Putting a face to Dorothy Hamre, the scientist who discovered the coronavirus

  • Dorothy Hamre, who spent the last 21 years of her life living in Ouray, was one of the original discoverers of the corona family of viruses in the mid-1960s. Photo courtesy Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, (Dorothy Hamre and Kenneth Alexander Brownlee Photographs)
    Dorothy Hamre, who spent the last 21 years of her life living in Ouray, was one of the original discoverers of the corona family of viruses in the mid-1960s. Photo courtesy Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, (Dorothy Hamre and Kenneth Alexander Brownlee Photographs)

Editor's note: This article was published as part of a special section for the Ouray County Historical Society in this week's edition of the Plaindealer. Please pick up a copy to learn more about how you can be involved in the organization's programs.

In the May 22 issue of Frontline I had described the work of Dorothy Hamre, at the University of Chicago, on the discovery of coronaviruses (unnamed at that time) in the mid 1960s. In my search for the discoverer of coronavirus strain 229E, the first human pathogen identified for this new class of viruses, I ended on the hopeful note that we would soon obtain an authentic photograph of this largely unknown but pioneering scientist. That goal has now been reached, with the discovery of material deposited by her husband, Alexander Brownlee, at the Cline Library Archives, North Arizona State University at Flagstaff.

Samantha Meier and Kelly Kathleen Phillips, braving the hurdles of the virus induced lockdown, have unearthed several photographs, taken after her premature retirement from Chicago and her departure for the mountains of Colorado. Coincidentally, an indefatigable explorer of the Internet, IL Gurunath at IIT Kanpur, turned up the 1950 photograph of Dorothy Hamre at the Squibb Institute, New Brunswick, New Jersey, that appeared in a Polish journal (Iwona Korzeniewska-Rybicka, Medical Tribune 2014,09), in a lucidly written general summary of the status of anti-viral drugs.

Here, the wondrous speed of Google Translate directed me to her work on a class of simple molecules with a formidable name, para-aminobenzaldehyde thio semicarbazones, which demonstrated activity against the pox viruses. This compound was the forerunner of the antiviral drug methisazone, developed by Burroughs-Welcome for prophylaxis against small pox, with a promising clinical trial carried out at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Tondiarpet, Madras, in 1963 (D. J. Bauer et al., Amer. J. Epidemiology 90, 130-145, 1969).

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 which could only be propagated in organ cultures and analysed the clinical features of colds developed in volunteers infected with the virus (Br. Med. J. 1467, 1965). This unique approach to research, using largely unpaid, but enthusiastic, volunteers in the Common Cold Research Unit led by Tyrrell has been described as a “uniquely British venture”. A review of TyrrelYs 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 isolation of the virus, determined that its genetic material was RNA, established its ether sensitivity and reported its dimensions as 89 millimicron (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 in the midst of the current pandemic. Most recently, The New York Times carried an account of her career under a section entitled Overlooked, which “is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times”.

Dorothy Hamre has been the truly faceless pioneer of coronavirus research. We can now associate a face with a name. This may seem a curious and belated tribute when a member of the family of viruses she first discovered has brought the world to its knees.

This article originally appeared in the Indian magazine Frontline and is reprinted here with the permission of P. Balaram, emeritus professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, in Bangalore, India. Email him at pbalaram1949@gmail.com.