Dr. Sonja Buckley, 86, scientist who studied viruses

February 04, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. Sonja Buckley, a retired scientific investigator whose pivotal research in tissue culture helped identify the deadly Lasso virus, died of a stroke Wednesday at Roland Park Place. She was 86.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, the former Sonja Grob earned her medical degree at the University of Zurich and worked in microbiology. While a student, she met her future husband, Dr. John J. Buckley, a pathologist. They married in 1941.

The couple came to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1947, and she worked in the department of microbiology with the late Dr. Thomas B. Turner, with whom she maintained a lifelong professional friendship and to whom she dedicated her two books. Dr. Turner, who also studied infectious diseases, was dean of the medical school from 1957 to 1968 and honored in the naming of the school's Turner Auditorium.

Dr. Sonja Buckley's first assignment was to study the spread of the polio virus in East Baltimore neighborhoods.

"She was a scientist through and through. Her mind was completely acute," said Dr. Turner's daughter, Pattie T. Walker of Baltimore. "She kept wonderful diaries. She was astonishing. She had a fabulous mind and a wry, quiet sense of humor. She was a fascinating woman. My father always said she was really the first woman to discover a virus."

Dr. Buckley received a license to practice medicine in Maryland in 1954, and three years later became a Rockefeller Foundation scientist in New York. She was hired by Dr. Max Theiler, a Nobel Prize laureate for his work developing a safe yellow fever vaccine.

She earned a reputation working with the electron microscope as an expert in tissue culture research. She frequently returned to Baltimore and kept her ties to Johns Hopkins.

"She was a very meticulous person and she had a strong scientific upbringing because of her time at Johns Hopkins. Throughout her life her mentor was Dr. Turner," said Dr. Martine Jozan, a physician and colleague from Malibu, Calif. "She had a great sense of observation. She would work doggedly in her laboratory."

In 1969, she isolated cell cultures of the Lasso virus, which helped save the life of a colleague, Dr. Jordi Casals-Ariet of Yale University, who had contracted the deadly disease named for a town in Nigeria.

She then became a researcher in Yale's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. She retired in 1994 and moved back to Baltimore in 1999.

"She was a pioneering woman in medicine," said her Baltimore friend and secretary, Joyce McClay, who assisted in manuscript preparation for Dr. Buckley's 2002 book, Mind-in-Mind, compiling her correspondence with Dr. Turner. Her biography, The Late Bloomer, was published by Yale University Press in 1996.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 19 at Roland Park Place, 830 W. 40th St.

Survivors include a sister, Annemarie G. Kohler of Zurich. A daughter, Sonja Mary Buckley, died in 1943, and her husband died in 1987.

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