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Maria de Sousa (1939-2020)


FCT notes with deep regret the death of researcher Maria de Sousa, this Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Born in Lisbon in 1939, she had to choose between music as a pianist and medicine. She chose medicine and in 1963 graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon, following her path as a researcher between England, Scotland, the United States, and Portugal.

FCT recovers an interview conducted by Ioav Cabantchik, President of the International Bioiron Society to Maria de Sousa, in June 2018, in which she tells her story in the first person. In this interview, Maria de Sousa reveals the reason why she chose research, when she was still practicing medicine and "it was hard to see patients and have nothing to offer but cortisone, antibiotics and the need to do research was obvious, and so I started doing research and I was lucky enough to make a discovery in the first job", the well-known T area.

Considered a "Woman of Science", it was between 1964 and 1966, when she was in the Experimental Biology Laboratories in Mill Hill - London, that she made the great discovery that consecrated her in the immunology area, the discovery of the thymus-dependent area known worldwide as T area. The researcher understood how the organized migration of lymphocytes, the immune system cells that are fundamental to fight diseases and infections, took place. In her experiments she found that in the peripheral lymphatic organs there is space reserved for lymphocytes from the thymus, the T-lymphocytes (the thymus is a gland located in the chest) and other areas intended for other types of lymphocytes. Before its discovery and until 1964 it was thought that all types of lymphocytes came from the thymus.

In 1968, Maria de Sousa went to Scotland and in 1972 she got a PhD in immunology at the University of Glasgow. During this period, more precisely in 1971, the researcher gave the name "ecotaxis" to the phenomenon of migration of lymphocytes of different origins, from the thymus and bone marrow where another type of lymphocytes form, to specific microenvironments in the peripheral lymphatic organs.

Next stop is the United States, where she worked at the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and Cornell Medical School, both in New York, and Harvard Medical School in Cambridge (Boston).


Portugal welcomed Maria de Sousa back in 1984, but it was a year later in 1985 that she became full professor of immunology at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences Abel Salazar (ICBAS) in Porto. In 1991, she coordinated the area of health sciences in the process of implementing the external and independent evaluation of Portuguese research centers, conducted by JNICT (Junta Nacional de Investigação Científica e Tecnológica, FCT's predecessor institution).

Maria de Sousa was decorated by three Presidents of the Republic: in 1995 by Mário Soares, with the rank of Grand Officer of the Ordem Infante D. Henrique; in 2012 by Aníbal Cavaco Silva, with the rank of Grand Officer of the Military Order of Sant'Iago da Espada; and in 2016 by Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, with the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Sant'Iago da Espada. He also received the Bial Medicine Grand Prize in 1995, the Stimulus to Excellence Award in 2004, and the Gold Medal of Scientific Merit in 2009, both awarded by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education. It was also in 2010 that she marked her jubilation, in the Noble Hall of the Rectory of the University of Porto, where she was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus of the University of Porto in 2011. This was followed by the University of Coimbra Prize 2011 and the University of Lisbon Prize in 2017.