Here in the Royal Society archives we’ve been busy cataloguing and repackaging the papers of Brigitte ‘Ita’ Askonas, one of the collections we recently collected from Mill Hill, and we’re pleased to announce that this is now ready to be viewed by the public. This reasonably small collection is made up of research files, scientific notebooks, index cards and papers relating to the Division of Immunology at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR).
Brigitte Askonas (1923-2013) was born in Vienna and educated at McGill University in Montreal, where she was awarded a BSc and MSc in biochemistry. She moved to England in the late 1940s to undertake a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Cambridge.
The majority of Askonas’s career was spent on the staff at the NIMR, where she became a leading figure in the field of immunology. She joined the Institute in 1952 and became one of the founding members of the Division of Immunology. In 1973 Askonas was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, ‘distinguished for her studies on the mechanism of the synthesis of immunoglobulins and on the immunological function of antigens in macrophages’, and in 1976 she became Head of the Division of Immunology at Mill Hill.
Askonas’s research centred on antibodies and their functions. She studied antibodies found in goat’s milk while at Cambridge University, then later at Mill Hill her research on antibody synthesis showed that antibody cells exist in bone marrow and lung tissue, not just lymph tissue. Askonas also worked on memory B cells, and discovered the role of B and T cells in the immune system, as well as the role of macrophages.
Our Royal Society collection reveals Askonas as a serious and kindly woman of science, dedicated not only to her own career but to those of her students and colleagues. The notes and records of her research, along with studies carried out by her co-workers in the Division of Immunology, are extremely detailed and rather tricky to understand for the non-scientist!
The research files contain correspondence with her scientific co-workers regarding the sharing of data and methodology, even down to the sharing of mice! One particularly touching letter is from a female colleague, about to depart for maternity leave, who says ‘I am sure my baby would benefit one day from knowing you, as I have’ – this respect and friendship from her peers is replicated in other correspondence found in our newest collection.