Dr. Anna Wessels Williams

In the 1800s, diphtheria was a deadly infectious disease without cure. Dr. Anna Wessels Williams isolated a strain of the diphtheria bacillus crucial to the development of an antitoxin that helped eradicatethe disease in New York City. Dr. Williams worked at the New York City Department of Health, in the first municipal diagnostic laboratory in America. She researched the spread of infectious diseases like diphtheria and polio, then sought ways to protect people and lower the rates of infection. Dr. William H. Park was the director of the lab, and the two collaborated. Together, they worked on developing an antitoxin for diphtheria. In her first year of work, Dr. Williams isolated the strain and by the fall of that year, physicians across Manhattan issued the diphtheria antitoxin free of charge, helping to eradicate the disease among the city’s poor. Dr. Williams was appointed to a full-time staff position as assistant bacteriologist. She shared credit with William H. Park for the discovery, which became known as the Park-Williams Strain. She recognized the collaborative nature of laboratory research, and later said she was “happy to have the honor of having my name thus associated with Dr. Park.” In 1896, Dr. Williams traveled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris hoping to develop an antitoxin for scarlet fever. The research going on in Paris inspired her, and she became interested in rabies. Returning to the U.S., she brought back a culture of the rabies virus and worked to develop a better way to diagnose it. Her method surpassed the original test, and became the model technique for the next thirty years. She was promoted to Assistant Director of the New York City Department of Health laboratory in 1905 and continued to work alongside Dr. Park. Together they wrote a textbook on micro-organisms for students, physicians, and health officers that quickly became a classic text. In 1929, they published “Who’s Who Among the Microbes,” thought to be one of the earliest books on the topic written especially for the public. In 1914, Dr. Williams was elected president of the Women’s Medical Society of New York. In 1931, she was elected to the laboratory section of the American Public Health Association, and the following year became the first woman appointed chair of the section. In addition to her groundbreaking research, she helped build some of the most successful teams of bacteriologists—including many women—working in the country at the time.