Maria de Sousa (1939-2020), Professor Emeritus of the University of Porto, passed away on 14th April, a victim of COVID-19. She was notable as an immunologist, a writer, a patron of sciences and arts and for intense civic intervention.
If one could put a label on her life and legacy, it should be as a scientist always “ahead of her time” with a rare “courage to question”. At the age of 25, she left her country, family and friends to start a research life at Delphine Parrott’s lab in London. This act alone, an almost unheard-of decision in those times in Portugal, indicated already her bravery and independence. Based on good training at the microscope, she rapidly made the original observation that thymus derived cells (T-cells) had the capacity to migrate and arrange themselves in specific areas of the peripheral lymphoid organs, a phenomenon she subsequently (as Lecturer at the University of Glasgow) called ‘ecotaxis’. That discovery marked her first entry in the immunology textbooks and is still cited (Parrott and de Sousa, Nature 1966). Subsequent studies of the maldistribution of lymphoid cells between the blood and affected organs in Hodgkin’s disease children, then with Charlotte Tan at the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York, led her to postulate in 1978 that “the lympho-myeloid system and its circulating components participate in the recognition and binding of metals as a protective device against metal toxicity and the preferential use of indispensable metals such as Fe or Zn by bacteria or transformed cells”. This idea marked her decision to return to Portugal in 1985 to the Abel Salazar Institute for Biomedical Sciences (ICBAS) of the University of Porto, to study hemochromatosis (before the HFE gene was identified) as a model to explore the relationship between iron and the immune system. This took her to the seminal description of an experimental model of spontaneous iron overload in the ß2microglobulin knock out mice (de Sousa et al, Immunology Letters 1994). With the identification of the HFE as an MHC class I like gene, her insistence on the existence of a critical but complex interaction between iron metabolism, blood cells and the immunological system was vindicated. More recently in her typically provocative way, she named this concept as “hemmunology”. Today, iron and the immune system is a topic never missing in the BioIron and EIC meetings.
Maria’s legacy goes far beyond her scientific discoveries. After returning to Portugal, she completely changed the science scenario in the country. At ICBAS she created and directed the first Masters course in Portugal, at a time when the Bologna Process was not even a project. In teaching she was highly innovative and pioneering. On her own words: “teaching science is the best way to learn and advance”, so it is necessary to develop a “university without walls”, because “that is where the good questions and the intelligent forms of looking for answers are”. With that spirit she coordinated in 1996 the fusion of 3 Masters courses to create the Graduate Program on Basic and Applied Biology (GABBA), a program internationally recognized for its excellence, and which attracted not only a whole generation of brilliant students, today in top positions in science worldwide, but also teachers and researchers from all over the world and from different areas of science, including Iron Biology.
As a mentor, she was tough, combative, and demanding. As a scientist she was creative, visionary and extremely rigorous. As a friend, she was sweet, wise, understanding, and incredibly good company. Maria de Sousa was unique and compelling, and leaves an inspiration and a legacy that will last for many years to come.
Maria de Sousa, a world renowned outstanding scientist, internationally recognised for her scientific discoveries in the area of the immunology and iron metabolism, has died a victim of Covid-19.
Maria de Sousa was born in Lisbon in 1939. After graduating in medicine in 1963, from the Faculty of Medicine of Lisbon, she began her scientific research career. England, Scotland, United States and Portugal – this was the scientific geography of her life.
Between 1964 and 1966, she was at the Experimental Biology Laboratories at Mill Hill, London, with a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It was in London that she made a great discovery that can be found today in any immunology manual, related to lymphocytes Area T and already at the University of Glasgow, the concept of ecotaxis, a name she gave to the migration of lymphocytes.
She then obtained a doctorate in immunology in 1972, remaining in Scotland until 1975. From there she went to the United States – to the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (in New York), Cornell Medical School (in New York) and Harvard Medical School (in Cambridge, Boston).
In 1984, she returned to Portugal to contribute to the development of scientific research in the country. In 1985, she became a full professor of immunology at the Abel Salazar Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICBAS), in Porto.
Later, she contributed to the implementation of external and independent evaluation of Portuguese research centers, which did not exist in Portugal until the mid-1990s, when she was invited by the then Minister of Science and Technology, José Mariano Gago, to coordinate this process, in the area of health sciences.
Owner of a very exigent and critical spirit, she emphasized the need to acknowledge the insatisfaction with what is presently known and how we know it.
Her generosity to younger generations was endless as she cared deeply for the future of scientific research in Portugal and worldwide. She was dedicated to improving funding for research projects, scientific positions, opportunities for young scientists, in order to pursue the answers for all the questions left open in science.
She was fascinated with the lives and journey of lymphocytes, and she was deeply curious about the role of lymphocytes in defending against iron toxicity.
Having the privilege of calling this incredibly bright mind a friend, I shared in her worries about protecting patients with chronic kidney disease (such as herself) from excessive IV iron administration, a battle still underway.
As she said in her last class entitled “A school without walls”, on 16 October 2009, at the age of 70: “At the end of an academic life, the gifts that any plant would naturally like to leave, are her seeds and the possibility of finding new soils for the new roots (…)”.
When she knew that she had contracted Covid-19, she left a poem to her friends.
The e-mail subject was “far from being ready”.
“Love letter in a virus pandemic
Bagpipes played in Scotland
Tenors sing from verandas in Italy
The dead will not hear them
And the living want to mourn their dead in silence
Who do they want to cheer?
But the children are also dying
In my circumstance
I may die
Wondering if I will ever see you again
But before I die
I want you to know
How much I care for you
How much I worry about you
How much I remember shared and cherished moments
The feather that the gull took to our table
Golden cuff links
Socks pijamas and other thoughtful things
All moment then
As I may die and you must live
In your living the hope of my lasting”
May her spirit rest in peace and smile upon our love for her, an inspiration for everyone who knew her.
In our living, her lasting.