Russell obtained a Scholarship to Oundle school, where he developed his interest in science and, in 1915, won an open Scholarship to Gonville and Caius College at the Cambridge University. But he left college to serve in the Royal Naval Air Service in France. After the war he returned to the college, earning his degree in 1922.
Russell began his career in the Royal Naval Air Service in France, he served there from 1916 to 1918.
In 1922 Russell was assigned to the Egyptian government to study the eggs and larvae of marine fishes. Before embarking on his trip to Egypt, Russell went to the laboratory of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, where he studied the early stages in the life histories of fish with R. S. Clark and E. Ford. There, Russell’s lifelong interest in marine biology was sparked. When Russell returned from Egypt in 1924 he joined the Plymouth laboratory as a staff member. He continued to study fish larvae and other plankton. Using a special net Russell collected plankton, noting their vertical distributions. He built on this initial data over the next fifty years, observing how the composition of the species changed seasonally and over the long term.
Russell’s work gained international attention when he showed that the depth at which fish plankton can be found was related to the intensity of light in the water. He used photoelectric cells to measure the light, finding that the plankton moved up and down the water column in a daily cycle. Seasonal variations in light intensity also affected the migrations. In 1928, C. Maurice Yonge, with whom Russell had coauthored the book The Seas: Our Knowledge of Life in the Sea and How It Is Gained, led the Great Barrier Reef expedition to Australia. Russell and his wife, Gweneth, joined the one-year expedition. Russell compared the distribution of plankton in tropical waters there with that of more temperate regions.
After returning to Plymouth, Russell studied in detail the biology of the torpedo-shaped marine worm, sagitta. Finding that the abundance of different species of sagitta varied from year to year, he traced the cause to the movement of water masses in the English Channel and the North Sea. For example, one species preferred the warmer Atlantic water masses to the Arctic water masses. Russell was able to use sagitta as an indicator species, since other planktonic organisms associated with them.
With a colleague, W. J. Rees, Russell began to study another indicator species, a type of jellyfish, medusae. Little was known about its early life stages. Russell and Rees raised medusae in captivity, studying the early hydroid stages.
The outbreak of World War II interrupted Russell’s work on a massive text on the medusae that was to contain nearly a thousand illustrations. Russell left Plymouth in 1940 to serve as an intelligence officer for the Royal Air Force. Returning to the Marine Biological Laboratory as director in 1945, he supervised the growth of the laboratory after the war. He also completed his text on the medusae, struggling to remember the finer details of his research before it had been interrupted by the war. The first volume of the book, called The Medusae of the British Isles, was finally published in 1953. Russell then devoted more time to different types of jellyfish, including the large scyphomedusae. He also studied a red jellyfish from the Bay of Biscay that gave birth to live young. Russell named it stygiomedusa fabulosa.
He retired in 1965.
Continuing his studies even in retirement, at age seventy-eight Russell published a definitive work, The Eggs and Planktonic Stages of British Marine Fishes, in which he described in detail the development of fish eggs and larvae.
He had left his influence on the Journal of the Marine Biological Association, which he had edited for twenty years, from 1945 to 1965. He had also been the founding editor of the journal Advances in Marine Biology, and had participated in its editing and publishing until shortly before his death.
Russell was married to a woman named Gweneth, they had a son - William Moy Stratton Russell.