THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Florence Bell (1913-2000)
Pioneering Scientist and unsung heroine of DNA
Standing in the natural history section of Leeds City Museum, not far from the famous tiger, is a curious structure made of two chains of coloured plastic balls twisting around each other. This is DNA, the genetic material, and the discovery of its structure by the Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 was one of the biggest landmarks in science. But few people realise that, thanks to a young scientist called Florence Bell, Leeds has a very important connection to this groundbreaking discovery.
Bell grew up in London and attended Haberdashers’ Aske Girls School in Acton where she was Head Girl. Here she showed an impressive range of talents including being able to speak several languages and play the piano as well as enjoying a range of sports including tennis, lacrosse and swimming. Thanks to her formidable mathematical ability she won a place at Girton College, Cambridge and after her graduation she applied these skills to working with a groundbreaking new technique known as X-ray crystallography. This used X-rays to determine the arrangement of atoms in crystals and had first been discovered by the Leeds based physicist Sir William Bragg and his son Lawrence. After leaving Cambridge, Bell worked with Lawrence Bragg in Manchester before moving to Leeds where she lived on Beckett Park Drive, Headingley. Here she worked as a research assistant to the pioneering physicist William Astbury who was using these new X-ray methods to study the molecular structure of wool fibres for the local textile industries and although wool might not have seemed to be the most exciting subject for study Bell's work was to have profound consequences that would go far beyond the textile mills of West Yorkshire. She showed for the first time that X-rays could be used to solve not only the shape of wool molecules, but also of DNA and in so doing she very much laid the foundations for James Watson and Francis Crick’s later discovery.
Bell was one of the first scientists to recognise the importance of DNA at a time when it was thought to be of little interest and she helped to pioneer the new science that became known as ‘molecular biology’. But when she gave a lecture at a conference held by the Institute of Physics in Leeds in 1939, it was not her groundbreaking work that caught the attention of the local press but simply the fact that she was a female scientist - something which at the time was considered to be so unusual as to be worthy of newspaper headlines such as 'Woman Scientist Explains'!
In 1942, Bell was summoned for War Service where she applied her skills as a physicist working in
the Women's Auxiliary Air Force on the development of airborne radar systems. Her departure came as a tremendous blow to Astbury's work. He wrote in vain to the War Office pleading that she be allowed to continue working in his laboratory and the University of Leeds kept her post open in the hope that she might return after the war, but by then forces far more powerful than science had intervened in her life. For she had met and fallen for James Sawyer, a captain in the US Army whom she married at St. Mary's Church, Ambleside in December 1942 before leaving Britain for a new life in the USA.
In the US she worked first for the British Air Commission in Washington D.C. and then as a research chemist for a petroleum company in Texas before giving up her career to look after her family. But her career in science had taken its toll on her health. Most likely as a result of working with unshielded X-ray sources, she found that she was unable to have children of her own and so she devoted the rest of her life to raising four young children whom she had adopted. When she died, her official occupation was therefore recorded as having been a housewife, but she deserves also to be remembered for the important scientific work that she did whilst at Leeds – an achievement of which the city can be very proud.Kersten Hall
School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
University of Leeds
Thanks to Mrs Chris Forkins and Mrs June Longley, Rawdon Community Library, for providing information on Florence Bell from the 1939 census, and also to Mr. Chris Sawyer, North Carolina, USA for kindly sharing his recollections of his mother.
Image reproduced with kind permission of Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.
More information can be found at the website of the British Society for the History of Science - http://www.bshs.org.uk/florence-bell-the-other-dark-lady-of-dna
To mark their bicentenary in 2019, Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (www.leedsphilandlit.org.uk) will publish a booklet to celebrate the achievements of Bell and other Leeds scientists involved in the story of DNA.