Jun 29 · 5 min read

An American #pathologist, a pioneer in #infectiousdiseases and a public health advocate. She developed an effective treatment for #diphtheria and a rapid diagnostic for #rabies.

Anna Wessels Williams, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Miler Ximeno Lopez & words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Today when we have a cure for most infectious disease we might take for granted the contribution of many eminent scientists and doctors who developed vaccines and therapies to make their treatment possible. A lot of credit for the eradication of these diseases goes to the relentless hard work of scientists like Anna Wessels Williams, M.D. (1863–1954).

In the early phase of her life, Anna would have hardly known of the achievements that lay ahead for her. She was born in 1863 in Hackensack, New Jersey, to Jane Van Saun and William Williams, and was home-schooled until age 12 like her other siblings. After graduating in 1883 from the local high school she started working as a schoolteacher. A turning point in Anna’s life came in 1887 when her sister Millie became seriously ill while giving birth to a stillborn child. Realizing that the tragedy could have been averted if the attending doctor was better trained, Anna resolved to become a doctor herself! In the same year she enrolled at the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary and received an M.D. in 1891. However, instead of practicing medicine Anna chose to undertake research in diseases that were wreaking havoc in the society.

In 1894 Anna started working as an Assistant Bacteriologist to study diphtheria, which was spreading at near epidemic rates with no effective treatment available and mostly affecting children of poor families. While working at the New York City Department of Health’s diagnostic laboratory, the first municipal laboratory in the U.S., Anna achieved breakthrough in diphtheria treatment by identifying and isolating a new strain of the Corynebacterium diphtheriae that could produce high amounts of toxin. This led to much faster production of the anti-toxin and at a cheaper price, such that physicians in New York and England could distribute it to poor families for free.

Subsequently, the antitoxin started being used in nationwide vaccination programs, leading to the successful eradication of diphtheria. The new strain, however, was named Park-Williams#8 (or Park8), after the name of the laboratory director Dr. William H. Park, partly diminishing the credit that Anna deserved.

After a visit to the Pasteur Institute, Paris, in 1896 Anna brought back a culture of the rabies virus to develop an effective rabies vaccine that can be mass-produced. She also started working to improve the diagnostics for rabies, as it was a major obstacle in curing the disease. Her research led to a protocol of staining brain tissue that could diagnose rabies within minutes rather than days. Anna’s stain became the standard diagnostic test of rabies for decades to come.

Outside the lab, her strong-willed, risk-taking spirit would manifest in other adventurous pursuits. She was an avid motorist in a time when automobiles were a novelty. She also rode as a passenger in pre- First World War airplanes, even with stunt pilots.

Anna held many leadership roles and received numerous honors and awards. She became the Assistant Director of New York City Research Laboratories in 1905, was elected the President of Woman’s Medical Society of New York in 1915 and was the 1stwoman to be appointed Chair of the American Public Health Association in 1932. She finally retired from work in 1934 and spent the rest of her life with her sister in New Jersey. Anna also published several influential books and research articles, and numerous research papers.

In an era when the contribution of women in science was not well recognized, Anna became one of the few successful bacteriologists. She was a mentor and a source of inspiration for other aspiring women professionals joining the field. Not only did she help save countless lives, but her seminal discoveries laid the foundation of immunology research for future generation of clinicians and scientists.


About the author:


Content Editor, Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:


Contributing Artist Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Expressing myself graphically has always been a source of great satisfaction for me. With my work, I can provide many things to others in different positive ways, as well as get a lot in return, because in every goal achieved, in every process, there is a lot to learn.

About the Series:

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

Sci-Illustrate Stories

A home for all our passion projects at Sci-Illustrate. A place where we invite you into our journey through art, science, and everything in between.


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Sci-Illustrate Stories

A home for all our passion projects at Sci-Illustrate. A place where we invite you into our journey through art, science, and everything in between.

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