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Professor Sir John Irving BELL

89th Congregation (2020)

Professor Sir John Irving BELL

Doctor of Science


Professor Sir John Bell is another illustrious medical scientist whom we honour today. He is today’s Regius Professor of Medicine at University of Oxford. The title reflects its establishment by King Henry VIII, best known for his single-minded devotion to methods for ensuring the early retirement of a succession of queens, but also an important supporter of academia. He founded what remain two of the wealthiest colleges in Oxford and Cambridge as well as five Regius Chairs at each place. These ‘Henrician’ Professorships were a highly significant step in the secular development of Oxford and Cambridge, and the appointments still rest with the Crown. Although not the oldest endowed post in medicine at Oxford – that dates back to the foundation of New College by William of Wykeham in 1379 – the Regius is the senior post and the academic head of the Medical School. 

Status does not, of course, guarantee excellence. Among Sir John’s 19th century predecessors, John Kidd, in post for almost 30 years, opined, on philosophical grounds, that, ‘a science of observation cannot claim certainty for its inferences as to causes, and that consequently theoretical geology cannot stand against an indisputable authority such as revelation.’ He set out this view three centuries after Andreas Vesalius, in Padua, had so influentially advocated the demonstrative method in medicine – relying on observation to inform opinion and analysis – and some two and a half centuries after William Harvey had brought that empirical tradition from Padua to England, and Oxford. Harvey ‘profess[ed] both to learn and to teach anatomy, not from books but from dissections; not from positions of philosophers but from the fabric of nature.’  Kidd’s immediate successor, James Ogle, has only one recorded publication: a letter, in 1841, to the Warden of Wadham College, outlining a new scheme for examining. We have come a long way since then. 

Sir John Bell is Oxford’s 30th Regius Professor of Physic (now known as Medicine), and the third Canadian to have held that Chair. The first was Sir William Osler, one of the four founding professors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who is often described as the founder of modern medicine, a man as influential as Vesalius had been. Oxford, though a distinguished University, had – and still has – a comparatively small medical school. Yet its influence vastly outstrips its size. Sir William Osler and Sir John Bell are two, notable transatlantic Regiuses why. 

John Bell was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1952. He headed east, aged 14, to Ridley College in Ontario. Ridley was, and remains, a famous rowing school. It was the first Canadian institution to win the Princess Elizabeth Cup at Henley Royal Regatta. John Bell was awarded his school rowing colours in 1969, and rowed in the 145lb lightweight crew in 1970 – the year that Ridley first won at Henley – and again in 1971. His interest in rowing has lasted ever since. He owns his own sculling boat – the most technical and stylish end of the sport – and sculls regularly from his house by the river Thames. 

From Ridley, Bell headed back west to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, a source of more Rhodes Scholars than any other place in Canada; he became one of that select group. With a Bachelor’s degree in Medical Sciences from Alberta, he moved to Oxford. ‘I arrived in Oxford in October 1975, the weather was unseasonably cold and they hadn’t turned the heating on in the Radcliffe Science Library. I found myself doing my initial studies with my coat and gloves on, and my first purchase was a duvet. I remember thinking to myself that I wouldn’t be sticking around for long.’ Oxford educations are broad.  Canadians, like Russians, think that they know what cold is, until they have to live in an Oxford college. The outdoor air temperature is by no means the whole story… 

Despite the shivers, John Bell obtained First Class Honours in Physiological Sciences at Oxford in 1976. Forty-five years on, his College Tutor, a friend of mine, remembers him, ‘correcting me about the minutiae of the Hodgkin-Huxley equations oh so tactfully, which was remarkable as he didn’t do biophysics at all… but immunology etc.  I realised then he was always going to teach me more than I ever taught him.’ That was quickly followed by a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree (BM BCh) in 1979 – a lot of degrees in a short time. You might infer that his life was nothing but study, but he nonetheless managed to find the time to row in Oxford’s 1978 lightweight crew against Cambridge – perhaps it offered a way to get warm? 

Postgraduate clinical training followed, in London and in Oxford, and then came a big move to Hugh McDevitt’s laboratory at Stanford University. He spent five years there. The lab was famous for work on the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), a key component of the system that enables our immune system to recognise what is us, and what is not. MHC dysfunction can result in autoimmune diseases, in which we are attacked – potentially catastrophically attacked – by our own immune system whose evolutionary function is of course to identify and destroy foreign pathogens. Work on the immune system, and on genomics in human health, is a distinguishing and influential mark of Bell’s research interests – initially in diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Beyond those starting points it provides entrées into crucial aspects of personalised medicine including, for example, better targeting of drug treatments with fewer side effects and the differential management of cancer metastases, as well as playing into vaccines and vaccine development: very clearly medicine for our times. 

California’s powers of seduction eventually faded. The West Coast came to feel too ‘parochial’ and Sir David Weatherall’s newly founded Institute of Molecular Medicine was a magnetic attraction, drawing John Bell back to Oxford. This was a critical step. Within three years he had succeeded Weatherall as Nuffield Professor of Clinical Medicine, and had spearheaded the funding for Oxford’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics which opened in 1994. This began a whole series of new developments which he has masterminded since then. These now constitute an entire, new medical research campus for Oxford, which has not only ramped up its already impressive research volume but has also pushed its impact further and further into translational medicine and health policy. In 2000, Weatherall stepped down from the Regius Chair. Bell again succeeded him (and his own successor in the Nuffield Chair, Sir Peter Ratcliffe, became a Nobel Laureate in 2019). 

During John Bell’s tenure as Regius, Oxford medicine went from strength to strength. The Times Higher Education supplement has ranked it as the best in the world for nine years in a row. Its impact is not just national but global – famously in epidemiology, tropical medicine, the treatment of malaria, and the development of anti-malarial drug resistance. Its profile during the current COVID-19 pandemic could scarcely be higher. Oxford’s ‘RECOVERY’ programme is the biggest clinical trial of candidate drug treatments, and the Oxford vaccine programme was exceptionally quick off the mark and thorough, yet ambitious. It is designed to manufacture on a global scale and offer affordable access, while its assessment protocols are exemplary. Whatever their outcomes, developments like these depend on having an infrastructure already in place and processes ready to roll, plus the flexibility, the capacity, and sometimes the sheer negotiating skills, to bring together an effective combination of resources. This, in turn, requires foresight and imagination, and an enlightened operating context; and that means leadership, which this Regius provides. And that leadership extends beyond the local: regionally, nationally, and internationally. 

John Bell is a UK Life Sciences Champion, reporting to the Prime Minister, and oversaw the UK Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Report. He was President of the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences and is currently the Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee. He has participated in advisory panels – both private and public sector – in Canada, Denmark, France, Singapore and Sweden as well as the UK, and is a founding director of three biotechnology start-up companies. With responsibilities has come recognition: amongst many honours, he was elected to the Royal Society and created a Knight Bachelor in 2008, becoming a Knight Grand Cross in 2015. Alongside these, his roles as Chair of the Rhodes Trustees and as Senior Member of the Oxford University Boat Club may seem less extraordinary, but I would wager that Oxford’s win by one foot at the end of a 4.2 mile, 18 minute-plus battle in the 2003 boat race will have generated as much tension, anxiety, relief and utter satisfaction as anything else he has ever done. 

Christ Church, his college at Oxford was, like his Chair, established by Henry VIII. Above its entryway hangs Great Tom, the largest ancient bell in England, taken from nearby Osney Abbey which the King suppressed to add to its revenues to his own. Great Tom famously tolls a curfew each night: 101 strokes, commemorating the 100 original students plus one added in 1663, at 21:05 Greenwich Mean Time. (London is roughly sixty miles to the east, hence this is precisely 9pm – real, Oxford, time. In the 19th century London time was a mere convenience for railway timetablers. Why accord it priority?) 

Great Tom remains in situ but is no longer sui generis. Mr Chairman, it is my privilege to present to you his twin, Professor Sir John Irving Bell, Oxford’s other Great Bell, for the award of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.


This citation is written by Professor Nicholas Rawlins