Brigitte Askonas (1923-2013)

14 February 2013

Brigitte Askonas died on 9 Jan 2013, aged 89. She was a member of staff at NIMR from 1952 and was Head of the Division of Immunology from 1976 until her retirement in 1988.

Brigitte Askonas, widely known as Ita, made seminal contributions to our understanding of the molecular basis of lymphocyte responses to proteins, and especially to infectious agents. One of the foremost British immunologists, Ita was elected to become a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1973, and was Vice President from 1989-1990. In 2007, she was elected as a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Ita had a profound and sustained influence in the field of immunology, and in the development and advancement of internationally acclaimed investigators.

Ita was born in Vienna to Czech parents in 1923. Her family left Austria in 1938 and settled in Canada in 1940. Educated at McGill University in Montreal, she moved to the United Kingdom in the late 1940s to do a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. In 1952 she obtained a position in the Biochemistry Division at NIMR, to study how milk proteins are made.

In the mid-1950s, Ita started studying antibody synthesis and secretion, showing that after immunization, antibody secreting cells were not only present in lymphoid tissue, but also in bone marrow and lung. In 1957 John Humphrey set up the first Immunology Division at NIMR, and invited Ita to be one of the founding members. In 1960 she was given a permanent staff position, in recognition of her "distinguished reputation in this country and abroad for her research in protein synthesis and particularly on antibody formation".

After studying the assembly and secretion of antibodies - also known as immunoglobulins - Ita Askonas focused on the behaviour of B cells, the cells that produce antibodies. In particular, she looked at which antibodies were produced after different antigens were administered to animals.

Her work in the 1970s on the role of T lymphocytes in infection, especially infections with the influenza and respiratory syncytial viruses, is seen as her major contribution. Her work paved the way to understanding viral antigen presentation to T cells. In 1976 she became the head of the Division of Immunology at NIMR, a post she held until she retired in 1988.

Ita was passionate about introducing young scientists to immunology and worked hard to support students from many countries, especially in the developing world. Many of the PhD students and postdocs she trained are now eminent scientists. She also trained many physicians in experimental immunology. She continued to actively advise scientists at all levels taking a great interest in young researchers, giving them advice on experimental and career approaches. Her lifelong deep interest in scientific questions and the future of immunology research in the UK inspired us all.

Anne O'Garra, Head of NIMR's Division of Immunoregulation

Ita Askonas in 2008.

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Ita Askonas in the lab.

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