Wills, who was born on May 9, 1888, in Sutton Coldfield, England, came from a family of attorneys, judges, doctors and scientists.
She herself attended three different educational institutions: the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, one of the first British boarding schools to train women in science and math; Newnham College Cambridge and the London School of Medicine for Women, the first medical school in Britain for female doctors.
Wills earned first honors in botany and geology while at Newnham and went on to help pregnant textile workers in India who at the time were suffering with a life-threatening anemia. According to the Google blog, Wills suspected poor nutrition was the cause of the afflictions.
“She discovered what came to be known as the ‘Wills Factor’ when a laboratory monkey’s health improved after being fed the British breakfast spread Marmite which is made of yeast extract.”
Marmite actually contains nearly 50% of the recommended daily allowance for folic acid per serving, and folic acid, researchers later discovered, was the magic ingredient behind the monkey’s recovery. Today, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the manmade form of folate to all women of reproductive age, especially before and during pregnancy.
According to the United States National Library of Medicine, Wills is considered a pioneer for women in medicine and medical research. In addition to her work investigating anemia in pregnancy in India, Wills worked as a nurse during World War I and continued to study nutritional effects on health in South Africa and Fiji after researching iron supplements in pregnant women during World War II.
Even in her seventies, Wills “was always a tireless worker,” the British Medical Journal wrote following her death in April 1964.
“The excellence of her work on tropical megaloblastic anaemia has long been recognised by nutritionists and haematologists. Every medical student has heard of its cure by her discovery of the Wills factor in yeast extract, which paved the way for the subsequent work on folic acid. It was one of the simple but great observations which are landmarks in the history and treatment of the nutritional anaemias.”
Wills was also quite the adventurer.
“Remembered for her wry sense of humor, Wills enjoyed mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and rode a bicycle to work rather than driving in a car,” according to the Google blog.
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