June Almeida, the woman who discovered the coronavirus 60 years ago

June Almeida dedicated her scientific life to electron microscope research.

It is truly hateful (but unfortunately very common) when a prominent woman in any area of ​​the arts, sports, militancy or knowledge is described in the first lines of her biography as "the wife of". Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Simone de Beauvoir, Mileva Marić, Eva Perón or Luisa Cáceres can attest to this. One of the inescapable norms of structural machismo is to subordinate female deeds to the validating figure of the male, and this has been allowed by history generation after generation.

Even so, this time we have to begin the portrait of a woman, June Almeida, speaking precisely about her marital bond. Not because that validates her feat, but because thanks to her first marriage, this eminent researcher was united with Venezuela forever.

Born in 1930 in Scotland as June Hart, the woman we recall today was the first person to see a coronavirus under a microscope thanks to a technique she invented. Not only did she discover it, but she also gave it a name.

She changed her surname at age 24, in 1954, when she married the Venezuelan painter Enrique Rosalio Almeida, known as Henry Almeida, the great-nephew of General Joaquín Crespo and the son of another painter, the cosmopolitan Cirilo Almeida Crespo, author of one of the most famous portraits of Simón Bolívar, belonging to the Miraflores Palace collection.

Having established the marriage bond that translates into kinship by affinity with the country and taking into account the great validity that June Almeida's discoveries take today, it is worth taking a look at its history full of inspiring events, as well as successes achieved. pulse and against all odds.

The daughter of a bus driver

June Almeida was a survivor since she was little. It was not born with the privileges that we sometimes think people who come from the "first world" acquire automatically; rather, becoming a fully literate scientist was a tortuous path.

The Oxford Biography Dictionary details that she was the daughter of a bus driver and a woman we assume was a housewife since in no review is she assigned a “trade”. June had a childhood of great economic hardship in World War II, so much so that, despite showing great intelligence and interest in knowledge, at the age of 16 she had to abandon her formal studies due to lack of money to pay for them.

She gave up her dreams of going to university, but strategically looked for a job that followed the line of what she was passionate about, and that is how she entered as an apprentice in the histopathology laboratory at the Royal Infirmary of Glasgow, her hometown, where she fell in love with the instrument that would mark her life: the electron microscope.

From there she jumped to London, where she continued working in the same area at St Bartholomew's hospital. In the capital, she met the Venezuelan painter who soon after would become her husband and father of her only daughter, Joyce.

Fleeing the postwar recession and seeking better opportunities, the young family emigrated to Canada in the same year of their marriage. June was suddenly found in a circumstance as unexpected as it was extraordinary: in North America they were much less strict than in the United Kingdom when it comes to academic credentials to get a decent job in the field of science, so despite not having a college degree, she was allowed to do research as if she did, resulting in a time of intellectual flourishing and great discoveries for the young scientist.

She was employed at the Ontario Cancer Institute as an electromicroscopist. In these laboratories she made one of her first great discoveries, vital for her later work with the coronavirus: she developed a technique that is still used today to see viruses with higher quality in an electron microscope.

It consists of mixing the virus sample with specific antibodies. These, by attaching themselves to the pathogen by natural reaction, highlight it and thus its shape can be seen more clearly in the image produced by the equipment. Making a parallel in simple words: it is as if on a white surface we placed a handful of sugar. It will be difficult to distinguish, but if you invite a herd of ants, they will be attracted to the candy, so they will show where it is and by holding on they will delimit its borders with respect to the area.

At this time, Almeida was also recognized for being the first person to observe the rubella virus under a microscope.
She published several scientific articles in a renowned journal on the observation of viruses in electron microscope and thanks to those findings in 1964 she was proposed to return to London to work with who by then was an eminence in his field, AP Waterson, director of microbiology at St. Thomas of London, which he accepted.

In her old age with one of her two granddaughters.

Coronavirus moment

June Almeida could not imagine that the pathogen she discovered in 1964 and named while working on samples of the common cold in London would, in one of its variants, be responsible for the next pandemic, more than half a century later.

It so happened that Dr. David Tyrell, of the Common Cold Research Institute, required Almeida's help in the face of difficulties in categorizing a strange flu in a child.

June subjected the sample, identified as B814, to the virus observation method developed by her and it turned out that, indeed, it was not only an unknown pathogen, but also very similar to other samples already seen by the researcher in hepatitis of mice and infectious bronchitis of chickens.

The virus showed a kind of fat covering around it that gave it an appearance of a solar halo or corona, and taking this name from Latin, the scientist, in agreement with Tyrell, baptized the new microorganism as coronavirus. The first human coronavirus seen face to face.

The first photograph of the coronavirus, taken by June Almeida.

Not surprisingly, June had a hard time gaining credibility.

At first the finding was rejected by the referees of scientific journals, she was told that it was not a corona but rather out of focus images of the influenza virus.

So the first photographs of what she had seen were not published until two years later in the Journal of General Virology, when through persistence and thanks to the support of other colleagues it was validated. The full article with the details of the discovery can be read today for free on the internet.

This was not the only scientific contribution from June, which also helped to see the hepatitis A and B viruses. In 1980 the World Health Organization published the Manual for rapid viral diagnosis laboratory based on the technique devised by her for observation virus with antibodies in electron microscope.

Defying more social conventions, she divorced the Venezuelan in 1982, at age 52, to immediately marry a colleague, virologist Phillip Samuel Gardner. Shortly after, she retired from science to teach yoga and work restoring antiques.

In 2007 she put on her white coat again to advise HIV-related research. She was able to work with the team that took the first high-quality images of the virus. In December of that year she passed away. She was 77 years old.

Kick the Matilda Effect

“She had remarkable enthusiasm and the ability to interact equally well with his technical, scientific and medical colleagues, regardless of their hierarchy. Meetings with her were full of fun. She taught many virologists, either working on the more fundamental or clinical aspects of virology. It allowed laboratory workers to identify viruses within minutes of clinical samples arriving, in contrast to the more laborious and time-consuming techniques available at the time. She had the ability to present her methods and ideas in a delightfully direct and simple way, whether it was to one or two sitting next to her in the electron microscope suite, or to an audience of several hundred in a conference room. "
This is how she is described by the Oxford Biography Dictionary, which inscribes June Almeida on the list of the most notable personalities in the history of the United Kingdom.

For his part, British microbiologist Hugh Pennington, who was a pupil of Almeida, interviewed by the British press, described who he described as his mentor: “Unconventional but brilliant. Without her pioneering work, things would be slower to deal with the current coronavirus outbreak. Her work has accelerated our understanding of the virus. She was a pioneer, she was an outstanding talent. What she touched in her research she turned into gold ”.

Another merit of Almeida was giving a kick to the Matilda Effect, that prejudice against women scientists described for the first time by the suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage in her essay Woman as an Inventor and due to which her works are never correctly attributed.

June was ignored not a few times, but she stubbornly achieved express recognition of all her work, and although today her story does not have the same diffusion as that of many of her male colleagues, her works and research are identifiable, traceable and available, which it is even more commendable remembering the time in which he worked, not so far chronologically, but in terms of spaces won for equity.

Almost 60 years after its discovery, June Almeida's work is more relevant than ever. Her extraordinary story, irreparably linked to Venezuela, is a testimony of courage and love for knowledge.

Her first husband was the Venezuelan painter Henry Almeida, related to Joaquín Crespo.

 

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