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Meet the woman who discovered the first coronavirus. We owe her so much.

Dr. June Almeida was the Scottish researcher who identified the first-ever human coronavirus. Humankind can thank her.

Meet the woman who discovered the first coronavirus. We owe her so much.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

While the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic continues, it's probably a good time to look back on history and remember Dr. June Almeida, the woman who discovered the very first human coronavirus. As a result of her research and ingenuity - even in the face of sexism and unimaginable oppression - we are able to combat one of the worst public health crises. Dr. Almeida, rarely celebrated in our textbooks, was the daughter of a Scottish bus driver and had to leave school at the young age of 16, the BBC reports. Despite the odds, she discovered a deadly virus that would forever change the way we look at health and medicine.

 



 

 

Though COVID-19 is a new illness, it is caused by a coronavirus. This coronavirus is of the type that was first discovered by Dr. Almeida when she worked at a laboratory in St. Thomas' Hospital in the city of London, United Kingdom. She discovered the virus in 1964, just a few decades before the ongoing outbreak began. Born as June Hart in 1930, she grew up in a tenement near Alexandra Park in the northeast of Glasgow, a city in Scotland. At the age of 16, when she would have been in the 11th grade, she had to drop out of high school. Even though she had little formal education, she went on to become a prominent virologist. Her first job was as a laboratory technician in histopathology at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Soon after, she moved to London in order to pursue her interests further and progress in her career. There, she met Enriques Almeida, a Venezuelan artist. They got married to each other in 1954. A few years on, the couple had a daughter together and moved to Toronto in Canada. In the North American country, Dr. Almeida was able to develop "her outstanding skills," as described by medical writer George Winter, with an electron microscope at the Ontario Cancer Institute. At the institute, she engineered a method that better-visualized viruses by using antibodies so as to aggregate them. Soon enough, experts in the United Kingdom recognized her talents and "lured her back," inviting her to work at St. Thomas' Hospital Medical School in London. If that name rings a bell, it's because it's where UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was recently admitted after he tested positive for Coronavirus.

 



 

It was at St. Thomas' Hospital Medical School that she began to collaborate with Dr. David Tyrrell, a researcher studying the common cold at a unit in Salisbury in Wiltshire. According to Winter, Dr. Tyrrell had been examining nasal washings. While he and his team had been able to grow a few common cold-associated viruses, there were some that they found were difficult to grow in routine cell culture. His team was even able to transmit the symptoms to others, but could still not grow them (bar a few that could be grown in organ cultures). Wondering whether an electron microscope could help, the researcher enlisted the help of Dr. Almeida.

 



 

Once she studied the virus particles in the specimens sent to her by Dr. Tyrrell, she identified them to be "like influenza viruses but not exactly the same." As it would turn out, she discovered the first-ever human coronavirus. She had actually seen similar particles while investigating mouse hepatitis and infectious bronchitis of chickens. Furthermore, even though she wrote an excellent paper and submitted it to a peer-review journal, it was rejected. Winter explained, "[It was] because the referees said the images she produced were just bad pictures of influenza virus particles."



 

However, in 1965, the new discovery from the strain was published in the British Medical Journal. Two years later, photographs of what she had observed were included in the Journal of General Virology. The coronavirus, Winter shared, was named so by doctors Almeida and Tyrrell, and St. Thomas' director-in-charge Professor Tony Waterson because of the "crown or halo surrounding it on the viral image." (Of course, we have a different idea of what constitutes a "viral image" these days.) Dr. Almeida went on to work at the Postgraduate Medical School in London where she earned herself a doctorate and finished her career at the Wellcome Institute. There, she had several patents to her name. She eventually went on to teach yoga after retiring and passed away at the age of 77 in 2007. 13 years after her death, Dr. Almeida is finally getting the recognition she duly deserves.

 

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