16 April 2020

Maria de Sousa, a brilliant scientist


Maria de Sousa had a major role in building Portuguese Life Sciences from the mid-1980’s. With her personal charisma, her academic, scientific and political status in the country, and using her international experience in the UK and the USA, Maria was a critical defender of science, having a most relevant intervention at multiple levels: in the Government and its agencies, in research institutions, in society at large. Above all, perhaps, Maria was an attractor of youngsters, and many a scientist came to be though her direct influence. By advising J. M. Gago, President of the public science funding agency, first, and Minister for Science, later, by contributing to the establishment of science at her medical school in the University of Porto, by helping to consolidate existing research institutions and to create new ones, Maria promoted the establishment of a modern scientific community, to the implementation of “good practices” in its public support, and a novel, very positive image of science in society.

Maria de Sousa obtained a medical degree from Lisbon University and became an immunologist in the UK, first in London (Mill Hill), then in Glasgow. Working with Delphine Parrot on lymphocyte homing, they discovered the thymus-dependent areas in secondary lymphoid organs [Parrott DM, de Sousa MA. Nature (1966); Parrott DM, De Sousa M. Clin Exp Immunol. (1971); De Sousa MA, Ferguson A, Parrott DM. Adv Exp Med Biol. (1973)], demonstrating that lymphoid organs are not simply bags of cells, and contributing novel perspectives on lymphocyte “ecotaxis”. With a PhD from the University of Glasgow, Maria moved to the Sloan-Kettering in New York, where she developed a long-term interest on the role of iron in lymphocyte functions, a research topic she brought to her laboratory at ICBAS, when moving back to Portugal in 1984. Most importantly, in that very year, she launched the “Masters in Immunology” at the University of Porto, which turned into a PhD programme in basic and applied Biology (GABBA) 12 years later, and was to become a prominent mark of modern science education in Portugal, having produced a number of the current specialists in this area.

Maria de Sousa’s contributions were widely and repeatedly recognized in Portugal, having been distinguished with multiple scientific prizes and honorific awards, by three Presidents of the Republic, Government and academic institutions. To the end of her life, Maria maintained her interest in the history of science (published a book of recollections in 2014), and an intense activity in “science and society”, exploring the role of science in modern culture.

We shall very much miss her presence, wit and wide interests.


*Text written by Professor António Coutinho