Dr Cicely Williams speaks to the nation

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By | Digital Developments, From the Collections

There is something very special about hearing a person’s voice. Tucked away in the Wellcome Library’s Cicely Williams archive  there are a few audio-recordings. These have recently been digitised and two of the best are now online, making it possible to hear what Dr Williams had to say.

The Malaria Advisory Committee for the Volta River Project

The malaria advisory committee for the Volta River Project, including Cicely Williams in 1952. Wellcome Images W0010325

Dr Cicely Williams (1893-1992) was a paediatrician whose special interest in nutrition lead her to identify, and name, the protein deficiency  kwashiorkor. Born in Jamaica, she trained in Britain and worked all over the world, including seven years in West Africa and twelve in South East Asia. Never scared to speak her mind, she spearheaded a campaign against the promotion of artificial milk over breast milk. Her career was temporarily interrupted during the Second World War while she was held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

This first recording is a six minute gem. In this 1976 interview she talks about how she identified kwashiorkor while working in Ghana. As a result of careful observation and visiting families in their homes, she realised that the condition was down to a lack of protein in children’s diet when they were weaned.

The second piece is longer at 19 minutes. This talk was broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service in 1962 and it filled the interval of a musical performance from the Royal Festival Hall, London. Drawing on her experience of working in maternal and child health Cicely Williams argues that improving health care in developing countries is a more effective way of controlling the population than imposing birth control programmes.

Before I heard these recordings I knew that Cicely Williams was a pretty interesting person, but hearing her speak gave me a more complete picture of her. For such a down to earth woman I was surprised how posh she sounded. I guess that is a reflection of how our ideas of correct pronunciation have changed over the years. I also heard a determined and robust woman who deserves our admiration.

Sue Davies

Sue Davies is External Projects Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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