Fell | Dame | Honor Bridget | 1900-1986 | biologist and Director of Strangeways Research Laboratory

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Honor Fell's contribution to science was in the development of the 'organ culture method'. This enabled scientists to grow living diffentiated cells, largely obtained from the embryos of warm blooded animals, to create cultures that mimic the behaviour of organs in the animal body. She inherited her interest in animals and biology from her father and as a child, and whilst at school, she kept ferrets. Her final years at school were spent at Madras College, St. Andrews from where she went to Edinburgh University in 1918. In 1922 she graduated in Zoology.

At the time, the Director at the Institute of Animal Breeding at Edinburgh was Professor Francis Crew who sent her to Dr. Strangeways at Cambridge to acquire the new technique of tissue culture. Crew describes how her extraordinary talents were recognised, and in 1923 she was offered a place at the Strangeways Laboratory. Whilst working there she obtained her PhD in (1924) and later her DSc in (1932) from the University of Cambridge. The development of specific cell groups or organ cultures enabled the exploration of the life, characteristics and reactions of cells to beneficial and adverse substances without the risks involved in exposing the cells of living human organs.

Fell specialised in the cells of bone and cartilage. Her most significant work was in the role of the immune system in causing rheumatoid arthritis. Her second contribution to science was the direction, with Dr F.G. Spears, of the Strangeways Laboratory. Originally this was a small laboratory founded next to the Cambridge Research Hospital for investigating the pathology of rheumatoid arthritis and linked diseases. Honor became director in 1927. The laboratory's survival was partly due to her skilful financial management of research grants from the Medical Research Council and donors. In the 1930s the Laboratory pioneered the development of radiobiology - the effects of X-rays on living animal tissue. This was a direct result of Honor's offer of study facilities to scientists who were refugees of the 2nd World War.

Despite limited resources the laboratory expanded, particularly with the construction in 1938 of a new wing funded by the Rockerfeller Foundation. By 1970 the Laboratory possessed an international reputation and comprised 62 scientists and 29 technicians from all over the world. In retirement, in the role of a research worker at the Department of Immunology at Cambridge University Department of Pathology, she once again took up the immunobiology of rheumatoid disease. She returned to Strangeways in 1976 and remained there, still working in the laboratory, until within four weeks of her death in 1986.


Honor Fell published on organ culture techniques with Strangeways (1920s), Robison (1930s), Allsopp and Brieger (1940s). In the 1950s she published with Dingle, Mellanby and Pelc on the effects of Vitamin A and cortisone on tissue culture. Her rheumatoid work was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s with Dingle, Coombs and Barratt.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications: Fell's bibliography comprises 145 papers the first was published in 1922, and the last posthumously in 1986. Biographical sources: Dame Janet Vaughan, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 1987, vol. 33, pp237-259

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1943: Appointed Foulerton Research Fellow, Royal Society

1953: Elected Fellow, Royal Society of London

1955: Elected Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge

1957: Elected Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston

1959: Awarded Honorary LLD, Edinburgh

1963: Awarded Dame of the British Empire

1963: Appointed Royal Society Research Professor

1964: Awarded Honorary DSc, Oxon

1964: Awarded Honorary ScD, Harvard

1965: Awarded Prix Charles-LĂ©opold Mayer, French Academy of Science

1975: Awarded Honorary MD, Leiden

1977: Appointed, Walker-Ames Professor, University of Washington, Seattle


List of sources for the biographical information:

Vaughan, Dame JanetBiographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 33, ( London, 1987)