) in 1911. While he was allowed to take exams from the University of Cambridge in that moment, ineligible as a woman to receive a Cambridge degree.

1911 to 1914

In February 1911, Wills’ father died at the age of 53. She had been very close to him, and it is likely that his unexpected death affected the final results of his exam that summer. In 1913, his older sister Edith died at the age of 26 years. Later that year, Wills and her mother traveled to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where they visited family and friends. In 1914, she and her younger brother Gordon traveled to South Africa. A friend of Newnham, Margaret (Margot) Hume, taught botany at the South African College, which was then part of the University of the Cape of Good Hope. She and Wills were interested in the theories of Sigmund Freud. When the war broke out in August 1914, Gordon enlisted in the Scottish Transvaal regiment. Wills spent a few weeks volunteering at a hospital in Cape Town, before she and Margot Hume returned to England, arriving in Plymouth in December.

Women’s School of Medicine in London (Royal Free Hospital)

In January 1915, Wills enrolled in the London School of Women’s Medicine (Royal Free Hospital). The school had strong ties to India, and from there there were several students, including Jerusha Jhirad, who became the first Indian woman to obtain a degree in obstetrics and gynecology in 1919.

Wills became a legally qualified medical professional with the qualification of Licensed at the Royal College of Physicians London granted in May 1920 (LRCP Lond 1920), and the titles of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery of the University of London granted in December 1920 (MB BS Lond), at 32 years old.


1920 to 1928

In qualifying, Wills decided to investigate and teach in the Department of Pathology of Pregnant Women in the Royal Free. There he worked with Christine Pillman (who later married Ulysses Williams OBE, a doctor of her teaching staff) who had been in Girton at the same time that Wills was in Newnham, in metabolic studies of pregnancy.


In 1928, Wills began his seminal research work in India on macrocytic anemia in pregnancy. This prevailed severely among the poorest women with dietary deficiencies, particularly those in the textile industry. Dr. Margaret Balfour of the Indian Medical Service asked her to join the Research on Maternal Mortality sponsored by the Association of Research Funds of India at the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, now Mumbai.

Wills was in India between 1928 and 1933, mainly in the Haffkine. From April to October 1929, he transferred his work to the Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor (where Sir Robert McCarrison was Director of Nutrition Research). At the beginning of 1931, he worked at the Caste and Gosha Hospital in Madras, now the Government of the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Women and Children of Chennai. In each of the summers of 1930-32 he returned to England for a few months and continued his work in the pathology laboratories at the Royal Free. He returned to the Royal Free full time in 1933, but there was another 10-week work visit to the Haffkine Institute from November 1937 to the beginning of January 1938. This time, for the first time, Wills flew to Karachi. and onwards by sea.

The air travel in October 1937 took place in a flying boat of Imperial Airways, on its recently inaugurated route with mail and some passengers. The flying boat was a short class ‘C’ flying boat, the Calypso, G AEUA. The route started in Southampton and involved landings in the water to refuel in Marseille, Bracciano near Rome, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandria, Tiberias, Habbaniya west of Baghdad, Basra, Bahrain, Dubai, Gwadar and Karachi, with night stops in Rome, Alexandria, Basra and Sharjah (just outside Dubai). The five-day flight was the first flight of Imperial Airways to go beyond Alexandria.

In Bombay, Wills was able to eat with the governors and their wives at the Government House: Sir Leslie Wilson in 1928 and Sir Frederick Sykes in 1929. In 1929 he visited Mysuru and wrote to his brother that “I was very fortunate to to be under the wing of Sir Charles Todhunter, who is a very important person there. ” Mr. Todhunter had been governor of Madras and in 1929 he was secretary of the Maharaja of Mysuru.

Anemia of pregnancy

Wills observed a correlation between the eating habits of different kinds of women in Bombay and the likelihood of them becoming anemic during pregnancy. Poor Muslim women were the ones with the poorest diets and the highest susceptibility to anemia.

This anemia was then known as “pernicious anemia of pregnancy”. However, Wills was able to show that the anemia he observed differed from real pernicious anemia, since the patients did not have achlorhydria, an inability to produce gastric acid. In addition, while patients responded to crude liver extracts, they did not respond to “pure” liver extracts (vitamin B12) that had been shown to treat true pernicious anemia. She postulated that there must be another nutritional factor responsible for this macrocytic anemia other than vitamin B12 deficiency. For some years, this nutritional factor was known as the ‘Factor of wills’, and later proved, in the 1940s, to be folate, of which the synthetic form is folic acid.

Wills decided to investigate possible nutritional treatments by first studying the effects of dietary manipulation on a macrocytic anemia in albino rats. This work was carried out in the Nutritional Research Laboratories of the Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor. Rats fed the same diet as Muslim women in Bombay became anemic, pregnant women died before giving birth. Rat anemia was prevented by the addition of yeast to synthetic diets that did not contain vitamin B. This work was subsequently doubled using rhesus monkeys, since the results of the rat were marred by a lice infection that may have altered those results.

Back in Bombay, Wills conducted clinical trials in patients with macrocytic anemia and experimentally established that this type could be prevented and cured with yeast extracts, of which the cheapest source was Marmite.

After india

Wills returned to the Royal Free Hospital in London from 1938 until his retirement in 1947. During World War II, he was a full-time pathologist in the Emergency Medical Service. The work in the pathology department was interrupted for a few days in July 1944 (and several people died) when the hospital suffered a direct impact from a V1 flying bomb. At the end of the war, she was in charge of pathology at the Royal Free Hospital and had established the first department of hematology there.

After his retirement, Wills traveled extensively, including to Jamaica, Fiji and South Africa, continuing his observations on nutrition and anemia.

Personal life

The wills never got married. She was close to her parents, her brothers and her children. She enjoyed several lifelong friendships, including with Christine and Ulysses Williams, with her Cambridge contemporary, Margot Hume (with whom she owned a country house in Surrey whose botanical garden they cultivated) and with Kait Lucan (the dowager countess of Lucan ). mother of John Bingham, seventh Earl of Lucan, the count who disappears, who was a co-worker in Chelsea.

The obituaries and other publications describe her as independent, autocratic, not as a fool, a cheerful and enthusiastic teacher, an indomitable traveler and skier, an enthusiastic traveler, a lover of the beauty of nature, cheerful and entertaining.

Wills died on April 16, 1964.

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