The story of June Almeida: From teenager photographer to immune electron microscopy pioneer

By Dr Lara Marks, Visiting Research Fellow, Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge and Managing editor of WhatisBiotechnology.org

Publication date: 15 May 2020

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has recently shone a media spotlight on June Almeida, the person who captured the first electron microscope image of a coronavirus. Largely unknown outside scientific circles, Almeida’s visualisation of the coronavirus is just one of the many achievements she made in her lifetime. Among them was the advances she brought to immune electron microscopy, which made it possible to see many previously elusive viruses.

Her technique was instrumental in helping demonstrate the link between viruses and human cancer. She also provided the first visualisation of the rubella virus and determined the hepatitis B virus to have two immunologically distinct particles. The knowledge unlocked by Almeida's micrographs of both of these viruses was crucial to the development of the vaccines against them, both of which have made significant contributions to protecting public health. By the time Almeida retired she had helped to make visible many previously unseen viruses. This laid the foundation for the creation of a new system to classify and name viruses.

Constantly on the hunt for a good photo, Almeida’s skills in immune electron microscopy were rooted in the photography skills she developed as a teenager. Born and raised in a Scottish family with very little money, Almeida’s attention to detail, patience and persistence helped her climb from having to leave school at the age of 16 to find work to becoming one of the world’s leading virologists. Always enthusiastic and on a quest to solve problems, Almeida’s life was not always plain sailing. Not only did she have to contend with losing her six-year old brother when she was ten, she faced the challenge of raising her young daughter single-handedly while building her career.

To find read the full story of June Almeida’s life and work click here.

Photograph of June Almeida in the 1960s using a Siemens electron microscope

Photograph of June Almeida in the 1960s using a Siemens electron microscope. Credit: Joyce Almeida.

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