The Strangeways Laboratory, ‘The Mustard Club’, and Honor Fell’s ‘aliens’

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By | From the Collections

Dame Honor Fell at her microscope. Wellcome Images No. L0024503

Dame Honor Fell at her microscope.
Wellcome Images No. L0024503

You may remember that when the Mustard Club met here last time we were asked to provide some chemical or physical proof that the globules which entered the cells of our cultures were really mustard.

Honor Fell, Director of the Strangeways Research Laboratory, wrote this to Sir Joseph Barcroft on 6th May 1940. She was not alluding to the wildly successful organisation for the promotion of the condiment devised by the novelist Dorothy Sayers while working at Benson’s advertising agency. With the outbreak of World War II, along with other war-related projects, the Strangeways undertook research, using their pioneering techniques of tissue culture, on the biological action of toxic gases used in chemical warfare, including ‘mustard gas’, so widely deployed during the Great War, in collaboration with other institutions, specifically the Ministry of Supply Chemical Defence Research Department’s Experimental Station at Porton. Fell was also in correspondence with Professor R. A. Peters in Oxford, whose related work on British Anti-Lewisite can be found in GC/197.

The archives of the Strangeways and the papers of Honor Fell and her colleague F. G. Spear have been available in the Wellcome Library for nearly two decades and an article on them was published in Medical History in 1996. Archives and Manuscripts fairly recently received an additional accession of the files relating to the Strangeways’ war work and other government-sponsored research in the 1940s: these have now been catalogued as SA/SRL/M.

Work under wartime conditions and the constraints of official secrecy raised numerous practical problems. By March 1940 Honor Fell was becoming rather anxious about the safety of the increasing accumulation of top secret documents and reports relating to the project, and wondered whether locked cupboards inside locked rooms were adequately secure. She asked Lord Rothschild whether the Ministry of Supply could provide them with a small safe. She also asked him whether he was able to procure for them a small sloughed snake skin to their experiments:

I am sorry to trouble you about this, but it would be rather difficult for me to get hold of the material without being asked awkward questions.

(Rothschild’s contacts at the Zoological Society of London did in fact expeditiously produce an ‘almost complete’ garter snake skin.) They also had to ask permission to discuss research matters with individuals who were not already on the approved list. In November 1940 the Ministry of Supply suffered losses through enemy action and had to request Fell to send copies of documentation. Acquiring the necessary equipment and its maintenance in adequate working order also presented problems, as the long-drawn out saga of gaining access to a functioning absorptiometer in the face of competing claims to the few available indicates.

As well as the general concerns over preserving the secrecy of the work Fell and Allsopp were doing, for which guarantees had to be provided, the Strangeways during the 1930s had come to employ a significant number of refugee scientists. Honor Fell’s concerns over her ‘aliens’ and her desire to protect them is reflected in this correspondence. In Jan 1939 she wrote to the Director of Military Intelligence refusing to supply information about ‘the aliens in this laboratory’, having learnt from Lord Rothschild that this was in order that the aliens in question could be secretly supervised by military police:

Since these people are not only my colleagues but personal friends in some cases of long standing, the idea of assisting in this matter is extremely distasteful to me… I believe that I am under no legal obligation to supply the information and I am prepared to guarantee the reliability of anyone in my department and to accept full responsibility for them.

She added that scrupulous care was taken to preserve secrecy about the work they were doing for the Ministry of Supply, with only staff who had signed the Official Secrets Act having access to the relevant laboratories.

For a significant period Fell was deprived of the assistance of ‘my aliens’, who had been carrying on the non-secret research in which the Laboratory continued to be engaged but by late 1940 the Ministry of Supply was able to get the Aliens War Service Department to give them provisional permits enabling their return. By the end of 1942 they were even providing indirect assistance to the secret work by translating an ‘immensely long’ scientific paper in German which Porton were anxious to have for reference.

An unexpected outcome of the research into agents of chemical warfare and the means to counter their effects during the Second World War was the discovery that some of them had therapeutic uses.

An extensive sources leaflet provides further information on War, Medicine and Health at the time of the Second World War and a number of other collections illustrate the important contributions of refugee doctors and scientists.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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