Anna Wessels Williams, M.D., worked at the first municipal diagnostic laboratory in the United States, at the New York City Department of Health. She isolated a strain of diphtheria that was instrumental in the development of an antitoxin for the disease. She was a firm believer in the collaborative nature of laboratory science, and helped build some of the more successful teams of bacteriologists, which included many women, working in the country at the time.
Anna Wessels Williams was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1863, to Jane Van Saun, and William Williams. In 1887, her sister Millie became very ill during childbirth and, partly due to the inexperience of the person caring for her, lost her baby and almost died. Anna Williams decided that she would train as a physician to give herself more control in such terrible situations. That same year she enrolled in the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, where she was taught by Mary Putnam Jacobi, M.D.
Williams graduated in 1891 and then stayed on as an instructor in pathology and hygiene. In 1894, she volunteered at the New York City Department of Health's diagnostic laboratory, the first municipal laboratory in the United States, which opened in 1893. She worked closely with the director, William H. Park, M.D., on his projects to develop an antitoxin for diphtheria. Early on in her first year of work she was able to isolate a strain of the dipptheria bacillus from a case of tonsillar diphtheria. The isolated strain was a crucial discovery in the development of an antitoxin for the disease, and by the autumn of that year physicians in New York were being issued with diphtheria antitoxin free of charge to help eradicate the disease amongst the poor. Williams and Park shared the credit for the discovery, named the Park-Williams strain, and Williams was appointed to a full-time staff position as assistant bacteriologist. Although Williams had made the discovery while Park was away on holiday, she recognized the collaborative nature of laboratory research and concluded in her retirement "I am happy to have the honor of having my name thus associated with Dr. Park."
In 1896 Williams traveled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris hoping to find a toxin for scarlet fever that could be used to develop an antitoxin, as she had done for diphtheria. She was unsuccessful, but while there, she developed a new interest in the rabies work that was going on in Paris. She returned to the United States with a culture of the virus to try to develop a better way to diagnose rabies. By 1898 the culture had been used to develop enough vaccine to allow for the large-scale production of rabies vaccine. In 1904, an Italian doctor, Adelchi Negri, published his study of the brain cell changes accompanying the disease, which Willaims had also been working on, and these newly discovered indicators were named Negri bodies. Williams developed a new and fast method for preparing and staining brain tissue to show the presence of Negri bodies. Her method surpassed the original test and became the model technique for the next thirty years. In 1907, when the American Public Health Association established a committee on the standard methods for the diagnosis of rabies, they named Williams chair of the committee in recognition of her expertise.
In 1905, Dr. Williams was named assistant director of the Department of Health laboratory where she had worked since 1894. She and Park continued to work together closely and that same year published their classic text Pathogenic Micro-organisms Including Bacteria and Protozoa: A Practical Manual for Students, Physicians and Health Officers which quickly became known simply as 'Park and Williams' by readers. By 1939 the publication had been reprinted in eleven editions. Over the next few years, she worked toward the better diagnosis and treatment of venereal disease with Emily Dunning Barringer, M.D. and, in collaboration with S. Josephine Baker's Division of Child Hygiene, studied eye infections affecting the poorest children of New York City.
During World War I, Dr. Williams was appointed to a commission on influenza and directed a training program at New York University for the War Department, to train war workers for medical laboratories at home and overseas. She also researched the ways to diagnose meningitis carriers in the military. In 1929, Williams and Park published Who's Who Among the Microbes, though to be one of the earliest books on the topic written for the public. She retired in 1934 at the age of 71.
Although the collaborative nature of laboratory work and especially her close association with Park may have prevented Dr. Williams from receiving greater recognition for her achievements, she was a well-respected scientist who played an integral role in the understanding and control of contagious diseases. In 1914 she was elected president of the Woman's Medical Society of New York. In 1931 she was elected to an office in the laboratory section of the American Public Health Association and the following year became the first woman appointed chair of the section. In 1936, the New York Women's Medical Society honored Dr. Williams for her services to the city at a testimonial dinner. In her acceptance speech, she thanked the colleagues she had worked with over the years, including many of the women who were building careers in bacteriology alongside her or under her own mentorship at the Department of Health.