PAEDIATRICS: the branch of medicine concerned with the treatment of infants and children


KWASHIORKOR: severe malnutrition in children resulting from a diet excessively high in carbohydrates and low in protein

Cicely Williams (2nd Dec 1893 - 13th July 1992)

Caribbean Icons in STI Vol 1

Dr. Cicely Williams qualified as one of Britain’s first female doctors and the first female Jamaican doctor in 1923. She first diagnosed the protein deficiency condition known as Kwashiorkor and developed a treatment regime. Considered one of the 20th Century’s greatest discoveries, she was awarded the Ceres Medal by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Dr. Williams also initiated a global campaign against the use of sweetened condensed milk as a breast milk substitute.

Cicely Delphine Williams was born in Westmoreland, Jamaica on December 2nd 1893. At age nine, her father encouraged her to go to Oxford to become a “lady doctor”. In 1916 she entered Somerville College, Oxford as one of Britain’s few female students. After graduation she joined the South London Hospital for Women and Children and specialised in paediatrics.

She became the first female medical officer appointed to the Colonial Medical Service in the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1929. She worked tirelessly to transform the healthcare system and established a proper hospital with clinics to educate mothers on breastfeeding, nutrition, and proper healthcare.

In 1932, her compassion for the poor led her to observe that children were succumbing to a “mystery illness”. She discovered this was due to severe protein deficiency termed Kwashiorkor. She recommended a special diet of high protein beans and educated parents on proper nutrition, saving lives here and there around the world. She was elected Member of the Royal College of Physicians, London without examination (1935) and received an honorary doctorate from Somerville College.

From 1936 she spent ten years in Malaya lecturing and treating patients. During World War II she was captured and spent three years imprisoned. She was starved, tortured, and subjected to inhumane conditions. She almost died from severe illness, but continued to treat fellow prisoners and successfully cared for twenty babies born at the prison camp.

After her release she returned to Jamaica and researched a cure for “vomiting sickness” caused by ackee poisoning. For her service to medicine she became the first recipient of the Jamaican Government’s Order of Merit and the Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

Dr. Williams later returned to Malaya, the first woman to head maternal and child welfare services. From 1948-1951 she was a WHO advisor. She lectured at Oxford University, the University of the West Indies, Mona and universities in Europe, Beirut and the USA. Well  into her nineties, she remained active in child health promotion. She died in England July 13 1992.