Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “June Almeida, Virus Detective!” by Suzanne Slade

As the subtitle says, this is the story of “The Woman Who Discovered the First Human Coronavirus.”

June Almeida (née Hart, who lived from October 5, 1930 to December 1, 2007) was an internationally renowned virologist who pioneered new methods for viral imaging and diagnosis. She was born in Glasgow to a poor family so in spite of her passion for science she did not have the money to study at a university.

At age 16 she left school to work in order to help pay family bills. She got hired in the lab at the nearby hospital and learned to use a microscope. She and her family moved to London in 1952 and June got another job in a hospital lab, and met her future husband Enriques Rosalio (Henry) Almeida. The two moved to Canada.

The author reports that with June’s experience, she quickly got a job at a research lab in Toronto, where she began working with a powerful electron microscope that magnified things 25,000 times. She figured out that although it was hard to distinguish viruses from the other cells, she could identify them by the antibodies that surrounded them. Her work “astounded scientists,” who used the pictures June made with the microscope to help them find and study viruses.

A scientist at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School asked June to join his lab, and the family moved back to London. Dr. David Tyrrell, who oversaw research at the Common Cold Unit in Salisbury, Wiltshire and was baffled by an unidentifiable virus, sent June a sample from a sick boy. He had not been able to identify it or cultivate it in the lab. June successfully isolated it using new techniques she had developed herself. She created clear images of the virus, and also remembered she had seen that virus before in animals. She met with Dr. Tyrrell and others to discuss her discovery and they named it “coronavirus” because of the dots that surrounded the virus like a crown. June was only 34.

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have a halo or crown-like (corona) appearance when viewed under a microscope, Getty Images via BBC

June and Henry got divorced but June continued her work even with the obligations of being a single mother. She created new virus images that helped scientists develop medicines to fight the viruses. She retired in 1985 but remained active. According to a National Geographic biography, she became a yoga instructor, learned how to restore fine china, and developed a sharp eye for antique hunting, which she often did with her second husband Phillip Gardner, also a retired virologist.

Before her death in 2007 at the age of 77, Almeida returned to St. Thomas as an advisor and helped publish some of the first high-quality images of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The book ends with more information about June and about her use of the electron microscope, a timeline, and select bibliography.

The author apprises us that although June never attended college, her research and science papers were so impressive that the University of London awarded her a master’s degree in 1970 and a doctorate the next year. By the time she retired she had written or cowrote more than 100 scientific papers.

Picture of June Almeida and her telescope courtesy of her daughter, June Almeida

The author also notes that COVID-19 is, as most people know, a coronavarius, but it was identified as such using the technology and methods June developed.

Colorful illustrations by Elisa Paganelli have an animation-like feel, but also include accurate representations of viruses and equipment involved in scientific methods.

Evaluation: This STEM biography for readers 8 and older is not only a fascinating story given the pandemic of COVID-19. It also teaches kids a lot how science works – both generally, in terms of collaboration and even serendipity, and specifically, in terms of identifying and capturing images of cells. It also conveys how other interests and hobbies – in June’s case – photography, can enhance thought processes and achievements all throughout someone’s life. Finally, June’s story shows that even if you are too poor to attend college, that fact won’t necessarily bar you from realizing your dreams and maybe even helping to save the world through your discoveries!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Sleeping Bear Press, 2021

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