June Almeida has long been forgotten and yet she revolutionized virus research. It was she who, in 1964, identified for the first time a human coronavirus, under an electron microscope. Not a graduate but very determined, her career is a beautiful story of social uplift.
June Almeida was born in 1930, in Glasgow (Scotland), into a modest family. Her father is a bus driver and her mother is a store worker. She had to leave school at the age of 16 for lack of funds to go to university. This did not prevent her from knocking on the door of the Royal Glasgow Hospital where she was recruited as a laboratory technician in histopathology to study diseased tissue under a 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. This is when she will start to learn about viruses, “especially viruses which are responsible for tumors” and will highlight, “for the first time, a virus in common warts”, explains Martin Catala, neurologist, professor of histology and author of a biography on June Almeida.
June Almeida invents a new simple but very effective technique to observe the structure of viruses. It takes antibodies from sick patients and puts them in the presence of the virus. The antibodies cluster around the viral particles and using the negative contrast technique, which already existed, June Almeida can identify the viruses. It is this technique that has made it possible to use electron microscopy to diagnose viral infections.
At this time, the virologist begins to make numerous publications and her skills begin to be noticed. She is called by AP Waterson, a professor of microbiology who suggests that she come to work in London at Saint-Thomas hospital. She will spend her days in front of her microscope in the basement of the establishment.
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. This is where June Almeida intervenes and realizes that the virus she has in front of her eyes belongs to a new family that we know well now: the coronaviruses. David Tyrrell and June Almeida take their inspiration from the crown-shaped halo that surrounds the virus and choose the name “corona”, which means crown in Latin.
The term “coronavirus” appears for the first time in 1968 in a note which 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.
She never got the status she deserved. She never had an academic position.Marc Catala, neurologist and professor of histology
Even though June Almeida has been forgotten and it took a pandemic to discover her, her legacy is immense today. When Chinese scientists discovered the Sars-Cov-2, responsible for Covid-19, they used June Almeida’s observation technique, perfected half a century ago.