In a country famous for its athletes and musicians, Jamaican scientists and their contribution to society are often overlooked.
Cicely Williams of Westmoreland, Jamaica was a pioneer in the field of medicine and medical research. She was Jamaica's first female doctor, and an international leader in mother and child care during the early 20th century.
Cicely was born in 1893 into a well-to-do family from Kew Park in Westmoreland. Her early life exposed her to first aid and nursing duties, as she assisted in the informal clinic her mother ran from the verandah of the family home. Cicely's father once joked that he doubted whether she would ever find a husband, so she had better become a "lady doctor". And that's what she did.
When he died in 1916, she enrolled at his alma mater, Oxford University. She was one of very few females to be accepted to pursue medicine. Her acceptance was largely due to the fact that World War I had drastically cut the enrolment of male candidates. Being a female in a man's world was challenging, and Cicely had to fight many prejudices in order to land a job in England.
It was when the Colonial Office posted her to Ghana that she had a real chance to prove her worth. On visits to poor, rural districts she noted the phenomenon that the locals called "kwashiorkor", loosely meaning "displaced child". Young children, primarily those whose mothers had recently had another baby, were getting sick. This illness often resulted in death.
Studying the condition over time, Dr. Williams was able to identify the cause - the children were suffering from a protein deficiency. As they were weaned from breast milk, their diet became dependent almost exclusively on carbohydrates. So although they were being fed, they were being malnourished. Cicely developed a simple protein-rich feeding regime which in time saved the lives of millions of children in the developing world.
Her independent way of thinking is evident in the fact that she did not rename the illness in the conventional English manner, but retained the original Ga name, "kwashiorkor". She embarked on a successful international campaign which resulted in breast milk gaining acceptance worldwide as being a healthier choice than manufactured infant formula.
Dr. Williams went on to work in Malaysia, transforming mother and child care in that region. During World War II she was captured by the Japanese and held for over a year in a prisoner of war camp. She contracted dysentery and nearly starved to death. She was nursed back to health by friends she had made in Malaysia.
Working in Jamaica in the 1950's, she was head of the team that identified the cause of "vomiting sickeness", a sometimes fatal ailment that affected many poorly nourished children and the elderly in Jamaica. They discovered that the consumption of ackees (now our national fruit!) which had not properly ripened on the tree caused hypoglycemia (lowering of the blood sugar). They developed a simple remedy for the sickness, as well as raised awareness on how to properly prepare ackees.
Throughout her remarkable life, Dr. Cicely Williams worked in over 50 countries. She was an advisor to the World Health Organisation, and was the first female to receive the Honorary Fellowship from the Royal School of Medicine. She was awarded the Order of Merit, Jamaica's highest honour. She died in 1992 at age 99, one of the most outstanding Jamaican scientists and humanitarians on record.
Learn about another of our great Jamaican scientists - Dr. TP Lecky
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