Honor Fell

Honor Fell
Born Honor Bridget Fell
(1900-05-22)22 May 1900
Died 22 April 1986(1986-04-22) (aged 85)
Nationality British
Fields Zoology, physiology, cell biology
Institutions Strangeways Research Laboratory
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Academic advisors Thomas Strangeways
Known for Directing Strangeways Research Laboratory, developing tissue culture technique
Fell as a young woman.

Dr Dame Honor Bridget Fell, DBE, Ph.D, D.Sc, FRS[1] (22 May 1900 – 22 April 1986) was a British scientist and zoologist. Her contributions to science included the development of experimental methods in organ culture, tissue culture, and cell biology.[2][3][4]

Early life and education

Fell was born to Colonel William Edwin Fell and Alcie Fell at Fowthorpe near Filey in in Yorkshire on 22 May 1900, the youngest of nine children. She had six sisters and two brothers, the younger of the two brothers, with down syndrome, died at the age of eight. Fell was known as the baby of the family. Her father was a minor landowner but cannot be said to have been a successful farmer. Whereas, her mother was a very practical and capable carpenter. Her mom died in 1951, when Fell was fifty one years old. . Both school and family records highlight her childhood love of pet ferrets.[1] Fell carried her pet ferret, Janie, to her sister Barbara's wedding when she was only thirteen. Fell had little contact with her family until the 1960s when one of her nephews, Henry Fell, and his wife asked her to stay with them. After that one visit she always spent Easter with them and sometimes Christmas.[1]

She was educated at Wychwood School, North Oxford and later at Madras College. In those days Wychwood was considered rather advanced because of its emphasises on the importance of science, especially biology, as well as classics, history and literature. The school records refer to Honor Fell’s ferrets, which populated the garden.[1] In 1916 she went to Madras College, St. Andrews. Later, in 1918, she began undergraduate study in zoology at the University of Edinburgh, advised by Francis Albert Eley Crew. Crew recommended Fell as a summer researcher to Cambridge pathologist Thomas Strangeways, who was working in the then-new field of tissue culture. When Fell graduated in 1922 and found no open scientific positions in Edinburgh, she began work full-time as a research assistant to Strangeways. She earned a Ph.D. in 1924 entitled Historical studies on the gonads of the fowl[5] and a D.Sc in 1932.[1][6]

Strangeways Research Laboratory

The Strangeways Research Laboratory,Cambridge was an independent world renowned research institution. Due to the lack of funds in 1908,it was forced to shut down, but reopened the following year. After Thomas Strangeways' unexpected death in 1926, the future of his research facility, then known as the Cambridge Research Hospital, was in doubt. After advocacy by Fell and collaborator F.G. Spear, the institution's trustees decided to keep the research group open, with funding from the Medical Research Council. Fell was named the new director in 1928 and the institution's name was changed to the Strangeways Research Laboratory in honor of its founder.[7][8] A great reason to appoint Fell was she did not require salary. Fell was funded by the Beit Memorial Fellowship and supported by the Royal Society Research Fellowship. The researchers who worked at the laboratory were never funded by the funds from the research lab, whereas were obtained from different sources. Fell served as director until 1970 when she was succeeded by Michael Abercrombie. During that time, she also maintained an active research program in tissue and organ culture.[8]

Although the laboratory was never well-funded—Fell described the funding situation at one point as "something of a nightmare"[9]:250—it developed an international reputation for tissue culture, cell biology, and radiobiology, and attracted large numbers of visiting scientists; in one tabulation, visitors from 32 different countries were recorded.[1] During the 1930s Fell took particular interest in finding positions for scientists arriving as refugees from continental Europe.[1] As a rare example of a woman in senior scientific management of the time, Fell is also noted for supporting scientific careers for women at Strangeways.[10] Fell's skill in networking and administration is widely considered a major contributor to the success of the laboratory.[1][8]


In retirement Fell became a research worker in the Division of Immunology, Department of Pathology, at the University of Cambridge, in 1970 where she once again took up the immunobiology of rheumatoid disease.[1] She returned to Strangeways in 1979 and remained there, still working in the laboratory, until shortly before her death in 1986.[8]

Tissue and organ culture methods

Fell's work area at Strangeways, ca. 1950.

Fell's career began during the early stages of the development of tissue culture as a method for working with living cells. Before Fell joined, this research was originally started by biologist Ross Harrison in 1907. In 1910 he started by performing small experiments.This enabled scientists to study living differentiated cells in environments that resembled the behaviour of organs in the animal body. The transition from histological examination of fixed, stained tissues to observation of living cells attracted great enthusiasm when the techniques were first developed, although their utility was somewhat controversial among scientists during the early days.The most remarkable and fundamental method on cell culture is cell hybridization. An organ culture is an excellent experimental system to study the responses of organized, functional cells to environmental factors. Tissue culture also attracted significant popular media interest, with contemporary reports describing Fell as a woman working on "cultivating life in bottles" and tissue culture as leading to the growth of human babies in test tubes.[11] Even though tissue culture has made such progress, it cannot tell us about the physiology of an animal’s circulatory or excretory systems or the physiology of its brain or sense organs. Which means the chemical compound that might appear quite harmless when tested on a tissue culture when administered, it might have disastrous side-effects.

Personal life

Fell lived alone during her working life and never married or had children.She first lived at lodgings and then lived in a house near the Laboratory for easier access. She had her house looked after for some years her old nanny and then by a succession of devoted daily ladies. Even though she had some help she did her own domestic shopping before walking to Strangeways. She entertained little, but loved to go on picnics with her friends into the Fenland countryside.[1] She listed ‘Tavel’ as her recreation in Who’s Who but her travel, though extensive and all around the world, was for the purpose of attending a conference to meet and work for a few weeks with fellow scientists or deliver an important lecture or receive a distinguished prize. She enjoyed travel for scientific events and conferences.[1] Her skills at encouraging collaboration among scientists have been described as critical to the success of Strangeways during her directorship.[8]

Affiliations and awards

Honor Bridget Fell (1966)


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Vaughan, Dame Janet (1987). "Honor Bridget Fell. 22 May 1900-22 April 1986". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 33: 236–226. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1987.0009. JSTOR 769952. PMID 11621435.
  2. Poole, A. R. (1989). "Honor Bridgett Fell, Ph.D., D.Sc. F.R.S., D.B.E., 1900-1986. The scientist and her contributions". In vitro cellular & developmental biology : journal of the Tissue Culture Association. 25 (5): 450–453. doi:10.1007/bf02624631. PMID 2659579.
  3. Poole, A. R.; Caplan, A. I. (1987). "An appreciation. Dame Honor B. Fell, F.R.S. (1900-1986)". Developmental Biology. 122 (2): 296–299. doi:10.1016/0012-1606(87)90295-8. PMID 3297855.
  4. Lasnitzki, I. (1986). "Dame Honor Fell FRS (1900–1986)". Nature. 322 (6076): 214. doi:10.1038/322214a0. PMID 3526159.
  5. Fell, Honor. "Historical studies on the gonads of the fowl : the histological basis of sex reversal". Edinburgh Research Archive. The University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 15 January 2016.
  6. "Obituary: Dame Honor Fell, DBE, FRS (1900-1986)". Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases. 46 (3): 264. March 1987. doi:10.1136/ard.46.3.264. PMC 1002116Freely accessible.
  7. "Strangeways Research Laboratory". Srl.cam.ac.uk. 5 August 2010. Retrieved 19 February 2012.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Hall, LA (April 1996). "The Strangeways Research Laboratory: archives in the contemporary medical archives centre.". Medical History. 40 (2): 231–8. doi:10.1017/s0025727300061020. PMC 1037097Freely accessible. PMID 8936063.
  9. Shils, Edward; Blacker, Carmen (1995). Cambridge women : twelve portraits (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521483445.
  10. "The Honor Fell papers". Wellcome Library. Archived from the original on 9 September 2015. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  11. Wilson, D (August 2005). "The Early History of Tissue Culture in Britain: The Interwar Years.". Social history of medicine : the journal of the Society for the Social History of Medicine / SSHM. 18 (2): 225–243. doi:10.1093/sochis/hki028. PMC 1397880Freely accessible. PMID 16532064.
  12. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter F" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 29 July 2014.
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