Anna Wessels Williams Biography (1863-1954)

bacteriologist, public health pioneer

During a long professional career doing research at the New York City Department of Health Laboratory, Anna Williams pioneered laboratory techniques for the diagnosis of many diseases. Dr. Williams also wrote and lectured about herfindings in an era when women in science were few and very rarely recognizedfor their contributions.

Anna Wessels Williams was born in 1863 in Hackensack, New Jersey and graduated from the Women's Medical College in New York City in 1891. She studied in Europe for a time, during which she visited Robert Koch, the discoverer of tuberculosis bacteria. When she returned to New York she began work for the Department of Health, where her first research assignment was in the diagnosis and treatment of diphtheria, a bacterial disease that was on the rise during the mid-1890s. Dr. Williams successfully isolated one strain of diphtheria bacteria, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, although her work went uncredited at the time. The strain became known as "Park 8," named after the director ofthe laboratory, Dr. W. H. Park, who was on vacation at the time of the discovery. During this period also, Williams worked with Dr. Alexander Lambert to develop a standardized test for typhoid fever.

In 1896 Dr. Williams briefly visited Paris where she learned valuable laboratory techniques for the diagnosis of rabies. Several years later, while examining microscope slides of smears taken from the brains of rabid animals, Dr. Williams discovered unusual "bodies" that appeared in all the cells. These characteristic features were named Negri bodies for an Italian scientist workingat the same time in a laboratory in Italy. The two bacteriologists, Williamsand Negri, communicated their findings, and Williams pioneered a technique that led to a faster diagnosis of rabies based on the appearance of the stained slides.

In 1904 New York City was experiencing an epidemic of pneumonia. In response,Williams and Park examined specimens from hundreds of pneumonia patients andobserved that pneumococcus bacteria were present. Their findings occurred several years before discovery of the bacteria by Oswald T. Avery and others, who are usually credited with the diagnosis of the disease. Williams was also involved in tests for typhoid fever and helped to give laboratory confirmation of the diagnosis of "Typhoid Mary," a carrier of the disease who wassubsequently apprehended and confined.

Williams worked closely with another pioneer in public health, Josephine Baker, who headed the Department of Children's Hygiene where great efforts were made to report and eradicate the children's diseases that often ran rampant inthe city's slums. It was thought that trachoma, a chronic eye diseasethat can lead to a reduction in vision, was affecting thousands of New YorkCity children. However, in her study from 1912 to 1913, Dr. Williams concluded that most cases had been misdiagnosed and that the children were sufferingfrom the more common infection, conjunctivitis.

During the polio outbreak of 1916, Williams began research on that disease. 1918, however, marked the beginning of the "flu years" and much of her research time was devoted to finding the cause of influenza. In only two months of 1918 there were close to 11,000 reported deaths caused by influenza and almost10,000 from pneumonia. Williams and others at their New York City laboratoryset to work on the variety of bacterial agents that could cause flu. But their work was inconclusive and Williams made reference in her report of the difficulties in trying to look for a possible viral cause. Identification of viruses, which indeed cause the flu, remained elusive during this period of research.

In the 1920s, Williams did extensive studies on scarlet fever. The Dick test,which had just recently been developed by George and Gladys Dick, had been used to test thousands of school children for the disease. Williams surveyed hundreds of scarlet fever cases that had been positively diagnosed for the antitoxin that had been used.

In the 1930s Williams published a compilation of her work on bacterial diseases entitled Streptococci in Relation to Man in Health and Disease. Shereceived honors for her pioneering work as a woman of science, but spoke ofthe difficulty and bias women faced in a field dominated by men. She retiredin 1934 and was 91 when she died.

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