leading English hematologist and physician researcher Lucy Wills, LRCP was born May 10 1888 in Sutton Coldfield. Generations of the Wills family had been living in or near Birmingham, England, Her paternal great-grandfather, William Wills, had been a prosperous Birmingham attorney from a Nonconformist Unitarian family (see Church of the Messiah, Birmingham). One of his sons, Alfred Wills, followed him into the law and became notable both as a judge and a mountaineer. Another son, Lucy’s grandfather, bought an edge-tool business in Nechells, AW Wills & Son, which manufactured such implements as scythes and sickles. Lucy’s father continued to manage the business and the family was comfortably well off.
Wills’ father, William Leonard Wills (1858–1911), was a science graduate of Owens College (later part of the Victoria University of Manchester, now part of the University of Manchester). Her mother, Gertrude Annie Wills née Johnston (1855–1939), was the only daughter (with six brothers) of a well-known Birmingham doctor, Dr. James Johnston. The family had a strong interest in scientific matters. Lucy’s great-grandfather, William Wills, had been involved with the British Association for the Advancement of Science and wrote papers on meteorology and other scientific observations. Her father was particularly interested in botany, zoology, geology, and natural sciences generally, as well as in the developing science of photography. Her brother, Leonard Johnston Wills, carried this interest in geology and natural sciences into his own career with great success. Wills was brought up in the country near Birmingham, initially in Sutton Coldfield, and then from 1892 in Barnt Green to the south of the city. She went at first to a local school called Tanglewood, kept by a Miss Ashe, formerly a governess to the Chamberlain family of Birmingham.
At the time she was born English girls had few opportunities for education and entry into the professions until towards the end of the 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’s elder sister Edith was in the same house, Glenlee. She passed the ‘Oxford Local Senior, Division I’ exam in 1905; the ‘University of London, Matriculation, Division II’ in 1906; and ‘Part I, Class III and Paley, exempt from Part II and additional subjects by matriculation (London), Newnham entrance’ in 1907.
In 1907, Wills began her studies at Newnham College, Cambridge, a women’s college. Wills was strongly influenced by the botanist Albert Charles Seward and by the paleobiologist Herbert Henry Thomas who worked on carboniferous paleobotany. Wills finished her course in 1911 and obtained a Class 2 in Part 1 of the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1910 and Class 2 in Part 2 (Botany) in 1911, however she was ineligible as a woman to receive a Cambridge degree.
Sadly in February 1911, Wills’s father tragically died at the age of 53 then In 1913, her elder sister Edith also died at the age of 26. In 1913 Wills and her mother traveled to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. A friend from Newnham, Margaret (Margot) Hume, was lecturing in botany at the South African College, then part of the University of the Cape of Good Hope. She and Wills were both interested in Sigmund Freud’s theories. Upon the outbreak of World war One in August 1914, Gordon enlisted in the Transvaal Scottish Regiment. Wills spent some weeks doing voluntary nursing in a hospital in Cape Town, before she and Margot Hume returned to England, arriving in Plymouth in December. In1915, Wills enrolled at the London (Royal Free Hospital) School of Medicine for Women. Which had a number of students from India, including Jerusha Jhirad, who became the first Indian woman to qualify with a degree in obstetrics and gynecology in 1919.
Wills was awarded the oLicentiate of the Royal College of Physicians London in May 1920 (LRCP Lond 1920), and was also awarded the University of London degrees of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery awarded in December 1920 (MB BS Lond), at age 32 becoming a legally qualified medical practitioner and decided to research and teach in the Department of Pregnant Pathology at the Royal Free. There she worked with Christine Pillman (who later married Ulysses Williams OBE),
Wills left for India in 1928 and began research work on macrocytic anemia in pregnancy. This was prevalent in a severe form among poorer women with dietary deficiencies, particularly those in the textile industry. Dr Margaret Balfour of the Indian Medical Service had asked her to join the Maternal Mortality Inquiry sponsored by the Indian Research Fund Association at the Haffkine Institute in Bombay, now Mumbai. In 1929, she moved her work to the Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor (where Sir Robert McCarrison was Director of Nutrition Research). In early 1931 she was working at the Caste and Gosha Hospital in Madras, now the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Women and Children of Chennai. During the summers of 1930-32 she returned to England and continued her work in the pathology laboratories at the Royal Free.By 1933 she was back at the Royal Free full-time.
Between 1937 and 1938 she visited the Haffkine Institute Travelling by an Imperial Airways Short ‘C’ Class Empire flying boat Called the Calypso. Herjourney began at Southampton landing on water for refuelling at Marseilles, Bracciano near Rome, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandria, Tiberias, Habbaniyah to the west of Baghdad, Basra, Bahrain, Dubai, Gwadar and Karachi, with overnight stops at Rome, Alexandria, Basra and Sharjah (just outside Dubai). The five-day flight was the first Imperial Airways flight to go beyond Alexandria. In Bombay Wills was on dining terms with the governors and their wives at Government House – Sir Leslie Wilson in 1928 and Sir Frederick Sykes in 1929. In 1929 she visited Mysuru and met Sir Charles Todhunter, the Governor of Madras and secretary to the Maharaja of Mysuru. Here Wills observed a correlation between the dietary habits of different classes of Bombay women and the likelihood of their becoming anemic during pregnancy. Poor Muslim women were the ones with both the most deficient diets and the greatest susceptibility to anemia (pernicious anemia of pregnancy). However, it differed from true pernicious anemia, as the patients did not have achlorhydria, an inability to produce gastric acid and did not respond to the ‘pure’ liver extracts (vitamin B12) which had been shown to treat true pernicious anemia. It was named Mycrocytic Anaemia and was characterized by enlarged red blood cells which is life-threatening. She postulated another nutritional factor was responsible for this macrocytic anemia other than vitamin B12 deficiency. This was later discovered to be folate, of which the synthetic form is folic acid.
Wills investigated possible nutritional treatments for Anaemia by studying the effects of dietary manipulation on a macrocytic anemia in albino rats at the Nutritional Research Laboratories at the Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor. Which involved Rats being fed the same diet as Bombay Muslim women. The rat anemia was prevented by the addition of yeast to synthetic diets which had no vitamin B. This work was later duplicated using rhesus monkeys. Back in Bombay, Wills conducted clinical trials on patients with macrocytic anemia and discovered that it could be both prevented and cured by yeast extracts, of which the cheapest source was Marmite. Wills returned to the Royal Free Hospital in London from 1938 until her retirement in 1947. During the Second World War she was a full-time pathologist in the Emergency Medical Service. Work in the pathology department was disrupted for a few days in July 1944 (and a number of people were killed) when the hospital suffered a direct hit from a V1 flying bomb. By the end of the war, she was in charge of pathology at the Royal Free Hospital and had established the first hematology department there. After her retirement, Wills traveled extensively, including to Jamaica, Fiji and South Africa, continuing her observations on nutrition and anemia. Until she sadly passed away in April 16 1964)