23 June 2020

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Reams have been written about the novel coronavirus SARS–CoV–2, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, but what about the word ‘coronavirus’ itself, which was officially coined in 1968?

It has been stated many times that the name comes from the Latin word corona, meaning ‘crown’—despite the fact that the now-familiar images of the spiky, spherical virus particles, do not look remotely like crowns. The true story is a fascinating one, and involves a former Emmanuel Fellow, Professor Anthony Waterson.

A black & white photo of a middle-aged man wearing glasses, with a bookcase behind.Tony Waterson (L) was admitted to Emmanuel in 1941, where he achieved a double First in the Natural Sciences Tripos. When he became liable for military service in 1943, the college fought hard, and successfully, to keep him, arguing that he was one of the ‘very best’ students and should be allowed to complete his scientific studies. Tony qualified as a doctor in 1947, and became M.D. in 1954, the same year that he returned to Emmanuel take up a Research Fellowship. He went on to become a lecturer in the Pathology Department at Cambridge, where his interest in virology was kindled.

Tony was appointed to the Chair of Medical Microbiology at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, in 1964, where one of his first acts was to headhunt a brilliant young electronmicroscopist, June Almeida, to help his team’s research into viruses. Born in Scotland, June had been working in Canada for ten years when Tony met her, and he immediately recognised the value of the techniques she had devised for identifying sub–microscopic virus particles. While working as a member of Professor Waterson’s research team, June examined under an electron microscope a sample of nasal ‘washings’ sent to her by another scientist, David Tyrell, and found it to contain a novel virus, variants of which she had come across before, although her findings had not then been widely accepted.

Now that June was sure they had indeed identified something new, she, David and Tony met in the Professor’s office, to discuss what this family of viruses should be called. As they later explained, the virus particles had a fringe of ‘rounded or petal shaped’ projections ‘recalling the solar corona’. They therefore decided that the most appropriate name would be coronavirus, to reflect this ‘characteristic appearance’. The name of the virus, then, refers to its resemblance to the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun, and has nothing to do with royal headwear.

June, David, and a small group of colleagues published their findings soon afterwards, but still needed to get formal approval for the new name from the appropriate sub–committee of the International Committee for the Nomenclature of Viruses. This did not present any difficulties, though, because the Chairman of the sub-committee was none other than Professor Anthony Waterson!

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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