June Almeida was long forgotten, yet she revolutionized virus research. It was she who first identified a human coronavirus under an electron microscope in 1964. Not a graduate but very determined, her career is a beautiful story of social ascent.
Without a degree, she started as a laboratory technician.
June Almeida was born in 1930 in Glasgow, Scotland, to a modest family. Her father is a bus driver and her mother a store assistant. She had to leave school at the age of 16 because she could not afford to go to university. This did not stop her from knocking on the door of the Royal Hospital in Glasgow where she was recruited as a laboratory technician in histopathology to study diseased tissue under the microscope.
In 1952, she moved to London and worked at St Bartholomew’s Hospital where she met her future husband, a Venezuelan artist. Together, they moved to Toronto, Canada, where she was hired as an electron microscopy technician at a cancer research institute. It was then that she began to become familiar with viruses, “especially viruses that cause tumors”, and discovered, “for the first time, a virus in common warts,” explains Martin Catala, a neurologist, professor of histology and author of a biography on June Almeida.
She is inventing a revolutionary method to identify viruses.
June Almeida invents a simple but very effective new technique to observe the structure of viruses. She takes antibodies from sick patients and puts them in the presence of the virus. The antibodies aggregate around the viral particles and using the negative contrast technique, which already existed, June Almeida can identify the viruses. It is this technique that made it possible to use electron microscopy to diagnose viral infections.
At that time, the virologist began to make numerous publications and her skills began to be noticed. She was called by A.P. Waterson, a professor of microbiology, who offered her a job in London at St. Thomas Hospital. She will spend her days in front of her microscope in the basement of the hospital.
The discovery of the human coronavirus
In 1964, at the age of 34, she was contacted by an English doctor, David Tyrrell, who presented her with a virus that had infected a schoolboy, and June Almeida intervened and realized that the virus she was looking at belonged to a new family that we now know well: coronaviruses. David Tyrrell and June Almeida are inspired by the crown-shaped halo that surrounds the virus and choose the name “corona”, which means crown in Latin.
The term “coronavirus” first appears in 1968 in a note that synthesizes their research and that of other virologists. June Almeida appears first in the signatories because the list is arranged in alphabetical order, which did not please her colleagues so much.