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Philip George Houthem Gell

Born 1914
Died 2001

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British immunologist, born October 20, 1914; died May 3, 2001.

Biography of Philip George Houthem Gell

Philip Gell was one of a small but outstanding group of immunologists who led Britain during the postwar years to a leading role in this increasingly important biomedical discipline. He pioneered in those studies that helped to change the field from an earlier, narrowly chemical approach to one with much broader biological and medical implications. He helped to train and guide an entire generation of scientists, both domestic and foreign, and did all of this with a most becoming modesty. But he was more than just a narrowly oriented scientist; his interest in horticulture, in poetry, in philosophy and in the interrelationship of art and science was mediated by the interplay of a keen mind with a broad fund of general knowledge.” Arthur M. Silverstein

Silverstein: Philip George Houthem Gell was born to a family that can trace their ancestors back to the fourteenth century in and around Wirksworth in Derbyshire. His father was Major Francis Gell. At the time of Philips birth, Major Gell was serving with the 14th Jat Lancers defending a bridge near Houthem in Belgium, thus accounting for Philip’s third given name. His mother was born Elsie Winifred May Skinner. His parents divorced when he was seven years old.

When his mother remarried he was sent as a boarder to Winton House School where he developed a lifelong attraction to Latin and Greek. He continued at Stowe, where he developed something of an aversion to maths – and a love of music. Gell studied at Cambridge, but before that he took a Wanderjahr, spending several months in Germany to learn something of the language.

Gell had gone to Cambridge to study Moral Science, but after two terms he felt unsure about his choice and wanted to change to medicine. However, that was a problem for a one who had had no scientirfic courses in school. Despite this and by hard work he managed to pass his Natural Science Tripos at the end of his third year. During the course of his studies, Philip developed an inteest in bacteriology and especially in immunology. This interest led him to win a Filliter Scholarship in pathology to Univesity College Hospital (UCH) in London. Here he received his MB BCh.

In 1939 Gell started as a house physician to Harold Himsworth (1905-1993) at University College Hospital, hoping thereafter to take a research position with him. However, the war broke out and Gell joined the Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service, working at Cardiff, Leicester and Northampton practising bacteriology. He worked primariy on practical bacteriology, publishing a number of papers with Marrtin R. Pollock, who went on to become a leading figure in molecular genetics, and Robert Knox.

He then received an invitation to work with C. R. (later Sir Charles) Harington, then Director of the National Institute of Medical research at Hampstead. The Job involved research in contact dermatitis, then a serious problem among workers in ordnance factories who often developed allergic skin reactions to the chemicals in explosives. Here was an exposure to the still-mysterious field of delayed hypersensitivity (later to mature into the subdiscipline of cel- lular immunology, one of the principal divisions of this increasingly important field). Philip would, in one way or another, devote the rest of his scientific career to this subject.

In 1941 Gell married Albinia Susan Roope Gordon, great-great-granddaughter of Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), 1st Baronet, the Astronomer Royal. Susan was an archaeo logical artist. They had two children: a daughter, Teresa Hopkins PhD, and Antony (Alfred) Francis PhD FBA,

In the late 1940s the National Institute of Medical Research was still located in a restricted site at Hampstead, and lacked the animal facilities that Gell needed to pursue his work on hypersensitivity. Accordingly in 1948 he accepted an invitation to join his old friend John Squire, the newly appointed professor who was building up a strong department of experimental pathology at the University of Birmingham, where Peter Medawar was also advancing work on immunology in zoology.

As a reader Gell had much freedom and support for research at the Univesity. In 1960 he was appointed by the univesity to a personal chair in immunological pathology, one of the first such chairs in the discipline in the entire world. In 1967, upon the untimely death of John Squire, Gell took over Squire’s department.

Together with John Humphrey and others, Gell helped to found the British Society for Immunology and served on the editorial board of its journal Immunology for many years. In 1963, Philip organized in Birmingham the first Masters course in immunology, one that is still extant and which has had an important role in the education of several generations of immunologists.

In 1969 Gell’s duties as departmental chairman took him on a visit of mediation to the Medical School of the (then) University of Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia. The school had been sponsored by Birmingham Medical School, and in 1969 the students were in serious conflict with the university as a consequence of the apartheid implications of Ian Smith's unilateral declaration of independence. Philip, who was already known in Salisbury as an examiner in pathology, was sent to mediate on behalf of the 'mother' institution, Birmingham. There he met with and advised the student leaders and interviewed both university officials and the political leaders of the African nationalists. In the event, tempers cooled, and Philip was left with the feeling that he had contributed at least in a small way to the peaceful resolution of the troubles.

Philip's immunological investigations in Birmingham established for him a worldwide rep- utation. He was a frequent speaker and discussant at international symposia and congresses and his work attracted many to Birmingham to work with and learn from him.

Main topics in Gell’s research at Birmingham were the histology of hypersensitivity reactions, the specificity of delayed hypersensitivity, immunotaxonomy, and immunoglobulin allotypes and immunocyte activation.

Gell retired in 1978. He and his wife Susan bought a house in the small village of Kingston, not far from Cambridge, where a fair-sized garden permitted Philip to cultivate his favourite irises and a variety of unusual plants. His scientific travels a thing of the past, he was now able to travel the world for botanical purposes and general interest. This included trips to Central Asia, China, Turkey and the Yemen. He joined the Poetry Writing Group of the University of the Third Age in Cambridge, which inspired him to write more poems. Some of these, and some earlier works, appeared in its annual publication Leaves from the Cam.

After retirement and the move to Cambridgeshire, Philip was invited by Peter Wildy, Professor of Virology (and an old associate at Birmingham) to work in his department on a small grant, With him also was Tony Nash, a former PhD student from Birmingham. The project involved the study of the immune response to viral infection. This was an especially happy period for Philip. He was back in his much-loved Cambridge, he was working in an area of passionate interest, and he had absolutely no administrative duties. He was able to keep up this exciting pursuit for almost 10 years; however, the death of Professor Wildy, and Philip's growing feeling that it was time to make way for younger workers, caused him finally to leave the laboratory and to return to full-time gardening and to his musings about poetry, art, and the nature of the scientific enterprise (78).

The above information is mainly taken from the article by Arthur M. Silverstein.

  • A. M. Silverstein:
    Philip George Houthem Gell.
    Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Royal Society, London, 2003, 49: 163–78.

  • Avrion Mitchison:
    Gell, Philip George Houthem )1914-2001), immunologist.
    Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition, Oxford Univesity Press, January 2005, online edition May 2006. http://oxfordnb.com/view/article/75865
We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted.

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