December 2008 Independent Woman of the Month – Anna Wessels Williams

December 16, 2008

In 1887, Millie Williams, under the care of a poorly trained physician, nearly died in childbirth. Her baby, also a victim of the doctor’s unpracticed technique, did not survive. Millie’s sister, Anna, vowed that she would learn the art of medicine and master the art which her sister’s caregiver fatally lacked.

In a time when female physicians were few, Anna Wessels Williams (1863-1954) became one of the world’s top bacteriologists. With her professional partner, Dr. William H. Park, Dr. Williams isolated the diphtheria bacillus, enabling the development of an antitoxin. Diphtheria, debilitating and often fatal, once struck over 100,000 Americans per year in the 1920s. In the two decades between 1980 and 2000, only 52 cases were recorded, a virtual eradication that is the direct descendent of Dr. Williams’ work.

Anna Wessels Williams also made important contributions to the study of typhoid, influenza and scarlet fever, work that has improved the health of hundreds of millions of people over the span of nearly a century.

Author John M. Barry described Dr. Williams as “…wild, risk taking, intensely curious, a woman who took new inventions apart to see how they worked.” She loved to fly with stunt pilots and was an avid motorist at the dawn of the automobile age, when there were few women drivers. She said of herself, “From my earliest memories, I was one of those who wanted to go places. When I couldn’t go, I would have my dreams about going. And, such dreams were seldom conceived by any other child.” Yet despite her talent and vigor, she was a lonely and friendless person. In the early 20th century, when nearly no women were counted among the world’s top scientists, Dr. Williams had few peers or social opportunities. She wondered “if it would be worthwhile to make friends and if so how I should go about it,” but concluded that she would rather suffer loneliness than achieve “happiness through lack of knowledge.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

While there are no thoroughgoing biographies of Dr. Anne Wessels Williams, accounts of her life and work may be found in John M. Barry’s excellent “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague In History” (Viking/Penguin, 2004).

Dr. Williams’ papers are archived at the Harvard University Library where they are available to researchers.

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