Who was Dorothy Hamre? What did she have to do with the Coronavirus?

One of the defining images of science in the 21st century may very well be that of the coronavirus, a deceptively simple spherical object with a surface covered by spikes. The havoc the COVID-19 pandemic has caused will remain etched in memory for decades to come.

The protagonist of this ongoing drama, the coronavirus, was unknown to the world of science until the mid-1960s. Other viruses that caused respiratory diseases, notably the influenza virus and the common cold virus, were better known. So, who do you think can legitimately claim to be called the discoverer(s) of the coronavirus? How then can we summarise the origins of the coronavirus?

Chronologically from the published record, a paper in 1965 by David Tyrrell and Malcolm Bynoe described a new, novel cold virus that could only be propagated in organ cultures and analyzed the clinical features of colds developed in volunteers infected with the virus (Br. Med. J. 1467, 1965). A review of Tyrrell’s 2002 book Cold Wars: The Fight Against the Common Cold notes that probably in no other country could such altruism be found” (Nature 422, 379, 2003).

The key to the coronavirus discovery was Dorothy Hamre’s paper in 1966 (Proc. Soc. Exptl. Biol. Med., 121,190), which independently described the isolation of the virus, determined that its genetic material was RNA, established its ether sensitivity, and reported its dimensions as 89 millimicrons (nanometres), in remarkable agreement with estimates in later years. Her ability to grow the virus in the laboratory must have depended greatly on her skills as an experimental scientist.

The 1967 paper of June Almeida and David Tyrrell (J. Gen. Virol. 1, 175–178, 1967) was the result of Almeida’s skills as an electron microscopist, producing the now immortal image of the spiky virus, strain 229E obtained from Hamre. The authors specifically acknowledge Hamre for the sample of the virus.

The name coronavirus first appeared in the scientific literature in a news report in Nature (220, 650, 1968), which records receipt of a proposal from eight virologists, including Hamre, Tyrrell, and Almeida. Some years later, in the formal proposal for naming the new class of viruses in 1975, Hamre’s name is conspicuous by its absence. David Tyrrell was an acknowledged leader in the field, Fellow of the Royal Society, whose contributions are recorded in a biographical memoir. June Almeida had a long career and her image of the virus has attracted a great deal of recent attention amid the current pandemic.

A search for the face behind the name led me through the labyrinths of the internet and launched me into correspondence with an academic at Harvard University and an archivist in Arizona. The internet yielded much in the way of her science but little in the way of personal details. A search with Google Scholar yielded 56 publications spread over the period 1941–1972. PubMed, the database of the United States National Library of Medicine, turned up 40 papers between 1943 and 1972. Dorothy Hamre was a consistent and productive scientist, at a time when scientific publications appeared when authors had something to say and not, as in more recent times, as an essential prerequisite for career advancement.

Dorothy Hamre was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1915. She earned her B.S. cum laude in 1937 and her M.S. in 1938, both from the University of Washington. Her Ph.D. in virology came in 1941 from the University of Colorado. She was a bacteriologist with the 9th Corps Area Lab in Fort Lewis, Washington, from 1941 to 1942 and then associate in research at the Squibb Institute of Medical Research in New Jersey from 1942 to 1951.

Dorothy Hamre spent much of her life working on infectious diseases and discovered the coronavirus. As a woman building a scientific career in the days of the Great Depression and the Second World War, she must have been gifted with both imagination and resilience. She must have honed her experimental skills in the hard crucible of infectious disease laboratories. As the coronavirus rampages across continents, Dorothy Hamre emerges as a distant and anonymous presence. As the archives in Arizona are locked down, the virus will decide when we get to see an image of its discoverer.

More than 30 years after Dorothy Hamre’s death, the coronavirus has become a household name, and terms such as social distancing, lockdown, flattening the curve, first wave, second wave, and mutation now roll off the tongues of leaders, doctors, reports, and everyone including children with easy familiarity.

by Vaasavi Chunduru

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