La Bell Époque: A Century of Julia Bell (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a blog post about Julia Bell. Find part one over here

Julia Bell was a suffragist (a member of the group which campaigned for women’s rights through peaceful, constitutional campaign methods). Though she never took part in the violent protests of the more extreme suffragettes, she attended many suffragist meetings and often expressed her views openly at social occasions. In one letter, Marina Sharpe Pearson laments Bell’s absence, for ‘I should like to have you here to discuss the Fem. Stuff. movement at the present time’.[1] It seems that Bell was a popular addition to a dinner party. What’s more, she sometimes wrote poetry about the dinners she attended:


Two friends up in Towne,

Greet the Doctors of Downe

They greet them, salute them and

Thank them for verses,

For verses, prepared amid

Endless researches

Researches on temperatures, insects,

And man,

On pigs and their pedigrees,

Life and its plan,

And even on such things

As roast pork and ham.

Two ladies in Towne

Greet the Doctors of Downe.[2]


Bell’s poem offers a picture of her London life during her early years at the Galton laboratory and her friendships at this time. It was probably written before Bell attended medical school, because she doesn’t include herself amongst the ‘Doctors of Downe’, meaning Down’s syndrome. The poem’s jovial tones are unnerving considering the ease through which Bell seems to mix together Eugenics, Down’s syndrome, and animal pedigrees. Bell seems to have started a poetry exchange with this poem as Pearson and his colleagues also created verses in response. What is particularly intriguing are the initials of the person intrusted with delivering Bell’s poem to Pearson, M.M.C: Margaret Matilda Cather. This is the ‘very dear friend’ who lived with Bell for 24 years.[3]  


With limited evidence available, it is imprudent to pronounce Bell’s sexuality, but we can try to gain a clearer picture with the information that we do have. Perhaps as evidence against a more than platonic relationship, Margaret Matilda Cather was fourteen years Bell’s senior and kept the title ‘Mrs’ after her 23-year marriage to a tea merchant, Robert Gabriel Cather which ended when he died in 1908. Despite this information about Cather, I decided to seek some advice from Professor Sharon Marcus who works on the hidden histories of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; she provided a few clues as to what kind of thing I should look out for. Namely: a will that named the other woman; if census records document the couple living together; correspondence from friends that asks after both women; shared pets; nicknames to one another; if they met each other’s family; shared holidays with one another; and if they tended to refer to the other person when describing plans or decisions.


Unfortunately, I could find no will, and amongst the papers that University College London’s collections do have, there are no letters of correspondence between the two ladies. However, between the National Archives at Kew, the Welcome Archives, and the RCP many of the other indicators from Professor Marcus’s list were found. The poem, written by Bell and delivered by Cather, speaks of the ‘Two Ladies in Towne’, Bell and Cather hosting a dinner party together. When I checked the 1921 census neither of the two women were at their shared apartment in Saint John’s Wood, but I did find them both together, as guests at a dinner party: they were both visiting a friend, John McEwan, in Enfield on the day of the census.


In Bell’s letters to the Pearsons, she speaks of ‘Mrs Cather’s’ family coming to visit and she also sends regards to others from Mrs Cather. Bell refers to them both collectively when writing to Pearson; ‘we go to Lobb Farm, Braunton, N. Devon next Saturday’ and signs the letter from them both, ‘Mrs Cather would like to send greetings if she were here’.[4]


On September 20th 1923, Julia Bell was recovering in St John’s Hospital after undergoing an operation. During this time, Mrs Cather wrote to Bell’s friends, including Marina Sharpe Pearson and Karl Pearson to let them know she was okay: ‘It was good to get Mrs Cather’s kind letter this afternoon with its good first report’, both Pearson’s write.[5] Likewise, earlier that year, Bell had written to Marina Sharpe Pearson to let her know that Mrs. Cather has recovered from an illness when she and Bell were on holiday together: ‘I am glad Mrs Cather has made such a good recovery.’[6] As for evidence of shared pets, Bell does send a letter with an apparently extensive account of some new born puppies to Mrs Pearson around the time she moves to London, but unfortunately we only have Pearson’s response and thanks for the letter.[7]


Cather died suddenly on 7th November 1939 at Adam’s Road, a student accommodation at Cambridge University where she was most likely accompanying Bell.  In her letter expressing her grief, Bell tells Haldane that Cather’s death ‘left [her] feeling – the very abomination of desolation’ and that the room she was to work in fell through, so ‘we planned to return’ to London; sadly she returned without her companion. Only ten days after Cather’s death Bell resolved to live alone.[8] For the rest of her life Bell threw herself into her research and her profession. Whether Margaret Matilda Cather and Julia Bell were more than platonic friends or not can only be speculated on, however, the bond that these women had throughout their life was clearly deep. They cared for one another in illness. They holidayed with one another, visited friends, met with family and hosted dinners together for a large proportion of their lives. Certainly, there was a bond there which amends the narrative of Bell’s obituaries that she always lived alone.


Shelf of books.


Julia Bell’s main contribution to the field of genetics took half a century to complete. It was a five-volume work called The treasury of human inheritance. Before computers that could process large data, this collection was an invaluable source of collected information on hereditary disease. Bell contributed towards volumes 2 (1922–33), diseases of the eye; 4 (1934–48), diseases of the nervous system; and 5 (1951–8), digital abnormalities.[9] Bell’s own copy of The treasury of human inheritance vol. 2, which she gave to the RCP, remains nestled between the shelves of the library stack. The volume begins with quotes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hippocrates, the Bible, and Francis Galton.


Though it was not uncommon at the time to use quotes from literature to begin a science paper, Bell delighted in such writing. In a paper on polydactylism (a condition where a person is born with one or more extra fingers) and blue sclerotics (a symptom where the white parts of the eyes turn blue) where she is the only author, Bell interwove literature and history with her findings. Literature and historical accounts gave Bell a way of tracing the genetic abnormalities through history. In the paper, she carefully weaves together stories from the Bible, French accounts of Ann Boleyn and her supposed extra finger, and Leonardo da Vinci’s last supper where one of the disciples apparently has six fingers.[10]


Another project that Bell contributed to, but has never received any acknowledgement for, is ‘debunking’ the mystery of Oliver Cromwell’s head. The results of this project are collected in one of our library volumes by Karl Pearson and Geoffrey Morant: The portraiture of Oliver Cromwell with special reference to the Wilkinson head (1935). What better application for the now discredited eugenics movement than analysing the skull of English history’s most famous republican? Using the same combination of maths and eugenicist science that was used to examine the heads of deceased criminals, the study “proved” that a head called the ‘Wilkinson Head’ was the head of Oliver Cromwell.[11] Since a small burial ceremony in 1960, the head now lies in a secret location in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.


In 1943, Bell worked with Dr Purdon Martin on the genetic disorder, Fragile X syndrome (FXS), sometimes called the Martin-Bell syndrome. In their study, they recorded the first verified example of this X-linked disorder and the first example of fragile-X family inheritance.


With her training in mathematics, statistics and medicine, Bell was an important figure in developing the field of genetics, which began as the field of eugenics. Bell remained a researcher at the Galton Laboratory even after her retirement, remaining on the Laboratory’s staff until the age of 85 in 1965. On her 80th birthday, the third Galton Professor Lionel Penrose held a sherry party in honour of her work. True to her poem, Bell remained a lady in London ‘Towne’ for the rest of her life, living a short walk across Regents Park from the Royal College of Physicians. When she was 97, Bell entered a nursing home in Westminster where she died on 26 April 1979 aged 100, outliving the first three Galton Professors: Pearson, Fisher, and Penrose. In response to Robson’s words, that ‘Everyone knew Julia Bell, but when it comes to writing about her no one knew her’, I am sure her very dear friends would disagree. I hope to have contributed to the mystery of her memory.


Caitlín Rankin-McCabe PhD candidate working in the Department of English Studies, Durham University



[1] Letter from Marina Sharpe Pearson to Julia Bell (July 1910), PEARSON/11/1/16/36, Wellcome Collection.

[2] Poem written by Julia Bell and sent to Pearson Margaret Matilda Cather., E S PEARSON/1/3/6/1, Wellcome Collection.

[3] Letter from Julia Bell to J B S Haldane (14th November 1939), HALDANE/5/1/2/1/2, Wellcome Collection.

[4] Letter from Julia Bell to Karl Pearson (August 8th, 1926), PEARSON/11/1/2/37, Wellcome Collection; Bell enjoyed her seaside holidays. Amongst other places, she travelled to Lymington, Lulworth, Somerset, and Devon.

[5] Letter from Marina Sharpe Pearson to Julia Bell (September 20th, 1923), PEARSON/11/1/16/36, Wellcome Collection.

[6] Letter from Marina Sharpe Pearson to Julia Bell (Wednesday 17th April, 1923), PEARSON/11/1/16/36, Wellcome Collection.

[7] Letter from Marina Sharpe Pearson to Julia Bell (July 22nd, 1912), PEARSON/11/1/16/36, Wellcome Collection.

[8] Letter from Julia Bell to J B S Haldane, (17 November, 1939), Wellcome Collection.

[9] Jones G.  Bell, Julia (1879–1979), geneticist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [Accessed 30 May, 2023].

[10] Bell J. Some New Pedigrees of Hereditary Disease: A. Polydactylism and Syndactylism, B. Blue Sclerotics and Fragility of Bone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1930, pp.41-42.

[11] See Plates I and II  in The Treasury of Human Inheritance Vol. 2


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