Pregnant women around the world have Lucy Wills to thank for crucial research that led to the creation of a prenatal vitamin that helps prevent birth defects.
That vitamin is folic acid — a manmade form of folate, a B-vitamin found naturally in dark green vegetables and citrus fruits. It plays an important role in the creation of red blood cells, and when taken by women before and during pregnancy, it can help prevent birth defects in the baby’s brain and spinal cord.
But this connection was unknown until 1931, when Wills published a paper about research on anemia in pregnant women in India. For her pioneering work, Google dedicated its Doodle on Friday to Wills on her 131st birthday.
Google often uses variations of its Doodle to draw attention to notable people, events, holidays and anniversaries. Doodles have celebrated, among many other things, Pac-Man’s anniversary, Copernicus’ birthday, Mother’s Day and the World Cup, as well as reminding us of lesser-known real-world heroes.
Born near Birmingham, England, in 1888, Wills came of age at a time when educational opportunities were improving for young women wishing to enter a profession. She attended three schools that benefited from a more progressive approach to education, the first being Cheltenham College for Young Ladies, a British boarding school training female students in science and mathematics.
She went on to study botany and geology at Cambridge University’s Newnham College, receiving a certificate in 1911 because the university refused to grant women degrees until 1948. In 1915, she enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women and became a legally qualified medical practitioner in 1920, earning bachelor degrees in medicine and science.
Despite her qualifications, Wills opted for research and teaching rather than practicing medicine. Her research efforts took her to India in 1928 to study anemia in pregnant women. During her observations of different classes of Bombay women, she discovered a correlation between their dietary habits and the likelihood of their becoming anemic during pregnancy.
Ultimately, her studies suggested that a vitamin deficiency was to blame. During her clinical trials, she found that a laboratory monkey’s health improved after being fed the British breakfast spread Marmite, made of a cheap yeast extract.
Her discovery was the first step toward creation of folic acid. For many years it was the Wills Factor until folic acid was named in 1941 when it was isolated from spinach.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that all women of child-bearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.
She died in 1964 at the age of 75, having never married or had children, as World War I took many men of her age.
But for her contribution to births of countless healthier babies, we wish her a happy birthday.