By Delthia Ricks, MS, author of 100 Questions & Answers About Coronaviruses
In the 1960s, teams of scientists on both sides of the Atlantic were in hot pursuit of a same goal – isolating the many viruses that cause the common cold.
Virologist June Almeida emerged as a notable figure in the early days of the race. She captured the first sharp images of a coronavirus using an electron microscope, revealing in 1964 not only a common cold virus that was new to science, but one with an unusual structure. Almeida identified what seemed to be a halo encircling the pathogen. She and her colleagues called it a corona, another word for crown.
Ultimately, researchers would discover that beyond the two-dimensional image of a micrograph, the surfaces of coronaviruses are actually composed of innumerable “spikes.” These proteins are used by the virus to initiate infection.
Virus played hard to get
Identifying the first one wasn’t easy. The virus was elusive and played hard to get. Between British and American scientists four coronaviruses eventually would be found in the 1960s. And as time wore on, researchers would discover that coronaviruses play prominently in the incidence of the common cold worldwide. About 25% of all cases of the respiratory illness can be attributed to them.
The pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that emerged in late 2019 has the same crown – the profusion of spikes -- Almeida observed surrounding the common cold virus in 1964.
Her story is one of the most inspiring in the history of science – and for reasons beyond being a woman in a male-dominated field. Over the course of her career she garnered a reputation as an innovative virologist and top-notch electron microscopist. Yet life initially was a struggle for her.
Born June Hart in Scotland in 1930, her childhood was hardscrabble and money was short. She grew up in tenement housing and dropped out of school at the age of 16. She never attended an undergraduate college, didn’t have a bachelor’s degree and never wrote a formal thesis at the master’s level because she didn’t have that degree, either.
There wasn’t enough money for a university education, her daughter, Dr. Joyce Almeida wrote in her mother’s obituary, published in the British Medical Journal on June 28, 2008, about seven months after her mother’s death.
Immediately after leaving secondary school, June Almeida was hired as a lab technician at Glasgow Infirmary in Scotland where she worked in a histopathology laboratory. She left there to work as a laboratory technician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Although her jobs were at a technician’s level, her instincts were those of a scientist.
New life in Canada
In 1954, she married Venezuelan artist, Enrique Almeida and shortly afterward moved to Canada where, by chance, according to her daughter, a position had just opened for an electron microscopy technician at the Ontario Cancer Institute.
While in Ontario, Almeida developed many innovative methods in virology and electron microscopy. She was the first scientist to capture images of the rubella virus. The number of “firsts” attributed to her didn’t stop there. She pioneered immune-electron microscopy, a technique in which antibodies are used to prompt viruses to cluster. Aggregating them produced keener details of their structure.
Word of her reputation spread because of her research. She co-authored numerous scientific papers while in Ontario. Joyce Almeida wrote: “In Canada it was easier to gain scientific recognition without a university degree than in Britain.”
Back in London
By 1964, doctors in London, mindful of her value, lured her back to England. She was hired as staff virologist and electron microscopist at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. Almeida was awarded a doctorate in science (DSc degree) by the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London based on the strength of her research and published papers.
Almeida arrived in London at a time when a leading virus hunter was struggling to tease a definitive answer from a puzzling specimen, a sample dubbed B814.
Dr. David Tyrrell, head of the Common Cold Research Unit at Harvard Hospital in Salisbury, England knew of Almeida’s talent and reputation. He asked if she could help solve the mystery of B814. It was from the nasal passages of a boarding school student.
Almeida used her signature immune-electron microscopy technique. And in crisp, clear images not only spotted the virus but its halo – its crown. Almeida noted that she had seen viruses such as these in the past, particularly in chicken bronchitis samples. Almeida, Tyrrell and Dr. Tony Waterson of St. Thomas’s decided jointly to name the pathogen, coronavirus.
Fifty-six years after Almeida’s discovery, scientists globally have credited her research with helping them shed an even brighter light on a family of viruses that ranges from benign to deadly.
About the Book
What exactly is this new highly contagious virus? Where did it come from and how has it spread so quickly?
100 Questions & Answers About Coronaviruses answers these questions and more in an easy-to-read format. This timely resource organizes and distills cutting-edge information and data on COVID-19 in a single, convenient resource. Featuring a foreword by Dr. Aaron Glatt, Chairman and Chief of Infectious Diseases and Hospital Epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau, 100 Questions and Answers About Coronaviruses begins with a historical overview and myths about coronaviruses and progresses to answer questions about how COVID-19 affects children and adults, current vaccine research, quarantine, social distancing, preventing future pandemics, and more often asked questions.
About the Author
Delthia Ricks is an award-winning science journalist and author. She wrote 100 Questions & Answers About Influenza (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2009). For 22 years, Ricks was a staff health and science writer for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. She has written on a variety of science issues for national magazines and journals, including Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, Discover Magazine, The Journal of the National Cancer Institute and many others. She is a contributor to the London-based medical news website, Medical Xpress.