The art of cytology: Honor Fell’s archive

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By | From the Collections

In another of our occasional series introducing the digitised archive collections in the Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics online resource, Julia Nurse, Content and Metadata Officer at the Wellcome Library introduces the Honor Fell papers. The original papers are located at the Wellcome Library.

Fell having a break during lecturing in Canada in 1971

Few women held top positions in the medical field during the early part of the 20th century so it is refreshing to look at the career of one who did. Honor Fell became Director of Strangeways Laboratory in Cambridge in 1929 having worked previously as an assistant to the Laboratory’s namesake and pathologist, Dr Thomas Strangeways.

Her passion for her work is obvious in the many lectures she delivered on the subject of cytology, the study of cells. “There is a kind of romance in the idea of being able to remove living cells from the body and watch their activities in a glass vessel” she said, like watching “tadpoles in a jam jar”. Her lecture notes offer a beginner’s guide to how and why tissue culture played such an important role in biology:

Cells growing outside the body… can be watched and photographed whilst going about their ordinary business … Originally histology was one of the most static of sciences; tissue culture has made it dynamic.

Fell’s ability as a draughtswoman aided her research at a time when microscopic photography was not fully developed. Her embryology sketches from laboratory notebooks dated 1918-19 attest to her skilful hand:

One of Fell’s microscope sketches, 1918

Her career was a long one, as she pointed out in a lecture in 1960: “I published my first paper in 1922 – nearly 40 years ago. To an astronomer or a geologist this might not seem a very long time but to a cell biologist of 1960, 1922 is prehistory…’

Her enthusiasm and sense of wonder about the cellular world is apparent in an extract from her lecture notes on  ‘The cell as an individual’ in Bangor, March 1962:

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…so far scientists have not explained away the wonder of the cell nor stripped it of its mystery. On the contrary, in the words of Alice in Wonderland the cell gets ‘curiouser and curiouser’ the more we learn about it.

And her enthusiasm was infectious.  Gerald Weissmann, Director of the Division of Cell Biology and Genetics at NY University Medical Center recalled in 1970: ‘I mentioned to Dame Honor that it must be a tremendous adventure to go to the moon. “But, why?” she asked; “Don’t you go to the moon every day in laboratory?”  The intriguing inner space/outer space analogy appears in a Christmas card sent to Fell from New York:

Cells from outer space, a Christmas card sent from the lab for cell physiology in New York to Fell in 1965.

Fell tried her best to modernise cytology:  ‘Sartorially speaking we are probably not an outstandingly fashionable group, but where our research is concerned, we can be as fashion-conscious as the most elegant woman in this city’ (lecture notes on ‘Fashion in cell biology’).

She was clearly well liked and admired by her colleagues, inspiring at least one of them to express his admiration in verse:

Well do I like thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why I fain would tell
Since fads in cells thou dost dispel,
Well do I like thee, Dr. Fell’

Fell’s doubts about the possibility of test-tube babies proved wrong however: commenting in the 1960’s in a lecture on ‘Cells in captivity’, she scornfully dismissed the idea of developing ‘a method for growing embryos in culture from fertilisation … so that eventually the population can be mass-produced in factories, as described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World’.  Just a decade after Fell’s dismissal, the first ‘test-tube’ baby was born, and 2013 marks her 35th birthday.



Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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