Women in Immunology / AAI Biosketch

Anna Wessels Williams: Infectious Disease Pioneer and Public Health Advocate

by John S. Emrich
March/April 2012, pages 50–52

Anna Wessels Williams, early 1900sAnna Wessels Williams, early 1900s
The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University
Women have always figured prominently in immunology and in the American Association of Immunologists (AAI). In fact, two of the 54 charter members of AAI were women. During the first 30 years of the association’s existence, a total of 55 women were elected to AAI membership. While women remained a minority within AAI, their numbers rose steadily until, by 1940, they comprised 44 of the society’s 350 active members. Among these early women members, Anna Wessels Williams, (AAI 1918), like Elise L’Esperance profiled in the January-February issue of the AAI Newsletter, is one of a number who stand out for their enduring contribution to immunology and to the foundation of AAI. Her legacy in the burgeoning field of immunology includes breakthroughs in the treatment of diphtheria and the diagnosis of rabies. And texts that she co-authored helped to define how generations of researchers and clinicians would conduct research, as well as assist the general public in understanding infectious diseases.

Early Life and Education

Anna Wessels Williams (1863–1954) was already a highly regarded medical and public health researcher at the laboratory of the New York City Department of Health, when she was elected to AAI membership in 1918. Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, into the family of a private-school teacher, Williams is said to have become fascinated by science when she first peered into a school microscope at age 12. After graduating from a local public high school, she enrolled in the New Jersey State Normal School and seemed destined for a career as a school teacher. For the two years following her graduation in 1883, she did, in fact, teach school.

In 1887, however, Williams’s life was to change course. In that year, her sister Millie narrowly escaped death, giving birth to a stillborn child. Struck by the ineffectiveness of the medical treatment received by Millie, Williams became intensely focused on a career in medicine. She resigned from her teaching position to enroll in the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary later that year.

Williams received her M.D. in 1891 from the Woman’s Medical College and interned at the New York Infirmary, where she remained as an instructor in pathology and hygiene. Although the exact dates cannot be confirmed, Williams is known to have traveled to Europe to continue her medical training in Vienna, Heidelberg, Leipzig, and Dresden during the years 1892 and 1893.

In 1894, after her return to New York City, she volunteered at the recently opened diagnostic laboratory of the New York City Department of Health, where she would work for the next 39 years.

Map of deaths from Diphtheria, New York City, c. 1877, from <em>Pictures of New York life & character</em>Map of deaths from Diphtheria, New York City, c. 1877
National Library of Medicine

Diphtheria Research

At the time she entered the laboratory, diphtheria had reached near-epidemic levels in the city and was especially high among children from poor families. In her first year at the lab, she began a collaborative research project with the director, William H. Park (AAI 1916, president 1918-19), to eradicate the disease. Their objective was to create a higher-yield antitoxin than was currently available. They would seek to build upon the work of Emil von Behring, who, in 1890, had developed the first successful serum therapy to treat diphtheria. Though the antitoxins that he created were successful—earning him the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1901—their low yield meant that many patients were still denied access to the therapy.

William H. Park, 1920William H. Park, 1920
AAI Collection, UMBC
While still a volunteer, Williams experienced a breakthrough in the search for a higher-yield antitioxin. Working alone in the lab, with Park away on vacation, she isolated and identified a new strain from a mild case of tonsillar diphtheria. The strain, later to be named Park-Williams No. 8 (commonly called Park 8), proved crucial to the development of effective high-yield antitoxin. Within just one year, the antitoxin was in mass production and public health departments were distributing it free of charge to physicians in the United States and Great Britain. Although it was Park who was given the recognition for the discovery of the Park-Williams No. 8 strain, Williams stated that she had no regrets about the presumed credit going to her mentor and collaborator, as she was “happy to have the honor of having my name thus associated with Dr. Park.”

Scarlet Fever and Rabies

In 1895, Williams was hired as a staff member of the laboratory and, in 1896, was able to take a sabbatical to carry out research on an antitoxin for scarlet fever at the Pasteur Institute. In Paris, her work on scarlet fever yielded no dramatic results, but the trip was fruitful in another area of research. Having spent some of her time at the Pasteur involved in its rabies research, she returned to New York intent upon improving rabies prevention and diagnostics. By 1898, she was able to create an effective vaccine that could be mass produced in the United States. This was a major step in the prevention of rabies, but many patients were still succumbing to the disease because of the lengthy, 10-day-or-longer diagnostic period.

Williams turned her attention to a search for some means of detecting the disease much earlier in its occurrence and began studying the brains of infected animals. Her work led to a rabies diagnostic breakthrough within the decade resulting from her discovery of abnormal brain cells in rabid animals. She was not, however, to be generally recognized for this important stride forward, as she was not the first to publish a journal article about the brain cell abnormalities. At the same time that she was performing her research in New York, Adelchi Negri, an Italian pathologist, was studying the same phenomenon in his lab at the University of Pavia. Although it is held that Williams was the first to recognize this distinct brain-cell structure in rabid animals, she is said to have “cautiously waited” to publish her results. Meanwhile, Negri published his seminal paper in 1904 and became widely recognized for the breakthrough. The abnormal cells, known as Negri bodies, bear his name.

Williams continued her rabies research, focusing on the use of brain tissue stains in diagnostics. In 1905, she developed a diagnostic test that yielded results in minutes rather than days. Williams’s test quickly became the standard rabies test and remained so for the next 30 years. It was not to be improved upon until the late 1930s.

Anna Wessels Williams first publication in <em>The Journal of Immunology</em>, 1921 6, no. 1Anna Wessels Williams first publication in The JI, 1921
The Journal of Immunology
In 1905, Williams was promoted to the position of first assistant director of the diagnostic laboratory. In her position, she directed research on a range of urgent public health issues, including influenza, venereal diseases, polio, and trachoma. During the First World War, with the laboratories of top American researchers focused intensely on influenza, Williams was one of a very few female scientists working to identify the pathogen responsible for the pandemic. The women researchers were largely limited to lab work, analyzing specimens forwarded by male scientists from military bases. Williams, however, was the exception. With Park, she was summoned to Camp Upton on Long Island in September 1918 to investigate the disease on the front lines of a new outbreak.

On another front, her research on trachoma resulted in a more accurate diagnostic test and opportunity to spare the eyesight of many schoolchildren infected by the disease. As with diphtheria, her work on trachoma proved greatly beneficial for the urban poor.

Cover for the 1937 edition of <em>Who's Who among the Microbes</em>Cover, Who's Who among the Microbes, 1937
Outside of the laboratory, Williams lived a life far removed from the cautious calibrations and sometimes mundane routine of the laboratory. She seems to have invited risks, as she was known to love being a passenger in pre-First World War airplanes, especially with stunt fliers. And she appeared determined to replicate the excitement felt for a scientific discovery in the thrill of speeding in her car through the streets of New York City—or so the many documented speeding tickets would suggest.

In 1934, despite an outpouring of support and a petition campaign by scientists, clinicians, and other public health professionals, Williams was forced to step down from her position at the bench and enter retirement. At 71, she had exceeded the established mandatory retirement age of 70 for city employees.

A Pillar of Public Health

Beyond her achievements in the laboratory, Williams coauthored two books with Park that helped define the way contagious diseases were to be understood: Pathogenic Micro-organisms Including Bacteria and Protozoa: A Practical Manual for Students, Physicians and Health Officers (1905) and Who’s Who among the Microbes (1929). The former was so widely referenced that it was known among researchers and clinicians alike simply as “Park and Williams.” By 1939, 11 editions of the text had been published. (At last, one of her contributions to science would bear her own name.) Their second text, Who’s Who among the Microbes, was one of the first biomedical reference books written for the general public.

Anna Wessels WilliamsAnna Wessels Williams
Library of Congress
Throughout her long career, Williams served in leadership roles and received numerous honors and awards. Among them were her posts as president of the Woman’s Medical Association (1915) and as the first female chair of the American Public Health Association’s Laboratory Section (1932). Through her position at the diagnostic laboratory, Williams made seminal discoveries that advanced the medical understanding of diphtheria and rabies and, in doing so, saved countless lives. With her election to AAI in 1918, she not only was accorded recognition by her peers, but she also lent honor to the young organization.

Although she may have never received the renown granted a male researcher for the same discoveries, Williams’s research and publications informed the work of generations of scientists, male and female. And her distinction in her career inspired confidence for the growing number of female researchers and clinicians entering the field. Upon her retirement, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia accurately summed up Anna Wessels Williams’s career: She was “a scientist of international repute.”



  • Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
  • Chung, King-Thom. Women Pioneers of Medical Research: Biographies of 25 Outstanding Scientists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.
  • Kraut, Alan M. Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
  • Markel, Howard. When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America and the Fears They Have Unleashed. New York: Vintage, 2004.
  • Negri, Adelchi. “Contributo allo studio dell’eziologia della rabbia.” Bollettino della Società medico-chirurgica di Pavia 2 (1904): 88–115.
  • Russell, Lesley M. and Randall K. Holmes. “Highly toxinogenic but avirulent Park-Williams 8 strain of Corynebacterium diphtheriae does not produce siderophore.” Infection and Immunity 47, no. 2 (1985): 575–578.
  • Schafer, Elizabeth D. “Anna Wessels Williams.” American National Biography Online. www.anb.org (accessed 7 February 2011).
  • Williams, Anna Wessels. “A Study of Trachoma and Allied Conditions in the Public School Children of New York City.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 14, no. 2 (1914): 261–337.
  • Williams, Anna Wessels and May Murray Lowden. “The Etiology and Diagnosis of Hydrophobia.” Journal of Infectious Diseases 3, no. 3 (1906): 452–483.
  • “Anna Wessels Williams (1863–1954).” In The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: L-Z, edited by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie and Joy Dorothy Harvey, 1380–1381. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • “Anna W. Williams, Scientist, Is Dead.” New York Times. November 21, 1954.
  • “City Acts to Oust Woman Scientist.” New York Times. March 14, 1934.
  • “Dr. Anna Wessels Williams.” Changing the Face of Medicine, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_331.html (accessed 7 February 2011).
  • “Physicians Plead for Dr. Williams.” New York Times. March 28, 1934.
  • “94 Retired by City; 208 More Will Go.” New York Times. March 24, 1934

© The American Association of Immunologists, Inc.
1451 Rockville Pike, Suite 650, Rockville, Maryland 20852
Phone: (301) 634-7178 | Fax: (301) 634-7887