June Almeida’s unlikely path to discovering coronaviruses

Suzanne Slade

THE WASHINGTON POST – The coronavirus pandemic dominated the news headlines last year. Curious people around the world wanted to know more about this “new” virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

But coronaviruses aren’t new. In fact, the first human coronavirus was discovered in 1964 by a woman who had never attended a university. Like many women throughout history who made groundbreaking science discoveries, her story was unknown for decades.

As a girl, June Hart was a brilliant student who excelled in science. She won the top science prize at her school in 1947, according to her daughter, Joyce Almeida. June dreamed of going to a university to learn about her favourite subject.

But college was expensive. June’s father drove a bus on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, while her mother worked at a local shop. Her parents couldn’t afford college tuition. So she left school at age 16 to help pay the family’s bills.

She got a job as a lab technician in a hospital, where she analysed tissue samples with a microscope. Then the Hart family moved to London. She found a similar job at a hospital lab there.

In 1954, she married an artist named Henry Almeida. Soon the two moved to Canada, a place they thought was full of opportunities, Joyce Almeida said.

June Almeida found work at the Ontario Cancer Institute, where she learned how to operate a huge, powerful electron microscope. With patience and practice, Almeida created detailed pictures of human cells and viruses using the microscope. She also perfected a technique called negative staining, which helped her find and identify viruses.

Over time, Almeida became known as an electron microscope expert. So when a researcher named David Tyrrell was baffled by an unknown virus that was giving people nasty colds, he called Almeida for help. She used her negative-staining skills to create a sharp, clear picture of Tyrrell’s mysterious virus. Studying the picture closely, she noticed that each virus blob had tiny circles around it. The virus looked exactly like another one she had found years earlier. But scientists had rejected those findings, saying her photos were just blurry pictures of the flu virus.

Yet this picture of Tyrrell’s virus proved she had discovered a new human virus. Researchers gathered to discuss her finding. The tiny circles surrounding each piece of virus looked like a crown. Because the Latin word for “crown” is “corona,” Almeida and others named it “coronavirus”.

In the years that followed, Almeida continued her research and wrote science papers. Due to her remarkable work, the University of London awarded her a master’s degree in 1970 and a doctor of science degree in 1971.

During her long career as a virologist, Almeida conducted invaluable research on the rubella virus, hepatitis B virus and HIV. Her detailed virus photos have appeared in textbooks and science articles.

In 2019, when a strange disease first appeared in China, researchers used Almeida’s pioneering work to identify the culprit as another coronavirus – a type called SARS-CoV-2, which causes covid-19. Coronaviruses are a family of different viruses. They can cause human illnesses other than covid-19, such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Today, Almeida’s work helps scientists fight covid-19, as they work to create effective medicines and vaccines to keep people healthy.

June Almeida became an electron microscope expert, using the device to create detailed pictures of human cells and viruses. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST