1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell
Scottish anatomist, neurologist, surgeon and natural theologian
(1774-1842)




SIR CHARLES BELL, K.H., the youngest son of the Rev. William Bell, a clergyman of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, was born at Edinburgh, November 1774. His mother Margaret Morice, the elder daughter of an Epis-copal clergyman, was remarkable for her piety and general accomplishments, and she exercised a powerful influence over her gifted sons. The father, William Bell, after a life of contending with difficulties, died on 20th of Sep-tember 1779, aged seventy-five, leaving his wife and six children very slenderly provided for. Of these six children, three became distinguished men, namely, John Bell, the anatomist and surgeon; George Joseph Bell, professor of the law of Scotland in the University of Edinburgh; and Charles Bell, the subject of this notice. After having studied two years at the High School and two years more at the University of Edinburgh, Charles embraced the pro-fession of medicine and devoted himself chiefly to the study of anatomy, under the direction of his brother John, who was twelve years older, and who had already earned a reputation as an anatomist and surgeon. Regarding his early education, he wrote, in 1839, on a copy of Petti-grew's Medical Portrait Gallery, opposite a remark that he had been educated at the High School,—" Nonsense ! I received no education but from my mother, neither read-ing, writing, ciphering, nor anything else." At school and college he does not appear to have distinguished himself, except by his facility in drawing, a hereditary gift acquired from his mother. It was not until he entered on the study of anatomy that he gave evidence of possessing those talents which soon made him a worthy rival of his brother John.

His first work, entitled A System of Dissections, explaining the Anatomy of the Human Body, the manner of displaying the Parts, and their Varieties in Disease, was published in Edinburgh in 1798, while the author was still a pupil. The " Introduction " to this work shows much originality of thought, and an aptitude for devising new methods of preparing animal structures for dissection and demonstra-tion. The volume is illustrated by numerous engravings from original drawings, and the text is clear and precise in language. For many years this work was considered to be a valuable guide to the student of practical anatomy.

On the 1st of August 1799 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. At that time the fellows of the college were in rotation surgeons to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. In this position Bel] soon gave evidence of great ability. He dissected, drew, described, mounted preparations of anatomical, physio-logical, or pathological value, improved on the modes of operating in surgery known at that time, and invented a method of making models of morbid parts, of which specimens may still be seen in the museum of the college.

In 1802 he published a series of engravings of original drawings, showing the anatomy of the brain and nervous system. These drawings are remarkable for artistic skill and finish. They were taken from dissections made by Bell for the lectures or demonstrations he gave on the nerv-ous system as part of the course of anatomical instruction of his brother. In 1804 he wrote volume iii. of The Anatomy of the Human Body, by John and Charles Bell. This volume contains the anatomy of the nervous system, and of the organs of special sense.

In 1804 a new arrangement was made regarding the attendance of surgeons at the Edinburgh Infirmary ; and Bell, probably as being junior in the profession, was excluded from the hospitaL He proposed to the managers to pay £100 a year, and to transfer to them, for the use of the students, the museum he had collected, on condition that he should be " allowed to stand by the bodies when dissected in the theatre of the infirmary, and to make notes and drawings of the diseased appearances." This enthusiastic proposal was rejected, and the consequence was that Bell went to London in November 1804.

From that date, for nearly forty years, he kept up a regular correspondence with his brother George, much of which has recently been published (Letters of Sir Charles Bell, 4cc, 1870). The earlier letters of this correspondence show how rapidly he rose to distinction in a field where success was difficult, as it was already occupied by such men as Abernethy, Sir Astley Cooper, and Cline. He quickly made acquaintance with most of the scientific men of the day, and apparently won friends in the highest social, professional, and artistic circles. After having lodged in Fludyer Street for some months, he settled in Leicester Street, Leicester Square, and immediately commenced a course of lectures on anatomy and surgery. Here he also located his museum, which was sent to him from Edinburgh; and his letters indicate that this was the subject of much interest to scientific and professional men. He lectured to painters, directed private dissections, gave demonstrations to surgeons, and gradually acquired a surgical practice.

Before leaving Edinburgh in 1804, he had written his work on the Anatomy of Expression. It was pubbshed in London soon after his arrival, and at once attracted attention. His practical knowledge of anatomy and his skill as an artist qualified him in an exceptional manner for such a work. The object of this treatise was to describe the arrangements by which the influence of the mind was propagated to the muscular frame, and to give a rational explanation of the muscular movements which usually accompany the various emotions and passions. One special feature of the author's system was the importance attributed to the respiratory arrangements as a source of expression. He also showed how the physician and surgeon might derive information regarding the nature and extent of important diseases by observing the expression of bodily suffering. This work, apart from its value to artists and psychologists, is of interest historically, as there is no doubt the investigations of the author into the nervous supply of the muscles of expression induced him to prosecute inquiries which led to his great discoveries in the physiology of the nervous system.





In 1807 Bell first published his idea of a new anatomy of the brain, in which he announced the discovery of the different functions of the nerves corresponding with their relations to different parts of the brain. It is now difficult to imagine the confusion which prevailed in the minds of anatomists and physiologists regarding the functions of the various nerves prior to this discovery. The nerves had been noticed by anatomists from the earliest times, and they were divided into cranial and spinal nerves, according %s they originated from the brain or spinal cord. Some were supposed to carry from the brain the mandates of the will, while others communicated to the sensorium impres-sions made on their extremities, which resulted in con-sciousness. It was supposed, however, that the same nerve, even at the same time, might in some mysterious way transmit either motor or sensory impressions in opposite directions. When a nerve was cut, the parts beyond the incision were found to be destitute of sensibility, and to be beyond the influence of the will. It was con-sequently correctly inferred to be the cord through which volition acted on the muscles, and through which sensory impressions were transmitted to the sensorium. The idea of two sets of filaments functionally different in the same nerve was not then entertained. Boerhaave asserted that there were two kinds of spinal nerves, the one serving for motion and the other for the use of the senses. Haller states, " I know not a nerve which has sensation without also producing motion." The first Monro held a similar opinion, and he believed all those spinal nerves which passed through a ganglion to be motor nerves.

To Sir Charles Bell we owe the discovery that in the nervous trunks there are special sensory filaments, the office of which is to transmit impressions from the periphery of the body to the sensorium, and special motor filaments which convey motor impressions from the brain or other nerve centre to the muscles. He also showed that some nerves consist entirely of sensory filaments and are there-fore sensory nerves, that others are composed of motor filaments and are therefore motor nerves, whilst a third variety contain both kinds of filaments and are therefore to be regarded as sensory-motor. Furthermore, he indicated that the brain and spinal cord may be divided into separate parts, each part having a special function—one part mini-stering to motion, the other to sensation, and that the origin of the nerves from one or other or both of those sources endows them with the peculiar property of the division whence they spring. He also demonstrated that no motor nerve ever passes through a ganglion. Lastly, he showed both from theoretical considerations and from the result of actual experiment on the living animal, that the anterior roots of the spinal nerves are motor, while the posterior are sensory. These discoveries as a whole must be regarded as the greatest in physiology since that of the circulation of the blood by the illustrious Harvey. It not only was a distinct and definite advance in scientific know-ledge, but from it flowed many practical results of much importance in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. It is not surprising that Bell should have announced it to his friends with exultation. On 26th November 1807 we find him writing as follows to his brother George :—" I have done a more interesting nova anatomia cerebri humani than it is possible to conceive. I lectured it yesterday. I pro-secuted it last night till one o'clock; and I am sure it will be well received." On the 31st of the same month he writes—" I really think this new anatomy of the brain will strike more than the discovery of the lymphatics being absorbents."

In 1807 he produced a System of Comparative Surgery founded on the basis of anatomy. This work indicates the author's idea of the science of surgery. He regarded it almost wholly from an anatomical and operative point of view, and there is little or no mention of the use of medicinal substances. It placed him, however, in the highest rank of English writers on surgery.

In 1809 he relinquished his professional work in London, and rendered meritorious services to the wounded from Comma, who were brought to the Haslar Hospital at Portsmouth. In 1810 he published a series of Letters concerning the Diseases of the Urethra, in which he treated of stricture from an anatomical and pathological point of view.

In 1812 he was appointed surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital, and a few years afterwards professor of anatomy, physiology, and surgery to the College of Surgeons of London. He was also for many years teacher of anatomy in the school of Great Windmill Street, no longer in exist-ence. He acted as surgeon to the hospital for twenty-four years, and delivered many courses of lectures on surgery in that institution. In 1815 he did good public service by devoting all his skill and time to the wounded after the battle of Waterloo. On the formation of University College, Gower Street, he was asked to place inmself at the head of the medical department. This appointment he held for only a short time, when he resigned in conse-quence, it is said, of dissensions in the senate.





In 1816, 1817, 1818, he published a series of Quarterly Reports of Cases in Surgery, treated in the Middlesex Hospital, in the Cancer Establishment, and in Private Practice, embracing an Account of the Anatomical and Pathological Researches in the School of Windmill Street. In 1821 he issued a volume of coloured plates with descriptive letterpress, entitled Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery, Trepan, Hernia, Amputation, and Lithotomy. In 1824 appeared An Exposition of the Natural System of Nerves of the Human Body; being a Republica-tion of the Papers delivered to the Royal Society on the subject of the Nerves. In the same year he wrote Observa-tions on Injuries of the Spine and of the Thigh Bone. In 1832 he wrote a paper for the Royal Society of London on the " Organs of the Human Voice," in which he gave many illustrations of the physiological action of these parts.
Of an eminently pious and reflective mind, he was often in the habit of pointing out in his lectures what he regarded as evidences of creative design to be found in the anatomy of the bodies of animals. These he embodied in a treatise on Animal Mechanics, written for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The executors of the earl of Bridgewater selected him as a fit person to main-tain the argument which it was the purpose of that noble-man's bequest to have published. Sir Charles wrote in 1833—The Hand: its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as evincing Design. Along with Lord Brougham he anno-tated and illustrated an edition of Paley's Natural Theo-logy, published in 1836, in which he followed out his favourite Hue of thought.

The Royal Society of London awarded to him in 1829 the first annual medal of that year given by George IV. for discoveries in science; and when William IV. ascended the throne, Charles Bell received the honour of knighthood along with a few other men distinguished in science and literature.

The chair of surgery in the University of Edinburgh was offered to him in 1836. When the offer was made he was regarded as one of the foremost scientific men in London, and he had a large surgical practice. But his opinion was " London is a place to live in, but not to die in ;" and he accepted the appointment. In Edinburgh he did not earn great local professional success ; and, it must be confessed, he was not appreciated as he deserved. But honours came thick upon him. On the Continent he was spoken of as greater than Harvey. It is narrated that one day Roux, a celebrated French physiologist, dismissed his class without a lecture, saying " C'est assez, Messieurs, vous avez vu Charles Bell." He held the Edinburgh chair from 1836 to 1842. During his professorship, in 1838, he published the Institutes of Surgery, arranged in the order of the Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh; and in 1841 he wrote a volume of Practical Essays, two of which " On Squinting," and "On the Action of Purgatives," are of great value.

Sir Charles Bell died at Hallow Park near Worcester on Thursday, 28th April 1842, in his sixty-eighth year; and he lies under the yew tree in the peaceful churchyard of Hallow. His epitaph, written by his life-long friend Lord Jeffrey, summarizes his character as follows :—" Sacred to the memory of Sir Charles Bell, who, after unfolding, with unrivalled sagacity, patience, and success, the wonderful structure of our mortal bodies, esteemed lightly of his greatest discoveries, except only as they tended to impress himself and others with a deeper sense of the infinite wisdom and ineffable goodness of the Almighty Creator. He was born at Edinburgh 1774; died, while on a visit of friendship, at Hallow park, in this parish, 1842 ; and lies buried in the adjoining churchyard." (J. G. M.)




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