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human progress lesson

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 28: Lucy Wills

In this lesson, students will learn about Lucy Wills, a pioneering physician‐​researcher who discovered the link between inadequate nutrition and anemia in pregnant women.


Heroes of Progress

13-part unit
  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 25: Tu Youyou

    In this article, Alexander C. R. Hammond explains how Tu Youyou’s discovery of artemisinin was “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half [of the 20th] century.”

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 9: Richard Cobden

    Cobden’s work turned Britain, the global hegemon at the time, into a free trading nation – an act that set in motion global trade liberalization that has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 45: John Snow

    This lesson is about John Snow, an English physician and pioneer in anesthesia and epidemiology. Snow’s groundbreaking work led to the widespread adoption of anesthesia as well as a significant improvement in public health around the world.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 13: James Watt

    Some historians believe that the Industrial Revolution has been the most fundamental change in human life since the Neolithic Revolution, when prehistoric humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. James Watt was a key figure in this transformation.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 34: Alan Turing

    In this lesson, students will learn about the tragic life of mathematical genius and key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 27: Kate Sheppard

    In this lesson, students will learn about the extraordinary life of Kate Sheppard, the inspirational suffragist whose tireless work and petitioning of New Zealand’s parliament in the latter half of the 19th century is largely credited for the nation becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

  • Heroes of Progress: Norman Borlaug

    In this lesson, you’ll explore the life of Norman Borlaug, Ph.D. using text and video and consider the lessons we can apply from his story to our own lives and to current world problems.

  • Rosemarie Fike: Women and Progress

    Rosemarie Fike is an instructor of economics at Texas Christian University and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. Her research focuses on understanding the effects of different types of economic institutions on women’s status and lives.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 28: Lucy Wills

    In this lesson, students will learn about Lucy Wills, a pioneering physician‐​researcher who discovered the link between inadequate nutrition and anemia in pregnant women.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 49: Babbage and Lovelace

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of two 19th‐​century mathematicians and computing pioneers: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. These two English polymaths conceived the first automatic computer and recognized that it could have applications beyond mere calculation. Together, they laid the groundwork for modern computing.

Featured article: Heroes of Progress, Pt. 28: Lucy Wills by Alexander C. R. Hammond.

In this lesson, students will learn about Lucy Wills, a pioneering physician‐​researcher who discovered the link between inadequate nutrition and anemia in pregnant women. Over the past 80 years, Wills’s seminal work has saved millions of lives and improved prenatal care worldwide.


Lucy Wills was a tireless researcher who sought to improve the lives of expectant mothers and young children. Partly due to her groundbreaking work, the number of mothers and children who died during and after childbirth decreased rapidly in every country during the 20th century.

Child mortality is the share of children (born alive) who die before reaching their fifth birthday. It is expressed as a percentage of total births. For example, the child mortality rate was 0.63 percent in the United States in 2021. In other words, approximately 6 of 1,000 babies and young children died before turning five years old in the United States in 2021.

Every child’s death is a tragedy. We should all do what we can to solve this problem. Fortunately, significant progress has been made over the past 100 years. Child mortality continues to drop year after year.

How fast did the decline in child mortality progress since 1900? Use the charts on Our World in Data to find the following data:

Year Global Child Mortality Rate

Despite this achievement, 15,000 children under five years old still die every day. What are children dying from, and what can we do about it?

Work with a partner. See the Our World in Data article and then record the information in the two left columns below.

  • Top five causes of childhood death
  • Number of deaths in 2017

Collaborate and use your background knowledge. Brainstorm possible interventions and/​or solutions to reduce the number of deaths. Write your ideas in the right column.

Cause of Childhood Death Number of Deaths in 2017 Possible Interventions and/​or Solutions to Reduce the No. of Deaths

Questions for Reading, Writing, and Discussion

Read the article, and then answer the following questions:

  • What were some discriminatory practices against women that Wills encountered as she pursued her scientific studies?
  • What was the “simple but great observation’” that Wills made concerning yeast extract?
  • Make connections. How were the Industrial Revolution, mass production, and a multinational corporation connected to Wills’s breakthrough treatment for anemic pregnant women?
  • Besides preventing anemia in pregnant women, what are some other benefits of folic acid for mothers and children?

Extension Activity/​Homework

Read and Respond to a Primary Source
First, read Wills’s obituary in the May 30, 1964, edition of the British Medical Journal. It includes this praise, “Her generosity and magnanimity, combined with outstanding ability and resolution, made friends of all who ever worked with her and found her worthy of profound respect and deep affection.”

Wills’s obituary also says, “At this time [in the 1920s] she was also giving voluntary service to the Royal Free Hospital, undertaking biomedical research in the maternity wards.” © 2023 Cato Institute Opportunities for women to do medical research were limited in the early 20th century. Evidently, Wills was working as a researcher without pay, even though she was a licensed medical doctor in her late 30s at the time. Later, she became more prominent and held paid positions at various institutions.

Think about a goal you want to reach over the next two to three years. It may be passing a difficult class, getting a better‐​paid job, winning a championship, or getting into your dream college. Imagine yourself achieving that goal.

With that image in your mind’s eye, answer these questions in a paragraph of five to seven sentences:

This type of thought experiment is an ancient practice called premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils). It’s one way to be better prepared for the challenges that will come your way.

  • What is one goal you want to achieve over the next two to three years?
  • What are some of the obstacles you may encounter before you reach that goal?
  • What sacrifices will you need to make to achieve that dream?

Interview an Elder
During World War II, the Germans bombed Wills’s research laboratory. After the war, Wills wrote about the attack in an academic journal article:

An experiment was started at the end of 1943 planned to show the effect on the haemoglobin level and on the general health of the pregnant woman, not only of the improved rations but also of the routine administration of iron…. Unfortunately, a flying bomb incident interrupted the work, but though the actual number of observations were not as large as expected, they were large enough for statistical analysis.

Using the phrase “flying bomb incident” to refer to a Nazi missile attack on her research lab shows Wills’s understated wit, strength, and determination. She was a fiercely independent and resourceful woman who persevered despite setbacks.

Successful people like Lucy Wills have character traits we can emulate and use to guide our lives.

Choose an older person you know to interview. Your interviewee could be a parent, grandparent, neighbor, coach, boss, teacher, or family friend. The person must be at least 20 years older than you.

Ask the person if they are willing to be interviewed. Explain that you will take 10 to 20 minutes of their time. Below are some sample questions to get you started on your interview. Please share these questions with the interviewee beforehand.

Sample Interview Questions:

  • Please tell me a bit about your story
  • What have been some of the biggest obstacles you have faced in life?
  • How did you overcome these obstacles?
  • What are your sources of strength when faced with challenges? For example, family, religion, friends, or philosophy?
  • What advice do you have for me when I encounter setbacks?

Of course, you may ask other questions to help you understand this person’s sources of strength.

After the interview, write a 500‐​word essay. Your essay must include the following:

  • Demographic information about the interviewee (age, occupation, etc.)
  • Three obstacles this person has faced in their life
  • Their sources of strength when faced with challenges
  • Advice to you on how to overcome setbacks

You must write in complete sentences and cohesive paragraphs. Include a topic sentence in each paragraph. Be creative and use your own voice. What surprised you about this debate?