Real Lives: Anna Wessels Williams (1863–1954)

Historian feature

By Patrick J. Pead, published 24th November 2022

Anna Wessels Williams (1863–1954): forgotten pioneer of microbiology

Patrick J Pead writes about a truly remarkable woman whose contribution to advances in medicine deserves far wider recognition.

Our series ‘Real Lives seeks to put the story of the ordinary person into our great historical narrative. We are all part of the rich fabric of the communities in which we live and we are affected to greater and lesser degrees by the big events that happen on a daily basis. Sometimes we might even play a part in the big events, although our names are not recorded, while on other occasions we are witnesses to events and times which we would now consider remarkable. Sometimes our regular lives are the perfect illustration of how people live at any given time – but all our lives matter and we want to celebrate some of those lives here. If you have any people that you think might also fit this category and would like to write about them, please do contact: 

Anna Wessels Williams was born on St Patrick’s Day 1863 in Hackensack, Bergen County, New Jersey. Her mother Jane Van Saun was married to William Williams. who was a private-school teacher. As a child Anna practised the piano for 4 to 6 hours a day and seemed destined to become a musician, but that all changed when she peered down a school microscope at the age of 12 and became fascinated with science.

After Anna Williams graduated from a local public high school she enrolled at the New Jersey State Normal School, and seemed destined to follow her father into teaching. She graduated in 1883 and taught for about two years. However, in 1887 everything changed because her sister Millie nearly died whilst giving birth to a stillborn child. Anna was horrified by the lack of medical treatment received by her sister and resigned her teaching post to enrol at the Womens’ Medical College at the New York Infirmary...  

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