Professor E. Arthur Bell

Plant-chemist Director at Kew
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The Independent Online

Ernest Arthur Bell, biochemist: born Gosforth, Northumberland 20 June 1926; Research Chemist, ICI Billingham 1946; Lecturer in Biochemistry, King's College London 1953-64, Reader in Biochemistry 1964-68, Professor of Biology and Head of the Department of Plant Sciences 1972-81, Fellow 1982-2006, Visiting Professor 1982-2006; Professor of Botany, University of Texas 1968-72, Adjunct Professor 1990-2006; Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1981-88; CB 1988; married 1952 Jean Ogilvie (two sons, one daughter); died London 11 June 2006.

E. Arthur Bell was the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1981 until 1988. To some it was a surprise when a plant chemist was appointed to this position since all previous directors had been taxonomic botanists. Bell soon showed that he had all the necessary skills and scientific status to take the institution forward.

He had the difficult task of overseeing the transition of Kew from a government department to a more independent non-governmental department body with a board of trustees, which he did skilfully and tactfully, and with considerable humour (though he did say to his chairman at the second trustees' meeting that, when appointed to the position of Director, he had not expected to have to be under the supervision of a board of trustees). As a result of its new status Kew has gone on from strength to strength.

Bell was also a distinguished biochemist who carried out pioneering work on non-protein amino acids of plants. His work had considerable significance to both medicine and nutrition.

Born in Northumberland, Ernest Arthur Bell had the straightforward frankness and friendliness of many people from that region and this was complemented by a great sense of humour. However serious the subject he was dealing with, there was always a joke or a funny story. He had a great knack of seeing the funny side of any happening. His former staff still remember him for his understanding and accessibility; he knew the names of even the junior members and was ever an encourager. He was equally at home with royalty or government ministers, and an excellent teacher and a good lecturer; he held visiting professorships in Reading, Texas, Sierra Leone and British Columbia.

He graduated from King's College, Newcastle, with a degree in Chemistry in 1946 and, after a short spell as a research chemist with ICI, he obtained his PhD in biochemistry from Trinity College Dublin in 1950. He then pursued a distinguished career in chemical research and teaching at King's College London from 1953 to 1968, where he was awarded a personal readership in 1963. He moved to become Professor of Botany at the University of Texas, Austin in 1968 and became the Chairman of the Division of Biology there in 1971. While in the United States, he was appointed a Senior Foreign Scientist Fellow of the National Science Foundation. In 1972 he returned to King's College London as the Professor of Biology and Head of the Department of Plant Sciences and became Dean of Natural Science from 1980 until 1981, when he moved to Kew.

In addition to transforming the status of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with the Government, Bell took the institution forward in many ways. During his tenure, the historic Palm House that had been falling apart was completely restored to its original glory and a new state-of-the-art conservatory was built and named after one of the founders of the gardens, Princess Augusta, Princess of Wales. The Princess of Wales Conservatory contains compartments of eight different environments and houses plants from around the world and is now one of the most popular visitor attractions at Kew.

Science at Kew also benefited from Bell's direction since he oversaw the construction of the building for the Sir Joseph Banks Centre for Economic Botany, which was opened in 1990. This building was designed to give an early environmental message with its turf roof and heat pumps from the water table to assist heating in summer and cooling in winter. Bell helped to increase the activities of Kew on issues of the environment and conservation. His sense of humour helped him to encourage a depressed staff after the hurricane of 1987 that felled many trees at Kew and at Wakehurst Place, Kew's second garden.

Bell's chemical work was focused on the study of plant toxins, especially those of members of the bean family that are used as food and fodder plants. He also used his chemical knowledge to apply phytochemical methods to the improvement of little-used food and fodder plants for the Third World tropics. He was a great promoter of sustainable living and gave compelling lectures on the conservation of topsoil as vital to human survival.

His chemical work also had relevance to medical research. On a visit to Australia, he collected seeds of the Morton Bay chestnut and later his research team isolated the polyhydroxyalkaloid castanospermine that shows activity against the Aids virus. The toxic substance that Bell and collaborators isolated from species of the primitive plant genus Cycas is now being studied for its possible cause of some types of motor neurone disease.

Although Bell was not primarily a plant taxonomist, his chemical work had considerable application to the problems of taxonomy and ecology. He was one of the first people to realise the possible systematic significance of non-protein amino acids. His studies showed that some of these amino acids were restricted to particular species, providing evidence of relationships that had not been previously suspected. If these new data did not agree with accepted ideas on classification, the initial reaction of the specialists was to dismiss the evidence as ridiculous, and if they did agree they were dismissed as superfluous.

Others, most notably the taxonomists at Kew, began to recognise that chemical data were indeed important and complemented rather than conflicted with data from other sources.

The results of Bell's scientific work are published in over 140 scientific papers in journals, book chapters and symposium proceedings, including 10 papers in Nature.

Bell was appointed CB in 1988 and after retiring from Kew held honorary appointments at King's College and the University of Texas to continue his work on physiologically active compounds in plants. He also was involved in the development of botanic gardens at Austin and Galveston in Texas and at Marks Hall in Essex. Until shortly before his death he volunteered in the library of the Linnean Society of London, of which he was a Fellow and the Vice-President, 1982-86.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and was a member of the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society from 1985 until 1989.

Ghillean Prance