Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Honor Fell papers

Honor Fell pioneered the study of living cells under the microscope, and provided Francis Crick with his first biological research project.

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Honor Fell with an owl, photograph c.1930
Honor Fell with an owl, c.1930
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Honor Fell (1900-1986) was the Director of the Strangeways Laboratory in Cambridge, the institution where Francis Crick carried out part-time research while studying biology between 1947 and 1949. She was one of very few women to have held such a senior scientific position in the early 20th century, being appointed director in 1929 and remaining in the post until she retired in 1970. She continued to be active in research for the rest of her life. Her own research interests were in applied cell biology, especially the development and degradation of animal tissues, and she pioneered techniques that allowed her and her colleagues to study living cells in tissue culture. Some of the first ciné films of cell division, showing the separation of pairs of chromosomes, were made at Strangeways.

Fell’s papers cover her personal research on the cell biology of cartilage and bone and on the effects of Vitamin A on these tissues. They include matters relating to her appointment as a Royal Society Research Professor and other Royal Society business, events organised to mark her retirement at the end of a long and remarkable tenure at Strangeways, and material relating to the history of the Strangeways Laboratory. Much of her correspondence and other material relating to her directorship is in the records of the Strangeways Laboratory itself, which are also in the Wellcome Library (SA/SRL), but have not yet been digitised.

Honor Fell corresponded with many illustrious figures in British and international science: her correspondents included Sir Edward Abraham, Sir John Randall, Professor A V Hill and Sir Edward Mellanby among many others. Her papers show her to have been a woman who was totally absorbed and delighted by her science. Though her name has never become as familiar as those of other pioneering women scientists such as Dorothy Hodgkin or Rosalind Franklin, she was widely respected by her colleagues and her story shows that gender was not necessarily an obstacle to a secure and successful scientific career.

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Cytology-and-embryology-ill.jpg
Cytology and embryology illustrations, 1919-20
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Honor Bridget Fell’s name is not associated with any major discovery, but her skill in studying the processes that take place inside the living cell influenced many others, including Francis Crick.

Born in Yorkshire, Fell grew up with the certainty that she would be able to pursue whatever career she chose. Her mother was a carpenter and architect; her father, a landowner who communicated his keen interest in the natural world to his daughter. She studied zoology at Edinburgh University and obtained a PhD in 1924.

In 1923 she moved to Cambridge as assistant to the pathologist Dr Thomas Strangeways, who had established a laboratory devoted to tissue culture at the Cambridge Research Hospital. Strangeways suddenly died of a brain haemorrhage in 1926. The laboratory was renamed the Strangeways Laboratory, and in 1929 Fell was appointed its director.

Under her leadership the laboratory gained an international reputation for its work in tissue culture and cell biology, accommodating and training many visiting scientists. They included researchers from a broad range of disciplines, reflecting Fell’s own insistence on the need to approach a biological problem from many angles. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1952. In 1963 she received a Royal Society research professorship, and the same year was appointed DBE. Her own research related to the impact of the immune system on cartilage and bone, reflecting Thomas Strangeways’s own interest in rheumatoid arthritis.

Fell never married and lived alone, but her close colleague Dr Audrey Glauert remembered her ‘capacity for friendship and sense of fun’.

Originals held by...

This material is held by the Wellcome Library where originals may be consulted.

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

The more closely we examine a natural object, the more beautiful, exciting and mysterious it becomes…a single living cell is much more beautiful and improbable than the solar system.

Fell's lecture notes on 'The cell as an individual' Bangor, March 1962

Digitised book

A history of cytology

A history of cytology

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