Chasing Sister Williams

Since I found the reference to Sister F E Williams in the Official History of the Australian Medical Services, I’ve been looking for traces of her, wondering if she could be the hero of the story, if she can have ever met D’Herelle, how a woman came to be a bacteriologist at that time anyway.

The folks at the State Library of Victoria sent me this article by Dr Kirsty Harris, University of Melbourne.

It turns out Fannie Eleanor Williams was a noted bacteriologist who specialised in dysentery – starting as a technician working under a bacteriologist in Gallipoli, moving on to Cairo and then the Western Front. Here she is, in the laboratory on Lemos(Australian War Memorial Collection item ID H13944)

After the war Fannie Williams was one of the first three staff members of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Australia’s oldest research institute - the first female scientist employed there. She worked there until she retired, and ran her own lab. They have their own little bio for her - where I found this picture.

Her early published articles were co-authored with Charles Martin, from Army hospitals during the war. I looked them up in the British Journal of Medicine and they look a bit like this:



She says great things like:

Attempts to isolate dysentery bacilli from 217 cases in which the stools contained muco-pus with or without blood were made. In many cases the amount of mucus in the stool was very small…The method employed was to wash the mucus, break it up in sterile broth and plate out some drops on the surface of a MaConkey plate.

Her dates don’t line up for Pozieres, and I think we want our main character to actually suffer dysentery, So it looks like she can’t be the hero of our story. But I’m enjoying seeking the aesthetic of the laboratory between the science-paper lines. I’m wondering what her relationship would have been like with the normal nursing staff, how she obtained her samples (!) (me - not getting over the whole thing about poo samples). There's something about having the specificity of what scientists knew about dysentery at the very moment our story is set. And there's something important for me about connecting this understanding to an Australian woman. Someone who lived in the same city as me. 

Meet the Scientists: Dr. Kathryn Holt

We began our research into the dysentery-causing bacteria Shigella with local expert Kat Holt.

The Holt group at the University of Melbourne are the next generation of microbiologists – a laboratory full of computer nerds, who sequence whole genomes of different disease-causing bacteria. But unlike traditional genome-sequencing approaches, their approach is to sequence and compare whole populations of clinical isolates from different locations, focusing on differences in the genetic differences in their transmission, antibiotic resistance, detection and more.

In our meeting, Kat told us about how so few Shigella can cause an infection and the important role of nutrition in preventing Shigella from infecting and causing dysentery. She also described the Shigella invasion plasmid (a plasmid is a mobile set of genes in circular form, separate from the genome), and the role this massive set of genes play in gaining entry through our defenses and into our intestinal epithelium (the cells lining our gut), and how they take advantage of our immune system to spread throughout our large intestine in a dysentery infection.

Kat also told us about her amazing work in discovering the changing infections of different Shigella species (such as Shigella sonnei) around Earth over the last century and implications this has for the millions of people still infected by Shigella each year and the role that clean water supplies can have in preventing dysentery.

Kat also rightly emphasised that the endogenous (native) human intestinal biota (particularly our resident bacteria) would play a large role in trying to fight off any Shigella bacteria in our gut…something we will surely work into our story!