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Williams, Cicely

medical condition college coast

(1893–1992) British paediatrician: identified the condition known as kwashiorkor.

Cicely Williams was born in Jamaica, of a landowning family that had been there since the 17th-c. She was educated in England at the Bath High School for Girls and at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read medicine. She was one of the first 50 female undergraduates to have their degrees conferred in the Sheldonian Theatre in 1920. She trained at Queen’s College Hospital for Children, Hackney and at King’s College, Camberwell, but found it difficult to get a medical post, partially because of the priority given to returning ex-servicemen. After a year as a medical officer in Greece she joined the Colonial Health Service and, after a wait of 2 years, was appointed to the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Here she found a condition that results from dietary protein deficiency due to a high intake of carbohydrate of low nutritional value. This nutritional deficiency disease causes the abdomen to swell, the hair to turn red, the liver to enlarge and life-long ill-effects in children under 2. This disease has ravaged children in drought and war-torn areas of maize-eating Third World countries.

Cicely Williams first described the condition in the 1931–2 volume of the annual medical report of the Gold Coast. The reaction of medical editors in London was to reject her paper; as she said, ‘They could not concede that a woman in the Gold Coast of all places had anything to say which concerned them’. However the paper was then published in The Lancet and here the condition was named and described for the first time in medical terms. She used a word, kwashiorkor (from the local language, Ga), which means ‘neglect of the deposed’, to describe the condition.

After 7 years in Africa Williams was transferred to Malaya and was in a remote province when in 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked. After weeks of hardship and danger she reached Singapore just as the Japanese invaded. Imprisoned in the notorious Changi jail she became its chief doctor and was proud of the fact that the 20 babies born there all survived. In 1943 she was taken to the headquarters of the Kempe Tai, the equivalent of the Gestapo, and interrogated as a spy, spending 4 months in a cage in which she could only crouch, along with the dead and the dying.

After the war she was sent to America for recuperation and postgraduate study at Johns Hopkins University. In 1948 she was appointed the first head of the Mother and Child Care unit at the World Health Organization in Geneva. From 1959 she became visiting professor of maternal and child health at the American University of Beirut and from 1964 overseas training adviser to the Family Planning Association. Cicely Williams was the first woman to be given an honorary fellowship of the Royal Society of Medicine (1977). In 1985, aged 92, she became a Fellow of Green College, Oxford.

She was a pioneer of women’s place in the medical profession and her ideas and methods of treatment in paediatrics are now followed internationally.

Williams, Clarence, III (1939–) [next] [back] Williams, Catharine Read Arnold (1787–1872) - Local History

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