Dr. Cicely Williams

Cicely Delphine Williams, born 2 December 1893 at Kew Park, Darliston, Westmoreland, she grew up to become a pioneer in her chosen field of paediatrics and is also one of the first female to graduate from Oxford University and the first female doctor in Jamaica. Dr. Williams was directly responsible for initiating a worldwide campaign against the use of unsuitable sweetened condensed milk as a substitute for breast milk and for the diagnosis of the dreaded childhood nutritional disease, kwashiorkor.


She was the daughter of Rowland Williams, a landowner, who was said to have suggested, when Cicely was nine years old, that she had better become a lady doctor as she was unlikely to find a husband. At 13 she left Jamaica to be educated in England, beginning her studies in Bath and was then awarded a place at Somerville College, Oxford when she was only 19.


Williams went to Ghana, then the Gold Coast, in 1929, at a time when sick babies in British hospitals were separated from their mothers, and she found African mothers generally insisted on being with their babies, and that they recovered more quickly. She studied medicine during the First World War, when women were allowed to replace male students, emerging in the first batch of Oxford women medical graduates in 1923.


Dr Williams became so popular in Ghana that in only a few weeks after she opened a medical centre in the town of Koforidua, the police were sought to control the massive crowds of mothers and children that had gathered for medical care. At the Princess Marie Louise Hospital in Accra, Dr Williams introduced ideas to combat the abnormally high child mortality rates.


She proposed that mothers should begin breastfeeding their babies as early as possible, ensuring that babies were kept with their mothers during their stay at the hospital and taught the mothers how to bathe and care for sick babies. She developed a special treatment regime for the protein malnutrition disease Kwashiorkor that saved millions of lives. During her illustrious career as a doctor, researcher, lecturer, consultant and humanitarian, Dr Williams worked in over 50 countries like Europe, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.


It was hard to obtain a job in those days because of gender inequalities but was later employed at the South London Hospital for Women and Children where her specialty was paediatrics but based her interest on childhood diseases. Because of Williams’ research, she was elected as a Member of the Royal College of Physicians in London in 1935, without having to sit the entrance examination a distinct honour.


In the same year, her alma mater Oxford University also conferred an honorary Doctorate in Medicine upon her. Amidst growing recognition, Dr Williams did not lose her enthusiasm or focus. She continued to travel between Africa, Asia and Europe, treating victims of kwashiorkor wherever it had been identified as a widespread issue. 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.


She was awarded the Order of Merit, Jamaica’s highest honour. She died in England in 1992 at the age of 98 a very extraordinary Jamaican woman.



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