Global search interest in coronavirus has seen a dramatic uptick since the start of 2020, as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 began to spread outside of China. Whilst the current Covid-19 pandemic has brought this family of viruses to the public’s attention, scientists have been studying them for over half a century. One person who was instrumental in their identification in the 1960s was Dr June Almeida (neé Hart).
Born in 1930 in Glasgow, Scotland, Dr Almeida left school at 16 years old, unable to obtain funds to go to university. Nonetheless, she began training as a technician in histopathology (the diagnosis and study of diseases of the tissues) at the Glasgow Infirmary, transferring later to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. After marrying an artist, Dr Almeida emigrated to Canada, where, by chance, there was a vacancy in the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto for an electron microscopy technician.
Here, unhampered by the academic hurdles in Britain, Dr Almeida co-authored several impressive scientific publications related to viral structures. Her skill and enthusiasm caught the attention of Professor Anthony P Waterson, chair of microbiology at St Thomas's Hospital medical school, when he visited Toronto and he asked her to join him back in London in 1964. She did and flourishing in the UK, Dr Almeida’s array of publications were rewarded with a DSc (Doctor of Science).
Perhaps Dr Almeida’s greatest scientific legacy was her pioneering use of an original technique called immuno-electron microscopy (IEM) to better image viruses. Dr Almeida mixed viruses with specific antibodies raised in animals or human sources, which the virus then clumped around.
As well as employing this technique to produce the first visualization of the rubella virus, Dr Almeida also used an adaptation of the method to provide the first image of a coronavirus in collaboration with Dr David Tyrrell, director of the Common Cold Research Unit.
Dr Tyrrell had been looking at nasal washings from volunteers and found that although most viruses associated with the common cold could be grown, some just couldn’t in routine cell culture. One curious nasal swab, referred to as B814, from a “boy with a typical common cold in 1960” at a boarding school in Surrey could not be related to any known type of virus. Dr Tyrrell concluded in a paper in 1965 that “after considerable initial doubts we now believe that the B814 strain is a virus virtually unrelated to any other known virus of the human respiratory tract.”
Alongside Dr Tyrrell, Dr Almeida imaged the mysterious virus in specially developed organ cultures, and is said to have described the samples as “like influenza viruses but not exactly the same.” The distinctive “crown-like” appearance was familiar to Dr Almeida, having previously seen them whilst investigating mouse hepatitis and infectious bronchitis of chickens.
Yet the paper was rejected as referees reportedly said the images were just “bad pictures of influenza particles,” before the images were eventually published in 1967. A year later, and together with seven other virologists, Dr Almeida wrote to Nature, outlining their findings and proposing the name “coronavirus” for the new family of viruses discovered. The name eluded to the “crown-like” (corona) appearance Dr Almeida had first observed.
“Without her pioneering work things would be slower in dealing with the current coronavirus outbreak. Her work has speeded up our understanding of the virus. She was a pioneer,” Professor Hugh Pennington, Almeida’s former mentee, told The Scotland Herald.
“For instance the Chinese used her technology to identify it. They repeated what she had done in looking at the culture.”
“What June did is so relevant now. Her methods are still being used and it is helping in the current outbreak.”
Before she passed away in 2007, Dr Almeida continued to image viruses and taught others to do the same. She also co-publishd a document for the World Health Organization in 1979 titled “Manual For Rapid Laboratory Viral Diagnosis.” Even after retiring and becoming a qualified yoga teacher and antiques dealer, Almeida’s draw to electron microscopy led her to return in an advisory role, where she helped take some of the first high-quality images of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
At a time of great uncertainty and change, it is humbling to remember all those whose past, present, and future work has helped to keep humanity safe.