Lucy Wills

botanist, geologist, chemist, doctor
(1888 – 1964)

In the 1920s the Willis Factor was the added nutritional supplement that came from B vitamins, namely from liver. Lucy Wills made the connection between good health, especially during pregnancy, and nutrition and she offered a cheaper alternative to poorer families in Marmite, the yeast extract vegetarian spread.

She was born in 1888 near Birmingham in England, and in 1911 became one of the first women in the country to get degrees in botany and geology from Cambridge University. In 1915 she entered the London School of Medicine for Women and became a qualified medical practitioner in 1920.

After her medical degree her career took her to Mumbai to investigate why pregnant women were suffering from severe anaemia during pregnancy causing fatigue and diarrhoea sometimes with a fatal consequence and which was absent from wealthier women who did not suffer from anaemia as often.

She began by studying the women’s living conditions and with a select group studied their stool samples looking for bacteria. She found nothing in the stools to suggest a pathogenic cause and determined that deficiencies in vitamins might be the underlying cause.

She fed laboratory rats oatmeal and whole-wheat flour and supplemented some with whole milk, which she discovered reduced the death rate and thereby she made the assumption that deficiency of certain vitamins was causing the anaemia, at least in the rats. She move on to experimenting with monkeys and fed them a nutritional diet similar to the poor women of Mumbai and they grew poorly but the ones given liver supplements did much better.

The liver supplement was effective in Addisonian anaemia, caused by defective gastric secretions but much higher doses were needed in pregnant women, suggesting the two types of anaemia had different root causes. She believed the problem was due to a deficiency in vitamins A and C.

British microbiologist Harriette Chick led a team during World War I that performed nutritional studies of army rations in the search for a prevention for beriberi. It led to the recommended of the addition of yeast extract to army rations. Willis learned from her at the Lister Institute, that it was because Marmite was rich in vitamin B so she added it to the liver supplement for the monkeys. She remained uncertain which ingredient was playing the significant part in remedying anaemia.

Having successfully treated anaemia in monkeys with Marmite, Willis returned to Mumbai and successfully treated 22 women. She published the results in the British Medical Journal in 1931. Subsequent experimentation proved that it wasn’t the vitamins in Marmite that were responsible for increasing red blood cells within a few days and defeating anaemia. The mystery beneficial ingredient remained unidentified becoming known as the Wills Factor.

The expense of liver supplements was a barrier in Mumbai but cheaper yeast extract of vegetable origin was affordable to poor pregnant women. At the time only two compounds of Vitamin B were known about. Working with fellow biochemists P.W. Clutterbuck and Barbara Evans, they eventually identified the elusive ingredient in Marmite and liver supplement.

In 1941 colleagues Herschel Mitchell, Esmond Snell and Roger Williams isolated the compound from spinach and named it ‘folic acid’. Folic is a derivation of folium, the Latin for leaf. Folic acid is a form of folate, a compound of B vitamin. The were able to isolate folate in dark green leafy vegetables as well as liver and even citrus fruits. This is the reason Popeye gets strong when he eats spinach.

Folic acid is one of the few nutritional supplements that reliably works. It doesn’t only help the mother but also the child in brain development. A comprehensive study in 1991 found that it reduces the risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida, a defect that arises when the neural tube does not close properly during foetal development.

Thanks to Lucy Wills women take folic acid for a healthy pregnancy. In the US and Canada it has been added to flour since 1998 and the UK since 2018. Needless to say deaths have fallen dramatically and the medical recommendation is that every woman has at least 400 milligrams of folic acid daily. Millions of people alive today, unknowingly owe their lives to Lucy Wills.