Women, gender and viruses: coronas and microscopes in the time of a pandemic

This article is part of the series:

Among the multitude of narratives prompted by the current pandemic, the biography of June Dalziel Hart Almeida has been circulated by the BBC and other periodicals in numerous languages. Through the Internet’s power to feed the voracious desire and need to produce and consume information about the infection and microorganism involved, this woman virologist has achieved heroine status. It was Almeida’s skill with an electron microscope that enabled her to produce images of a coronavirus during the 1960s. Apparently surrounded by a halo in the initial plates she obtained, it was this trait that gave the virus its name, from a phenomenon observed during an eclipse of the sun and other stars: corona. In a short letter to the editor of the British journal Nature, Almeida and a handful of other virologists demonstrated the consensus necessary for the manufacture of a scientific truth, by bestowing this name on a new kind of virus. The corona proved to be composed of a set of protuberances that actively participate in the virus’ pathogenic ability (Banatvala 2011).

Cristina Moreno has described how illustrators at the US Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including Alissa Eckert, have produced a clear, bright image of the virus; an icon, now widely viewed in the multitude of news reports. Moreno herself reproduces it in her text on Covid-19 visual cultures. It looks like a knitted ball made from the yarn used to weave velvet: a velvet glove for an iron fist, or hand as we say in Spanish – a haunting representation. In such images, the protuberances are presented as small red tassels that evoke its ability to enter and infect cells; practices of Covid-19 repeatedly confirmed during the current pandemic.

While knitting and crochet are regarded as woman’s skills – whether for demand or fun – the act of weaving to manufacture textiles – by hand or machine, in artisan or industrial looms – and the symbolic power of fabric have often been used to describe the forms and functions of microbe walls. The German virologists, Wolfhard Weidel and Helmut Pelzer (1964), described the formation of a bacterial cell wall as a bag-shaped macromolecule, a “tightly knitted net running back into itself.” A break or tear of one thread through the action of a lysozyme or antibiotic would eventually cause the wall to disappear, thus leaving the bacteria protected only by its fragile and permeable membrane (Santesmases 2016, 2018). It is this fragile membrane that allows bacteria to develop a diversity of shapes, many of which had been carefully studied by the German bacteriologist, Emmy Klieneberger, during the 1930s. Having left her home and family to escape Nazi persecution, Klieneberger made the photomicrographs of these bacteria without a wall while working at the Lister Institute in London, with support from the Academic Assistance Council of the British Federation of University Women.

The electron microscope coronavirus images provided by June Almeida suggest a certain fragility, but also, and above all, they appear blurred, the contours imprecise. As contemporary technological products, this imprecision did not discredit the images or the device; on the contrary, these cloudy borders apparently dissolved in the plaque background held the promise of increasingly better techniques and image quality, eventually provided in the clear lines used to represent these natural shapes in drawings. The mindful hands and handy minds, whose simultaneous work produce both reliable knowledges and practical techniques (Roberts and Schaffer 2007: xv-xvi) was provided by the US CDC illustrators, who have presented a tridimensional ball, inside of which hides a nuclei acid, detectable by the action of a polymerase that multiplies the amount to identify the virus and diagnose infection: PCR.

The tyranny of diagnosis, to use Charles Rosenberg’s (2002) phrase, thus proceeds in a kit, contained inside one of the black boxes analyzed by Bruno Latour. The input of a particularly tiny sample composed of an equally tiny amount of nucleic acid is introduced to provide an augmented output. Diagnosis is not always an automatic output, however. The identification of a microbe in a Petri dish and a slide under the optic microscope is a centuries-old practice, and even the electron microscope is over half a century old. Both kinds of microscope require the preparation of an appropriate sample to render a cell and its parts visible. Thus, biological samples undergo tainting, partial or total purification, and other similar treatments. The skills in handling the device include this expertise of preparing what will be explored, making its materiality suitable for exploration. Virology and microbiology require the trained eye, manual abilities and the knowledge that has been accumulated over centuries. These activities have been performed by many women, many times, under the supervision of a colleague; the man heading the research laboratory or medical unit. This is illustrated by a photograph circulating with Almeida’s biography: in the foreground, white-coated, she is seated at an electron microscope in Toronto’s Institute of Cancer, under the attentive gaze of two men, who stand behind her as if supervising, one in a white coat, the other not. Almeida’s work has been received as an example, or maybe as an exception to be treasured. The retrieving of her name may have inclusive intentions. The image can be taken as a source to display Almeida’s agency in the construction of virus images themselves, and the reliable knowledge those images embody.

The work and professional rank of technical assistant, like other posts with low salaries and apparent dependency on supervision, was created to name women’s work. Medical schools have always resisted women, but for over a century, women have nevertheless had this option and now, in many countries, women outnumber men among medical students. As nursing remains a woman’s domain of training and practice, a woman in a white coat may be regarded as a nurse by hospital visitors and, at times, patients. With the same white coat, Almeida remains a laboratory Cinderella in the circulated narratives of her biography; her father was a bus driver, declares one chronicler, suggesting her family was not able to pay for university. As she lacked the university certificate of an academic degree, Almeida was still regarded as untrained after a decade of work as a technician, a non-educated virologist who apparently secured a “doctorate in Science” through her research. Telephone operators, cigar makers, and women workers in munitions factories during both World Wars are among those who have received less recognition and thus lower salaries than the men who would have done the same work. Women historians have suggested some posts were specifically created for women to be paid less (Berg 2005, Borderías 1993, Gálvez 2000), while access to the institutions that could qualify them for supervisory roles was discouraged. The creation of engineering studies to qualify men for particular tasks excluded women to such an extent that many are dissuaded from applying to engineering schools even today. Through these gendered cultures of education and professionalization, women became helpers, collaborators, assistants to those qualified by the higher education system. It is this same logic that considers care tasks to be women’s duties, unqualified work performed at home for relatives in times of pandemic: indeed, women without medical qualifications taking care of the sick at home are preventing overcrowded medical services from collapsing. A doctor’s assessment places women on the secondary tier of care, and when the doctor leaves – if she or he goes beyond a phone call – home in a time of pandemic remains the topos of care and cure, usually represented by a woman at the bedside of the infected (Cabré 2020).

With recognition of her work in England and Canada in a research group led by a well-known scientist, including the publication of her research on many viruses, June Almeida has finally been recognized as a scientist through an image obtained by her skills in sample preparation and electron microscopy: by observing and qualifying coronaviruses, she became qualified herself. In the midst of a global crisis her name has been brought into the history of an organism that has created dramatic trials and unknowns of a gendered, sick planet.

Copyedited by Joanna Baines, this is an English version of a slightly shorter piece in Spanish at https://sehmepidemiassaludglobal.wordpress.com/. A brief reflection, also in Spanish, on June Almeida’s research can be found at https://veinte20.org/coronavirus/

María Jesús Santesmases is Research Professor of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC, Spanish National Research Council) at the Institute of Philosophy. Her research and publications focus on history of contemporary biomedical sciences, and of gender and women in biomedicine. Back to the cell after her research on biochemistry and molecular biology, she has recently published on cytogenetics –articles on visual cultures, women’s bodies and chromosomes. A related project, after her book Penicillin in Spain, is dedicated to the cultures of antimicrobial resistances.

Works Cited

Jangu E. Banatvala, 2011. “Almeida [née Hart], June Dalziel (1930–2007), virologist”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-99332.

Maxine Berg, 2005. The Age of Manufactures, 1700–1820: Industry, Innovation and Work in Britain (London: Routledge).

Cristina Borderías Mondéjar, 1993. Entre líneas. Trabajo e identidad femenina en la España contemporánea. La Compañía Telefónica Nacional de España (Barcelona: Icaria).

Gálvez Muñoz, Lina, 2000. Compañía Arrendataria de Tabacos,1887–1945. Cambio tecnológico y empleo femenino (Madrid: LID Editorial Empresarial)

Montserrat Cabré, 2020. “Jerarquías del cuidado y representación simbólica de la enfermedad epidémica”. https://sehmepidemiassaludglobal.wordpress.com/2020/05/20/jerarquias-cuidado-representacion-epidemica-cabre/

Cristina Moreno Lozano, 2020. “Seeing COVID-19, or a Visual Journey Through the Epidemic in Three Acts”. http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/visual-journeyepidemic-covid-19/

Lissa Roberts and Simon Schaffer, 2007. Preface. In Roberts, L., Simon Schaffer, and Peter Dear (eds.) The Mindful Hand. Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialisation. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Charles E. Rosenberg, 2002. “The tyranny of diagnosis: specific entities and individual experience.” The Milbank Quarterly 80(2): 237-260.

María Jesús Santesmases, 2016. “The bacterial cell wall in the antibiotic era: An ontology in transit between morphology and metabolism, 1940s–1960s.” Journal of the History of Biology 49: 3-36.

María Jesús Santesmases, 2018. The circulation of penicillin in Spain: health, wealth and authority. London Palgrave-Macmillan.

Wolfhard Weidel and Helmut Pelzer, 1964. “Bagshaped Macromolecules – a New Outlook on Bacterial Cell Walls.” Adv Enzymol Relat Areas Mol Biol 26: 193-232.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *