Marmite’s slogan sums up people’s attitudes toward the strong-tasting spread: “Love it or hate it.” But as influential hematology researcher Lucy Wills showed, there’s so much more to the condiment than just its taste. Born 131 years ago Friday, the British icon was celebrated with a Google Doodle on her birthday.
Perhaps most well known for demonstrating that Marmite could help treat malnutrition in pregnant women, Wills pioneered the work that led to a major element of prenatal care, one that has become an absolute standard in the contemporary era: folic acid. And in the mid-1900s, a time before prenatal vitamins, the best source for this nutrient was — you guessed it — Marmite.
But the path to discovery wasn’t exactly linear.
This tale starts in the late 1920s, when Wills traveled to India to examine a crisis among female mill workers. Pregnant women working in textile factories were dying from anemia, and nobody could figure out why. As a hematologist, Wills focused on their blood, attempting to identify what was causing their illness.
In a 1931 paper in The British Medical Journal, Wills described their condition as “tropical macrocytic anemia,” characterized by enlarged red blood cells and a low red blood cell count overall. While in other cases, the condition often occurred alongside parasitic infections, the pregnant women didn’t show signs of such complications.
“Such patients are likely to go into premature labour and die of heart failure,” Wills wrote, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. The issue, she suspected, was in their diets.
She tried treating the patients with liver — a common source of iron, which is often deficient in anemic patients — to no avail. She also tried vitamins A and C on animal test subjects, and they didn’t work either. But this failure made her suspect that one of the B vitamins might be involved. For these vitamins, she turned to the famous spread.
“Experiments with patients were therefore begun, and marmite, a form of yeast extract, was selected as the most suitable preparation,” she wrote.
Today, Unilever owns Marmite, but back then, Marmite was its own company — the Marmite Food Extract Company — which donated Marmite for Wills’ experiments. Lab tests confirmed that the salty yeast extract was indeed high in vitamins B^^1 and B^^2 — thiamine and riboflavin, respectively.
The treatment worked on all 22 women to whom Wills gave Marmite in India, restoring red blood cell counts. She did not follow up with the women over the long term, but in her paper, she wrote that her results should encourage others to follow the same steps.
In the course of her experiments, Wills did not accurately conclude that folic acid deserved the credit for helping the women recover from their anemia. In fact, it wasn’t until four months after her death in 1964 that Bryan Hibbard published a paper in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology correctly identifying the role of folic acid in healthy pregnancies.
Now, folic acid, or vitamin B^^9, is widely known to be a crucial vitamin for pregnant women.
Even though Wills didn’t identify folic acid, she still hit the right target, since Marmite is rich in folic acid. When she left India, she recommended that women continue eating it to ensure successful and healthy pregnancies. Strangely enough, Marmite didn’t end up catching on in popularity, but her legacy persists in the form of prenatal vitamins.