Standing on the Shoulders of Giantesses: Honor Bridget Fell

Honor Bridget Fell
Honor Bridget Fell

The third in our series of blog posts celebrating some of the influential scientists featured in Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 looks at the career of Honor Bridget Fell. Honor was a British scientist and zoologist. Her contributions to science included the development of the ‘organ culture method, similar to stem cell research.

Honor was born in Yorkshire to Colonel William and Alice Fell and grew up as one of 9 children. Her father made his living procuring horses for the army. He had a keen interest in animals and it is thought Honor inherited her interest in biology from him.

Her early education took place at the Wychford School in Oxford. The school encouraged not only classics and literature, but science, especially biology. Honor was intensely interested in animals and was well-known for her pet ferrets. In 1916, she went to Madras College, St Andrews, and then to Edinburgh University in 1918. Unsurprisingly, she read for a degree in Zoology.

Her research began under Francis Crew at the Institute for Animal Breeding, exploring the sexual development of fowl. When Crew heard of the work on tissue culturing being done at the Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge, he sent Honor there for a few months to learn the technique. Here she was deeply impressed by watching a cell divide in culture. Thomas Strangeways, in turn, was deeply impressed with her, and offered her a job. As there was no position available for her back at Edinburgh, she joined the Strangeways lab in 1923 on an MRC grant, where she spent the remainder of her career. Whilst at Cambridge, she received her PhD in 1924 and a DSc in 1932; which was notable, due to how uncommon it was for someone under 40 to receive a DSc.

Her relationship with Strangeways was productive and friendly. After Strangeways died in 1926, Honor went on to become temporary director of the laboratory, officially heading up the department at only 29 years-old. Despite the added administrative work, she never let that keep her from the lab.

Most of Honor’s research centred on what Crew had termed ‘organ culture’, which was distinct from tissue culturing, in that the specimens maintained their functionality. With this technique, she was the first to study skeletal tissue, biochemically. She was also credited as being the first to apply biochemical techniques to the study of pathology.

Honor’s reputation grew rapidly, and in 1931, the Royal Society awarded her a 5-year grant to support her work. Most of Honor’s early work focused on biochemical development of bone and cartilage tissues. During the war, her research deviated slightly to ‘war efforts’, namely enzyme healing of wounds. After the war, she returned to her work on bones and cartilage, including research on the influence of vitamin A on skeletal tissue and later on skin.

When she retired, she went to the pathology department at Cambridge to study immunological degradation of cartilage. At the end of her career, she returned to the Strangeways Research Laboratory, and her final research continued in a similar vein, exploring porcine cartilage destruction.

Honor had a most prolific career. She published 145 papers between 1922 and 1989. She received many awards and accolades, including being made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1953. She also became a Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge in 1955 and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957. She became a Dame of the British Empire in 1963. In addition, she was awarded numerous honorary doctorates from such institutions as Harvard, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Her awards and honours are too numerous to list, but the total list, in combination with the glowing reminiscences from her friends and colleagues shine a light on how outstanding she really was.

Honor worked in the laboratory up until the final two weeks of her life. A colleague accredited her success in a largely male-dominated field to the “sheer force of her excellence as a scientist and as a person”. She was known for her precision and care, sharp mind and as a never-ending source of inspiration.

References

Vaughan, J. (1987) ‘Honor Bridget Fell. 22 May 1900 – 22 April 1986’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 33 [Online], London, Royal Society Publishing. Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/769952 (accessed 9 September 2014)

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