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Anna Wessels Williams

From: United States: New Jersey, New York
Fields: Health and Medicine
Bacteriologist Anna Wessels Williams isolated the strain of diphtheria bacterium which was used for the production of the antitoxin against this disease and developed a quick laboratory test for rabies.

She became a medical doctor after attending the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary where she was taught obstetrics and gynecology by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman doctor. Frustrated by inability to cure many ills for which there was no treatment, she became involved in research.

In 1894 Williams 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 which produced plenty of toxin, and this made possible for her to produce the antitoxin. Credit for this discovery went to the lab director, William Hallock Park, despite the fact that he was on vacation when Williams isolated the bacterial strain. It became known as the "Park 8" strain.

In 1896, Williams brought to the U.S. from the Pasteur Institute in Paris a culture of the rabies virus. The culture made possible large scale production of the rabies vaccine. Following this, she worked on developing quicker methods to diagnose rabies. At the time, rabies was diagnosed by injecting rabbits with brain tissue of dogs suspected of having the disease and waiting for the rabbits to develop rabies. The results of this test were available in several days, a long time to wait before treating a sick patient. She noticed distinctive cell structures in brain tissues of animals infected with the virus. While she was repeating her experiments which proved that these structures were indicative of the rabies infection, an Italian researcher, Adelchi Negri published his findings in 1904. The structures became known as the "Negri bodies." In 1905 Williams published her own method of preparing and staining the tissue, which became a standard test for rabies and it made possible to get test results in less than half hour.

Williams published many papers and was very 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.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1999.

The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists
by Brooke Bailey, Bob Adams, Inc., Publishers, 1994
2. Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History by Irene M. Franck and David M. Brownstone, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995


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