Skip to main content

Eric Braham Bell, BA, VMD, PhD 1939–2022

The BSI was saddened to learn about the recent death of our Honorary Member, Dr Eric Braham Bell. He led the British Society for Immunology as General Secretary from 2001 to 2005 and made significant contributions to the field over decades.


Eric first developed an interest in immunology while he was studying for a Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1961–1965). He worked with Benjamin Wolf on reproductive immunology and together they were the first to demonstrate antibody synthesis by the female reproductive tract which was published in Nature in 1967. He moved to Edinburgh in September 1965 to study for his PhD with Anne McLaren in the Department of Animal Genetics. Eric continued his interest in reproductive immunology working on the impact of immunity to sperm on fertility and contraception. He was a postdoc with James Howard in Edinburgh before moving to the Burroughs Wellcome Research Labs in Beckenham in 1969 where he worked with Frank Shand on cellular mechanisms of tolerance. In 1973 he returned to a Lectureship at Edinburgh University Medical School joining Bill Ford in the Pathology Department. Then, in 1975 he moved to Manchester University to a Senior Lectureship with Bill Ford who became Professor of Immunology there. Eric was acting head of the department from 1984 to 1987 following Bill’s death and then became Reader in Immunology in 1988.

Studying immune responses in the context of the whole animal was extremely important to Eric, although he was not reluctant to use in vitro methods such as hanging drops for antibody synthesis. Early on in his career, he realised the power of thoracic duct cannulation in rats to study the trafficking of immune cells under different immunological conditions. He was the first to identify cells in thoracic duct lymph that had become laden with antigen after feeding, which we now know as intestinally derived dendritic cells. Eric’s research expanded into the regulation of IgE in parasite infections and the role of T cells in transplantation immunology. In Manchester he started to work on the fate and lifespan of memory CD4+ T cells by combining thoracic duct cannulation to isolate recirculating T cells with athymic nude rats as recipients of defined T cell subsets. In an elegant series of papers, Eric followed the fate, function and lifespan of CD4+ T cells subsets which culminated in his most important discovery (and the one that he is famous for) that CD45R isoform expression could interconvert in vivo. Until this finding, CD45R isoform expression had been used to distinguish memory from naïve T cells. Eric’s finding demonstrated clearly that phenotype alone could not be used to define memory T cells and that functional assays were required. The work was published in Nature in 1999 after a protracted ‘battle’ with the editors. He continued to investigate the nature of memory cells, their circulation and challenge the basic concepts of CD4 T cell memory, even dabbling with transgenic T cells!

Professor Adrian Hayday with Dr Eric Bell receiving BSI Honorary Membership

To describe Eric’s research alone, however, is to miss out his most important characteristics. He was extremely patient and passionate about communicating immunology through teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. His tall stature, white lab coat and characteristic beard-pulling could be offputting to new students and departmental colleagues, but we all quickly learned that Eric had a big heart and was very approachable and welcoming. Eric was eager to listen and debate your point of view. He would always be enthusiastic, passionate and usually on the winning side, but with his great sense of humour and good grace you never felt bad losing. No doubt, his degree in Liberal Arts gained from Oberlin College before his Veterinary studies came into play during such debates. Eric also had the gift of writing in a highly accessible way and his papers are worthy of reading for their exemplary presentation style. He did his utmost to support and encourage career development in his own students and staff, as well as in his departmental colleagues. Eric was extremely collegial and really enjoyed departmental parties and days-out for networking purposes!

Eric was involved in many BSI activities and was a stabilising influence when he led the Society as General Secretary (2001–2005). The Society owes a debt of gratitude to Eric’s commitment to animal experimentation and his outspoken support of animal work in immunology during this time. He was made an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Society in 2006.

Eric retired from the University of Manchester in 2006 after a very productive career publishing more than 90 papers. However, he continued his work as a magistrate in Trafford Magistrates Court until 2009. He also enjoyed his voluntary work for the Friends of Denzell Gardens in Hale, Cheshire near to the family home. Eric passed away peacefully after a protracted illness and was lovingly looked after by Teresa, his life-long partner, who he met in Edinburgh where they married in 1966. Eric’s gifts of communication, level-headedness and human warmth are all continued in his children Brendan, Kirsty and Bruce.

 

Eric’s friends and colleagues at the University of Manchester
Ann Ager, Mark Drayson, Richard Grencis, Jean Marshall, Christopher Morrison and Chunping Yang