Obituary: Douglas Bell

George Douglas Hutton Bell, plant scientist: born Swansea 18 October 1905; Demonstrator in Agricultural Biology, Cambridge University 1933-44, Lecturer, Faculty of Agriculture 1944-48; Fellow, Selwyn College, Cambridge 1944-54; Director, Plant Breeding Institute, Cambridge 1947-71; CBE 1965; FRS 1965; a vice-president, Royal Society 1976-78; author of Cultivated Plants of the Farm 1948, The Breeding of Barley Varieties in Barley and Malt 1962, Phylogeny of Temperate Cereals in Crop Plant Evolution 1965; married 1934 Eileen Wright (two daughters); died Cambridge 27 June 1993.

DOUGLAS BELL was the doyen of British plant breeders. He worked to turn what was previously a craft that made some use of science into a science-based technology.

Having taken a First Class degree at the University College of Wales (Bangor), Bell went to the Cambridge University Plant Breeding Institute in 1928. There he worked under the supervision of Sir Frank Engledow. His PhD research concerned genetic variability in barley varieties and barley remained his principal interest henceforth. At the height of his powers Bell was able rapidly to assess the agricultural potential of wide arrays of genetically distinct lines. This was based on keen observation and the ability to discriminate among many characteristics simultaneously. It often seemed like intuition. At the same time he was a keen judge of the malting quality of barley grain and was often called on to exercise his skill in competitions.

After completing the PhD requirements Bell continued to work with Engledow in the Cambridge School of Agriculture first as a demonstrator and then as a lecturer. Generations of students praised the clarity of his lectures. From Engledow he inherited an interest in the components of yield in cereals. Starting with the number of ears per plant, spikelets per ear, grains per spikelet and grain weight he became interested in the physiology of yield. This subsequently led him to promote attempts to use physiological characteristics to predict yielding ability in the selection of new varieties. Also during this period Bell assisted Engledow in wheat breeding; work which resulted in the development of the bread-making winter-wheat variety Holdfast.

Bell's leadership in plant breeding came to its full realisation when he came Director of the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) Cambridge in 1947. The Government had decided in the immediate post-war period to expand agricultural research in the UK. Numbers of free-standing research establishments were created with the general responsibility for them vested in the Agricultural Research Council. Under these arrangements the PBI was separated from Cambridge University. As Director, Bell together with the governing body set a policy for the institute. It was then his responsibility to choose a site (Trumpington, Cambridge), recruit a staff and plan the buildings and facilities including the farm.

Under his guidance the institute flourished and developed a high reputation for the quality of its science and its usefulness to British agriculture. Its work extended from strategic research over a wide range of scientific disciplines to the release of crop varieties. There was work in plant pathology and physiology, genetics and cytogenetics, entomology and bio-

chemistry.

The PBI's considerable contributions to agriculture came from the varieties that it released, principally in arable crops. Bell himself bred the spring-barley variety Proctor, obtained from crossing Plumage Archer and Kenia. It was the latter parent that provided the short stiff straw that was to make Proctor so useful. Its resistance to the disease caused by Rhyncosporium enabled barley to replace oats on the soils of the West Country in which the pH measure had been raised as a result of the liming subsidy. In 1953, when Proctor was introduced, the UK had slightly less than 0.9 million hectares of barley and by 1966 there were 2.4 million hectares. In 1956 the area in barley exceeded that in oats for the first time since 1879, and by 1966 barley had occupied more than half the tillage.

Although maltsters and brewers had complained about the difficulty of malting Proctor because of its small grains, it subsequently became the maltsters' favourite. Perhaps they were driven to it because the farmers determined that they had no alternatives. In due course Proctor was replaced as the maltsters' favourite by the winter-barley Maris Otter which was also produced under the guidance of Bell and released in 1965.

By the time Bell retired from the PBI in 1971 the institute was the dominant force in British plant breeding. Proctor was still in use and Maris Otter widely grown. In 1972 the winter- wheat variety Maris Huntsman was introduced and this led to a time when almost all the area in wheat was planted to PBI varieties. All these varieties came from a programme initiated by Bell. Also in the 1960s and 1970s successful potato varieties emerged from PBI breeding

programmes.

Bell had led teams of scientists that enabled the UK to become self-sufficient in barley and wheat including wheat for bread-making. Consequently the demands of successive governments for import savings had been satisfied. At this time, to be associated with the PBI was a proud boast deriving from Bell's leadership.

In 1965 Douglas Bell was appointed CBE and elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. Among many other honours, including the Massey-Ferguson National Award, he was the first recipient in 1967, of the Royal Society Mullard Award. This award, which was provided for the Royal Society by a gift from the electronic components manufacturers Mullard Ltd, is given each year to a recipient from science or engineering who has made a contribution leading directly to the national prosperity of the UK. There was general surprise that the first recipient was an agricultural scientist rather than an engineer.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea