Obituary: Douglas Bell
Saturday 17 July 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-
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
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.
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