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Anna Wessels Williams

Born 1863
Died 1954

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American bacteriologist, born March 17, 1863, Hackensack, New Jersey; died 1954.

Biography of Anna Wessels Williams

Anna Wessels Williams obtained he medical doctorate at the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1891. At the college her teacher in obstetrics and gynaecology was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first American woman doctor. From 1891 she was an assistant at the Chair of Pathology and Hygiene at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and in 1894 she became an assistant bacteriologist in the New York City Department of Health

At this time, the death rate from diphtheria was on the increase and there was no effective treatment. In that same year, she isolated a strain of Corynebacterium diphtheriae crucial to the development of an antitoxin that helped eradicate the disease among the poor in New York City. However, credit for this discovery went to the lab director, William Hallock Park (1863-1939), despite the fact that he was on vacation when Williams isolated the bacterial strain. It became known as the "Park 8" strain.

In 1896, Dr. Williams travelled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris hoping to develop an antitoxin for scarlet fever. The research going on in Paris inspired her, and she became interested in rabies. Returning to the U.S., she brought back a culture of the rabies virus and worked to develop a better way to diagnose it. Her method surpassed the original test, and became the model technique for the next thirty years.

She was promoted to Assistant Director of the New York City Department of Health laboratory in 1905 and continued to work alongside Park. Together they wrote a textbook on micro-organisms for students, physicians, and health officers that quickly became a classic text.

Williams published many papers and was much respected in her field. Despite this, she was never promoted beyond the post of the assistant director of the laboratory. She was forced to retire at age seventy despite petitions from many supporters, including Mayor LaGuardia of New York. She lived twenty more years with her sister in Westwood, New Jersey. She died in 1954 at age ninety.

This article is mainly based on an Internet article by Danuta Bois.

We thank Grace E. Jacobs for information submitted.

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