Elected F.R.S. 1965
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 honours 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 F. L. (later Sir Frank) Engledow (FRS 1946). 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 that resulted in the development of the breadmaking winter–wheat variety Holdfast.Bell's leadership in plant breeding came to its full realization when he became Director of the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI), Cambridge, in 1947. The government had decided in the immediate postwar 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.