Women’s History Month Spotlight: Brigitte Askonas

In honor of Women’s History Month, Big Molecule Watch recognizes Brigitte “Ita” Askonas, widely regarded as the mother of modern immunology.

Born one hundred years ago, Dr. Askonas contributed to our understanding of the origin and synthesis of antibodies and the body’s immune response. In 1952, she joined the National Institute for Medical Research in London, where she focused on B cells, cloned memory-B cells in vivo, and studied how lymphocytes respond to infectious pathogens by releasing antibodies. Her contributions led her to becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1973.

Subsequently, Dr. Askonas began her seminal work on the role of T lymphocytes in infection. Her research established that cytolytic T cells had an ability to recognize multiple subtypes of viruses, laying the foundation for modern vaccine development. In 2007, she was awarded the Robert Koch Gold Medal, the leading international scientific prize in microbiology, and in 2012, an Honorary Doctorate by Cambridge University.

Her influence on immunology was profound not only due to her scientific contributions, but also due to her support of young scientists. According to Peter Openshaw, Professor at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, and Dr. Askonas’s last Ph.D. student, “Her legacy is in having mentored so many people who went on to become leaders themselves.”

You can learn more about Dr. Askonas’s life and contributions here.