A Pioneer, A Survivor
Cicely Williams: Jamaica's Gift to the Field for
Dr. Rebecca Tortello
graduating in 1923 Cicely worked extra-long hours at the South London
Hospital for Women and Children in one of the first child welfare clinics.
She chose to specialize in paediatrics and her conviction that cultivating
knowledge about her patients' personal backgrounds was crucial to successful
diagnoses and treatments would come to define her medical practice.
YOUNG DOCTOR IN AFRICA
Dr. Williams' most important work in Africa was her diagnosis of the common and often fatal kwashiorkor, a disease too long misdiagnosed as pellagra (a vitamin deficiency disease caused by a lack of niacin). Soon after her arrival in Africa she began to keep track of children who came to see her with swollen bellies and legs, and whose skin were sometimes of a lighter colour than that of their parents. After receiving the equipment needed to carry out post-mortems, she still needed to get permission from mothers to perform post-mortems on their children an act which was believed to be against their religious beliefs. Cicely carried out a few at great personal risk while conducting post-mortems, because in the 1930s, there, she had no antibiotics. Dr. Williams wound up becoming infected with the disease known as haemolytic streptococcus from doing a post-mortem with a small cut on her hand. It nearly cost her her life. Never one to look on the negative side, during her recovery a friend visited her only to find her writing a paper on kwashiorkor noting findings such as the fact that most children were found to have a fatty liver. Once back at work, Cicely began to question the women more about what they feed their children. Frustrated at her inability to solve the puzzle this disease had become and unwilling to watch more children die from it she asked an African nurse if it had a name. She learned it was called "kwashiorkor" meaning the sickness the older child gets when the next baby is born. Cicely surmised that this meant that weanling children were not receiving enough to eat. The cure for kwashiorkor was a simple one education on children's nutritional needs. She quickly published her diagnosis in one of many articles on maternal and child care in third world countries she would publish during the course of her lifetime.
Dr. Williams was always eager to learn new medical techniques. When confronted with diseases she couldn't cure she was not averse to referring her patients to African herbal doctors. She became close to one such African doctor who over the course of a few years healed patients suffering from tetanus and meningitis diseases for which Europeans had no cures. Eventually he shared his methods with Cicely and she took copious notes, hoping to engage European pharmaceutical companies in the manufacture of these cures. Sadly Dr. Williams' notes were lost in the country of her next colonial office post, Malaya, during the occupation of Singapore in 1941.
WAR II PRISONER
HER GOLDEN YEARS
During her life, as doctor, researcher, lecturer and WHO adviser, Dr. Williams worked in 58 countries and her methods of maternal and child care were practised uniformly around the world. She is one of many outstanding Jamaicans and one of many outstanding Jamaican women, who deserve recognition for her contributions on the world's stage. Dr. Cicely Williams died in England in 1992 at the age of 98.
* In 1977 a worldwide boycott of sweetened condensed milk as infant food began. Despite the fact that formula is not equivalent to breastmilk, scarce resources continue to be used to buy it while free, healthier breastmilk is left to dry up.
* The papers of Dr. Cicely Williams were given to England's Contemporary Medical Archives Centre in 1993, and subsequently catalogued. They cover most aspects of her work from 1929-1989 in the field of maternal and child health, as practitioner, teacher and consultant in the developing world. The collection includes correspondence, reports, lectures, publications, photographs and sound recordings, and is of relevance to a wide range of issues related to maternal and child health and the development of appropriate local health care systems. In particular, it is of interest in relation to Williams' pioneering work on the identification of the childhood malnutrition disease kwashiorkor.
* Dr. Williams shared her desire to serve others with her brother, R.A. Williams, a distinguished Jamaican agriculturalist, beloved by farmers islandwide. Some say there is no one that did more for the banana and livestock industries than he.
A. (1968). Cicely: the Story of a Doctor. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.
Hunter, I. The papers of Cicely Williams (1893-1992) in the contemporary
medical archives centre at the Wellcome Institute, London: Contemporary
Medical Archives Centre, the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted November 26, 2002
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