The Madras College Archive


Former Pupil Biographies

Dr Dame Honor Briget Fell (1900 - 1986)
Honor Bridget Fell was born on 22 May 1900, at Fowthorpe near Filey in Yorkshire England. She was the ninth and last child of Colonel William Edwin Fell and Alice Picksgill-Cunliffe. William Fell was a minor landowner, which he unsuccessfully attempted to cultivate. His main interest was in horses. Consequently, during the Boer War, he spent much of his time in the United States purchasing horses for the British Army in South Africa. He had a keen interest in and animals, which the family said was inherited by Honor. Her mother was a practical, independent, and creative woman. She raised eight children (the eighth child died of Down's Syndrome), often single-handily and with limited finances. Additionally, utilizing her skills as a carpenter and architect, she designed and oversaw the construction of the family home in Yorkshire. From her mother, Honor learned that a woman prejudices and expectations imposed upon her.

Honor attended Wychwood School, Oxford, which was distinguished due to its emphasis of teaching science, especially biology. School records note that Fell kept ferrets in the school gardens. Also, a family journal published quarterly, relays an incident where at 13, Fell brought her favourite ferret Janie to her sister's wedding. These early antics demonstrate both Fell's love for nature and an adventurous spirit which permeated all aspects of her life.

At age 16, Fell went to Madras College, St.Andrews, and then to Edinburgh University at 18 to read Zoology. She was awarded a 1923, a Ph.D. in 1924, and a D.Sc .in 1932. While at Edinburgh, Fell worked with Frank Crew, Professor of Animal Genetics. Crew studied the developmental processes of the ovaries and testes of fowls by microscopic examination of sections of tissue. Impressed by his bright student, Crew sent Fell to Cambridge where Dr. T.S.P. Strangeways was developing the new art of tissue culture. There, she was greatly impressed by witnessing, for the first time, a living cell undergoing mitotic division in tissue culture. Before the end of her visit, Strangeways told Fell if there was no future for her in Edinburgh that she was always welcome to return. No opening was made for her in Edinburgh, and in 1923, she returned to Cambridge as Dr. Strangeways’ scientific assistant with a grant from the Medical Research Council. Fell remained in Cambridge for the rest of her career, ultimately serving as the director of Strangeways Research Laboratory.

Fell's 61 years of research focused upon the technique of organ culture and its employment to uncover the histogenesis and differentiation of bone, cartilage , and associated tissues. As suggested in an unpublished paper headed "Evaluation of research" written in 1982, Fell cited her main contribution to science as "the development and application to biomedical research of the organ culture technique... " The value of this technique is described by Fell herself in advantage in a George Bidder Lecture entitled given in 1972, she states:

"...when some biologically active agent such as a hormone, vitamin or drug is found to have the same effect on a tissue in culture, as on the same tissue in the body, then the direct action of the agent on its target tissue can be analyzed in great detail under simplified, readily controlled conditions provided by a tissue culture."

On the other hand, Fell also recognized the limitations of this technique. "[Tissue culture, she writes] can tell us nothing about the physiology of an animal's circulatory or excretory systems; nothing about the physiology of its brain or sense organs; nothing about the complex interactions of the endocrine glands; nothing about the functioning of the lungs or alimentary canal." In fact,"when we consider the staggering complexity of cells' normal environment in the body, I think it is very surprising that they can be cultivated in vitro at all, and that they survive the ruthless treatment they receive at the hands of the cell culturist." In fact, else where she chides non-biologists for their failure recognize the challenge that a biologist faces in her work. She states: Physicists and chemists sometimes despise biology as being an exact science, but in fact it is not biology that is inexact but the biologist, and not for this the poor man can hardly be blamed because he is faced with an almost impossible task. Only think of the appalling complexity of his material! The most intricate computer, the most elaborate engine ever devised by man are simple, clumsy contraption compared to an amoeba or a blow-fly, let alone a human being. "The mechanism where by embryonic cells continue to organize themselves into that complex society that we call a tissue is a fascinating problem. As often happens in biological research, such information as we have serves only to shift the mystery to another level.

She viewed the facts derived from organ culture techniques as so many links in a "chain of discovery", dependent for their significance on work in related disciplines. As Fell's biographer Janet Vaughan emphasizes: "She was always aware of significant work being carried on in fields of inquiry other than her own and anxious to find collaborators who could help her apply the new knowledge to the solution of her own questions, using her own well tried techniques." Furthermore, she believed the only way to discovering any knowledge of the complex systems of the body was to maintain discipline by focusing on a particular question while remaining aware of the work of colleagues. In her Presidential address entitled "Fashion in Cell Biology", given in Paris in 1960, she said:

"In general, the waves of interest in something fresh that constantly sweep through our world are vital to its well-being, and without them research would indeed be stagnant and dreary. But rushing after new things merely because they are another matter; it leads to the abandonment of existing lines of work that ought to be carried much farther, and even to contempt for the realities of nature, as in the disdain for structure that was such a regrettable fashion in cell biology a few years ago."

Nontheless Fell's career was marked by her willinginess to persue seemingly unprofitable paths and encouraged her colleges to do the same. Referring to her work on the action of papin and Vitamin A on cartilage of limb bone rudiments with Thomas, Honor writes in 1981:

"...with the benefit of hindsight, what Lewis Thomas and I subsequently regarded as a rather mad investigation nevertheless initiated a lone of work they led directly to the research being done in the laboratory today." Likewise, Lawrence G. Raisz, who learned tissue culture under Fell's tutelage at Strangeways in 1960-61, remarks: "Dame Honor urged me to try different systems and tissues. In fact during the year I spent at Strangeways, I tried so many different species, tissue and culture conditions that even today I can come back to those notebooks of 25 years ago for better approaches."

Fell's dedication and boundless enthusiasm can be explained in a single phrase: she loved her work. Thus, she says:

"Few people can have enjoyed their working life more than I have and at 80 I am still having fun in quite a big way."

Similarly, three and a half weeks before she died, still working at the bench, she called out "It's worked, isn't it exciting, come and see the results!"

Fell's motivation came from two sources:

1) a deep appreciation for the complexity of biologicalsystems;

2) a spirit that longed to discover the unknown.

These qualities supported her career dedicated to exploring uncharted territory. I think Robin Poole eloquently summarizes her person, when he writes:

"Dame Honor Fell was a woman who flourished in what was then largely a male-dominated profession by the sheer force of her excellence as a scientist and a person. Her commitment and contribution to our profession serve as a model for both developing and differentiated experimentalists alike."