Tribute For Maria de Sousa, Leading Portuguese Scientist, Dies at 80

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Maria de Sousa, one of Portugal’s leading scientists, first made her mark with research in immunology while working in Britain and the United States.

But after two decades abroad, she returned home with two goals: developing a national program of science education and creating a better understanding of hemochromatosis, a hereditary disease especially prevalent in northern Portugal in which the body absorbs excessive amounts of iron.

Dr. de Sousa died on April 14 at a hospital in Lisbon. She was 80. The cause was Covid-19, according to the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health at the University of Porto, where she was a professor emeritus.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the president of Portugal, paid homage to Dr. de Sousa’s scientific accomplishments and “broad vision of the world, which was not limited to academia but instead embraced with enthusiasm the relationship between knowledge, society, science and the arts.”

She managed to become “a prominent woman scientist at times when it was even harder than now,” said one of her former students, Rui Costa, who is the director and chief executive of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University. Her efforts to train a new generation of Portuguese researchers, he added, “was really like a national scientific revolution.”

Maria Angela Brito de Sousa was born on Oct. 17, 1939, in Lisbon. Her father was a naval officer and her mother a homemaker. She received a medical degree in 1963 and then left for Britain to continue her studies, making a rare move overseas during Portugal’s dictatorship.

She earned a doctorate in immunology at the University of Glasgow, then came to the United States, where she was an adjunct professor at what was then Cornell Medical College and became head of the cell ecology lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

She began building an international reputation in the 1960s with research into the functions of the immune system’s organs, in particular the thymus and its T-cells. Dr. de Sousa explained how these cells could rearrange themselves in other organs, like the digestive tract. This finding also helped show that if the cells were injected into the blood, they could then naturally make their home in different parts of the body.

She then narrowed her focus to investigating the immune system’s role in resisting iron poisoning, studying patients with an iron overload.

In the mid-1980s Dr. de Sousa returned to Portugal, where she used her iron toxicity research to focus on hereditary hemochromatosis. That disease can cause joint pain and weight loss, but in its most acute form it can also lead to liver cancer or diabetes.

At the same time, she pushed for the creation of Portugal’s first doctoral program in biomedicine, setting up the Graduate Program on Basic and Applied Biology at the University of Porto. Having kept a home in New York, she also started the American-Portuguese Biomedical Research Fund, which supports young researchers.

Dr. de Sousa, who has no immediate survivors, received one of Portugal’s highest honors, the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint James of the Sword, in 2016.

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