Born as June Hart, Almeida was a daughter of a bus driver, who dropped out of the school at the age of 16.
The COVID-19 has spread in 185 countries, infecting over 2.4 million people and taking more than 170,000 lives. While COVID-19 is considered as new, the existence of coronavirus was discovered more than seven decades ago and the woman who discovered the first human coronavirus was June Almeida.
Who was June Almeida?
Born as June Hart, Almeida was a daughter of a bus driver. She was a bright student with ambitions to attend university, but financial crisis led her to leave the school at the age of 16 years, says a report by National Geographic.
After dropping out of school, she started working as a lab technician at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where she used microscopes to help analyse tissue samples.
Development of electron microscopy
June moved to a similar job at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London where she met Venezuelan artist Enriques Almeida and they got married. They immigrated to Canada, and June started working at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, the report said.
She pioneered a technique called electron microscopy that blasts a specimen with a beam of electrons and then records the particles’ interactions with the specimen’s surface. This technique brought scientists an image with much finer, smaller detail.
However, finding if a tiny blob is a virus, a cell, or something else was still a challenge. For this, Almeida used antibodies taken from previously infected individuals to pinpoint the virus. As antibodies are drawn to their antigen-counterparts, when Almeida introduced tiny particles coated in antibodies, they would congregate around the virus, alerting her to its presence.
This technique enabled clinicians to use electron microscopy as a way to diagnose viral infections in patients, said the report.
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The discovery of the first human coronavirus
In 1964, Almeida met Dr David Tyrell, whose team had collected samples of a flu-like virus they labeled as “B814” from a sick schoolboy in Surrey.
Tyrell sent the samples to Almeida with the hope that her microscope technique could identify the virus. With the sample from Tyrrell, Almeida was confident that they were looking at a new group of viruses.
One day, Almeida, Tyrrell, and Almeida’s supervisor gathered to discuss their findings. They looked into the images of the virus and inspired by its halo-like structure they decided on the Latin word for crown, corona.
In this way, the coronavirus was identified decades ago, which has come roaring back into focus during the present pandemic.Follow our full coverage here.