An original thinker and surgical innovator active during Edinburgh’s ‘Enlightenment’, Benjamin Bell (1749-1806) is often credited as Edinburgh’s first scientific surgeon, or ‘the father of the Edinburgh school of surgery’.
The use of a seton had been advocated by James Ray. Bell, however, was the first to rationalise its use and to define the indications. These, and other innovations, were included in his magnum opus entitled System of Surgery which was and published in six volumes between 1783 and 1788 was the first comprehensive textbook of surgery in the English language. It was truly a giant work of surgical literature which described not only his practice of surgery but aimed "to exhibit a view of the art of surgery as it is at present practised by the most expert surgeons in Europe". It went through seven editions and was translated into French and German.
Another important original contribution was a paper, based on an extensive clinical experience, which showed that the causes, natural history and clinical features of gonorrhoea and syphilis were different and suggesting that they were different disease.
He was admitted to Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1771. His descendants were also to achieve distinction in surgery. His elder son George Bell (1777 - 1832) and his son Benjamin Bell were both Fellows of the College and surgeons in Edinburgh. His younger son Joseph was also a Fellow of the College and his son Benjamin Bell was President of the College form 1863 - 1865. His son, Joseph Bell, great-grandson of that first Benjamin Bell, also became President of the College and famously the model for the character of Sherlock Holmes.