Lucy Wills

September 19, 2019

Written by: Alicen Ricard

Over the years countless women have taken folic acid during pregnancy, but how many people actually know how this discovery came about?  In the 1920s, while studying anemia in pregnant women, Lucy Wills discovered the benefits of folic acid by giving monkeys, and finally women, Marmite. It was this discovery that led to healthier pregnancies for generations to come.  

Source: Wikipedia

Lucy Wills was born on May 10, 1888, in Sutton Coldfield, England. Despite women having few opportunities for education and careers until the end of the 19th century, Wills attended multiple colleges--although she wasn’t eligible to earn a college degree due to her being a woman. The London School of Medicine for Women was the first school in Britain to train women to become doctors and had links to India, including many students there, which is why Wills ended up going to India once she became a qualified medical practitioner. 

Wills became interested in studying pregnancy and in 1928 she travelled to India to study macrocytic anemia in pregnancy, which causes the red blood cells to be larger than they normally are. She discovered that though the patients were responding to crude liver extracts, they weren’t responding to “pure” liver extracts (which are chock full of vitamin B12). This led her to discover there must be another factor than just B12 deficiency. 


Source: Time

Using vitamins A and C weren’t enough to cure women of what was ailing them. Finally, Wills did some tests on monkeys, giving monkeys who had low red blood cells, supplements based on women's diets in Mumbai. She gave them yeast, and it didn’t do much. So then she switched the yeast to marmite and they improved quickly. She gave the marmite to the women that the liver extract had not fully worked on, and it worked.  

Later the connection was made between marmite and it containing folic acid that helped to cure the women of their anemia. This was a groundbreaking discovery that would help pregnant women for decades to come. Wills isn’t as well known as she should be for someone who changed the way women take care of themselves during pregnancy. It is now recommended that women get 400 micrograms of folic acid a day during their pregnancy. She was honoured with a Google doodle in May 2019. 


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