When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, a lot of people were unaware that there are different kinds of coronaviruses, not just SARS-CoV-2, which is the type that caused our recent pandemic.
Did you know that the first person to identify a coronavirus was a woman?
It was June Almeida, a Scottish virologist who changed the game in viral imaging and diagnosis.
June was born in Scotland in 1930. As a kid, she was always an excellent student and won science prizes at school, motivating her to work in science after graduation.
Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college right away, so when June was 16, she got a job as a lab technician at the Glasglow Royal Infirmary. When her family moved to London not long after, she got the same position at a hospital in the city.
In 1954, June married Venezuelan artist Enriques Rosalio Almeida. They had a daughter named Joyce and moved to Canada as a family. June had a much easier time finding work in Canada than in Scotland or England and quickly began her successful career at the Ontario Cancer Institute.
At the Ontario Cancer Institute, June started as an electron microscopy technician, where she took photos of specimens for diagnosis and research. She became an expert at her job, as making these images usually took a very long time, but she found ways to get it done much faster.
June eventually adapted her own technique called negative staining, which was a faster way to find and identify different viruses.
In the mid-1960s, June was persuaded by virologist Professor A.P. Waterson to move back to London to work with him at the Royal Post Graduate Medical School. June earned a stellar reputation as a scientist around this time, co-writing scientific publications and identifying viruses.
While working, June made a remarkable discovery when she helped identify the rubella virus. June also did some incredible research that helped scientists and medical professionals learn more about HIV and Hepatitis B, as she helped to identify their structure. All the while, she was still perfecting and teaching others her own virology techniques.
June discovered the coronavirus when she was asked by Dr. David Tyrell, who was doing research on the common cold, to help him identify one of the samples he had called ‘B814,’ as the image he had of it was quite blurry. Using her negative-staining technique, June got a much clearer image of the virus, which ended up being what we know as a coronavirus.