A tribute to Joyce Wells (1930 to 2023)

Former Senior Tutor Joyce Wells

We are sad to share the news of the death of Joyce Wells, a zoologist who is fondly remembered for her time as Senior Tutor of Newnham College for 25 years.

Coming to Newnham just before her 18th birthday, Joyce read Natural Sciences/Zoology from 1948 to 1951 and was awarded the Edith Rigby Scholarship in 1951, followed by two years as a research student from 1951 to 1953.

On marrying Martin Wells, she went to work with him in the Stazione Zoologica and their first paper, Tactile discrimination and the behaviours of blind Octopus, was published in 1956, the first of many papers they published as a pair throughout their working life. In the preface to his 1962 book Behaviour in cephalopods, Martin wrote that ‘A great deal of the work published under our joint names has been done by her, knowing quite well that as the wife of the senior author she would never get the credit she deserves for it.’

After their return to Cambridge in 1956 they continued to pursue their research in Naples during the summer months. In the 1970s they moved their summer base to the Laboratoire Arago, the Marine Biological Station of Banyuls-sur-mer in southern France. On returning to Cambridge, Joyce supervised undergraduate students and demonstrated practical classes in Zoology and was a tutor at Girton from 1967 before rejoining Newnham as Fellow and Senior Tutor in 1970. She held the Phyllis and Eileen Gibbs Travelling Research Fellowship in 1989 and retired in 1995.

As a student she had lovely times acting with the Mummers and had an active social life, with her tutor complaining that her late night dues were excessive. (In those days you had to pay fees for being out after 10pm on a sliding scale up to 2am). It was noted by Phyllis Hetzel, in the Roll Letter on Joyce’s retirement, that her time as a student prepared her well for her duties as the Senior Tutor!

Dr Gillian Sutherland wrote in the Introduction to Walking on the Grass, Dancing in the Corridors: Newnham at 150: ‘Behind Directors of Studies has stood the Senior Tutor, in Newnham’s case for twenty-five years, 1970-1995, the zoologist Joyce Wells, an individual of exceptional humanity and good judgement, acknowledged by other Senior Tutors in Cambridge as an exemplary role model.’

Learning of Joyce’s death, she said: ‘Here was a great Senior Tutor, who knew her students, her colleagues, the style and ways of the College, and worked tirelessly to bring about a harmonious and civilised whole.’

Joyce, a Fellow Emerita, died on 29 March, aged 92. The family plan a quiet celebration at the annual Wells family elderflower wine-making party in her memory as a form of wake. Her husband Martin pre-deceased her in 2009.

We have received many warm tributes to Joyce from former colleagues and students:

‘My first and third year rooms were either side of hers in Sidgwick. We had sherry there to welcome us as new students across all disciplines, & she always had a lovely smile when we bumped into each other in the corridor. She was a calming presence through the walls. Condolences’ – Dr Janette Leaf

‘Oh that is sad. A lovely, kind person. My tutor for 3 years and I remember her very fondly.’ – Pat Phillips

‘She was Senior Tutor in my time. A long life, well-lived.’ – Heather Self

‘My wife was housekeeper in 1980s and she remembers her very fondly.’ – Andrew Gosden

‘Oh that is very sad news. My much beloved tutor. Kind and supportive and so patient with this somewhat distracted student! When I think of Newnham, I think of Joyce Wells.’ – Katie Breathwick

A summary of Joyce’s academic work is included in the publication The role of female cephalopod researchers: past and present, by Allcock et al. Published in the Journal of Natural History online 2015