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Obituaries

June Almeida (née Hart)

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a434 (Published 26 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1511
  1. Joyce Almeida

June Almeida (née Hart) was internationally renowned virologist who pioneered new methods for viral imaging and diagnosis.

She was brought up in a flat in a tenement building in Glasgow, and, although shining academically, left school at 16 without funding to go to university. Nevertheless, she became an internationally renowned virologist whose skills in electron microscopy enabled her not only to identify viruses whose fine structure had hitherto been unknown but also to shed light on the pathogenesis of viral infections, and to pioneer and improve methods for viral diagnosis.

On leaving school in 1947, June became a laboratory technician in histopathology at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary on a salary of 25 shillings a week, and then got a job at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, working in the same discipline. She then married an artist and emigrated to Canada, where, by chance, there was a vacancy in the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto for an electron microscopy technician. Her skills soon became apparent, and, despite having no formal qualifications, she co-authored numerous impressive scientific publications, mostly relating to the structure of viruses which hitherto could not be visualised. In Canada it was then easier to gain scientific recognition without a university degree than in Britain. Fortuitously, when he was visiting Toronto, Professor A P Waterson, then at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School, met June and persuaded her to join him in London in 1964. From this point onwards, her career blossomed. Three years later, she moved with Professor Waterson to the Royal Post Graduate Medical School (RPGMS). By then her publications had been rewarded with a DSc. Today, most virology review articles and textbooks contain her electron micrographs of viruses.

Notable among June Almeida’s scientific achievements was the first visualisation of rubella virus, despite it having been recognised as a cause of congenital malformations, if acquired in pregnancy, over 25 years previously. The delightfully simple technique, of immune electron microscopy, which she pioneered, was used not only for rubella but also for other viruses in which the virus preparations were mixed with antibodies raised in animals or from human sources, made it possible for viruses to be seen clumped by antibody. June collaborated with Dr D A J Tyrrell, director of the Common Cold Research Centre, who developed a new technique of organ cultures. In this way, not only were common cold viruses, which could not be cultivated conventionally, identified, but also new viruses were recognised, including the coronaviruses, which were a new cause of respiratory infections. The more recently recognised SARS virus also belongs to this group.

Perhaps one of June’s most important discoveries, again using immune electron microscopy, was that there are two distinct components to the hepatitis B virus, one on the surface of the particle and one internally. It is antibodies to the surface component which are protective against infection and which are stimulated by current hepatitis B vaccines. The inner component is infectious and contains the viral DNA. While at the RPGMS, June taught Dr A Z Kapikian, visiting from the National Institutes of Health in the USA, the technique of immune electron microscopy. He then used this on his return to identify small round viruses causing outbreaks of gastroenteritis among which were included the “Norwalk agent,” now known as Norovirus, which causes nationwide outbreaks of so called winter vomiting disease. June’s technique also enabled workers at the NIH to visualise, for the first time, hepatitis A virus.

June taught many virologists, whether working on the more fundamental or clinical aspects of the discipline, the technology of negative staining and immune electron microscopy, enabling them to identify many virus infections within a few minutes of collecting specimens, which, until the more recent advent of molecular diagnostics, contrasted with the often laborious and time consuming older technology. June’s success resulted from a combination of originality of thought, looking for and often finding simple explanations for what appeared complex problems, and technical expertise using an economy of reagents. Any discussion with June, regardless of the size of the group, was not only stimulating but full of fun: she had a lively, and occasionally wicked, sense of humour.

June finished her career at the Wellcome Research Laboratory, where she worked on developing diagnostic assays and vaccine development. She retired to Bexhill in 1985, where her career took a different direction. She trained and qualified as a Yoga teacher running several successful classes in the town, and also trained in china restoration with considerable expertise, leading to a productive and fun career trading in antiques with her second husband, Phillip Gardner (also a retired virologist). However, true to form she could not leave electron microscopy forever, and in the late 1980s returned to St Thomas’ in an advisory role, publishing with colleagues in virology some of the first high quality negative staining electron micrographs of the human immunodeficiency virus.

She is survived by her daughter, a consultant psychiatrist, and two granddaughters.

Footnotes

  • Former virologist Ontario Cancer Institute, Toronto; Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London; and Wellcome Research Laboratory, Beckenham (b 5 October 1930; DSc), d 1 December 2007.

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