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  (Ernest) Arthur Bell (1926–2006), by A. McRobb (Ernest) Arthur Bell (1926–2006), by A. McRobb
Bell, (Ernest) Arthur (1926–2006), plant chemist, was born on 20 June 1926 at 7 Balmoral Terrace, Gosforth, Northumberland, the son of a Northumbrian chartered accountant, Albert Bell, and his Welsh wife, Rachel Enid, née Williams. He liked to be known by his second name, Arthur. He was educated at Dame Allan's School, Newcastle, and graduated BSc in 1946 from King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne, then part of the University of Durham, before gaining a doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1950. He married Jean Swinton Ogilvie in 1952 and they had two sons and one daughter.

Bell was trained as a chemist and began his career working for a brief period at ICI in 1946 but soon moved back to an academic position at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1947; he became a lecturer in biochemistry at King's College, London, in 1953 and a reader from 1964 to 1968. He then held a professorship of botany at the University of Texas, Austin, from 1968 to 1972 before returning to King's College, London, in 1972 as professor of biology and head of the department of plant sciences. While there he also served as chairman of the school of biological sciences (1974–80) then dean of natural science (1980–81). In 1981 he somewhat surprised his chemical colleagues by accepting the directorship of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a post he held until 1988.

Bell had a distinguished career both as a scientist and as a botanic garden director. His work in plant biochemistry concentrated on non-protein amino acids of plants. He applied this knowledge to problems of plant ecology, systematics, and the use of forage plants for the developing world. His study of plant toxins was of considerable significance to medicine and nutrition. On a visit to Australia he collected seeds of the Moreton Bay chestnut and later his research team isolated the polyhydroxyalkaloid castanospermine that shows activity against HIV. A toxic substance that Bell and his collaborators isolated from a species of Cycas has been shown to be the cause of some types of motor neurone disease. He published over 140 scientific papers, beginning in 1948 with a paper in The Lancet on the mode of action of the sulphonamide derivatives and later including ten in Nature. His varied scientific researches gave him a great interest in sustainable living and the conservation of topsoil as vital to human survival, and he was an early proponent of both these areas. As director of the Royal Botanic Gardens he saw them through the difficult transition from being a government department to semi-autonomy as a non-departmental government body, as was called for in the National Heritage Act of 1983. During his time as director the historic palm house at Kew was restored to its original glory, the new state-of-the-art Princess of Wales Conservatory was built, and opened in January 1987, and the Sir Joseph Banks Centre for Economic Botany was completed. This last was a pioneer building for its environmentally friendly design incorporating a turf roof and a heat pump system in the water table. Bell had to cope with the effects of the storm that destroyed many trees at Kew and its sister garden, Wakehurst Place, in October 1987. Bell's sense of humour and personnel skills helped to maintain the morale of Kew's staff during this traumatic period. On retirement from Kew he continued his chemical research through honorary appointments in Texas and at King's College. He continued his interest in botanic gardens by helping with the development of gardens in Austin and Galveston, Texas, and at Marks Hall, near Coggeshall in Essex.

Bell had the straightforward frankness and friendliness frequently associated with Northumbrians, and this was complemented by his great sense of humour. He always saw the funny side of any situation. He was what might be termed a ‘people person’ and his former staff and students were struck by his understanding and accessibility. He was equally at home with royalty, government ministers, and the most junior member of his staff, whose name he would always know. He was an excellent teacher and in his lectures his humour was always evident. He served on the council of the Royal Horticultural Society (1985–9), as vice-president of the Linnean Society of London (1982–6), as president of the plant biology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1985–6), and as honorary botanical adviser to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (1982–8). During his career he held visiting professorships at the University of Reading and King's College, London, and at the universities of Kansas, Texas, British Columbia, and Sierra Leone. He was made a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (later the Royal Society of Chemistry) in 1961 and of the Institute of Biology in 1987, became an honorary life member of the Phytochemical Society of Europe in 1985, and was appointed CB in 1988. Latterly he lived in Wimbledon, London, and he died on 11 June 2006 at St George's Hospital, Tooting, of bronchopneumonia and heart failure. He was survived by his wife, Jean, and their three children.

Ghillean T. Prance


The Independent (22 June 2006) · Daily Telegraph (27 June 2006) · Evening Chronicle [Newcastle] (27 June 2006) · The Times (17 July 2006) · P. Nunn, memorial service address, 17 Oct 2006, www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/biohealth/news/nunn.html, accessed on 5 Feb 2008 · WW (2006) · A. Bell, curriculum vitae, priv. coll. · personal knowledge (2010) · private information (2010) [Jean Bell, widow; P. Churcher; G. Lucas] · b. cert. · d. cert.


A. McRobb, photograph, RBG Kew [see illus.] · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£747,255: probate, 10 Nov 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales