Charles Bell, born a son of the manse in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, possessed an eclectic range of talents. His skill for drawing and painting was on a par with that of distinguished contemporary artists, and many of his paintings hang in the College. Denied an appointment in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, he found success and fame in London both as a teacher of anatomy and a surgeon. Yet it was his seminal research on the nervous system which brought him international recognition and a knighthood. Only then did he return to his native city as Professor of Surgery.
Charles Bell was the youngest son of the Rev. William Bell. If the young Charles was to inherit his gifts as an artist from his mother it was surely from his father that he inherited his strength of character. His father, a Church of Scotland Minister, transferred allegiance to become a rector in the Scottish Episcopal Church – a Church then suffering from the failures of the Jacobite cause in the years following Culloden. As a result Episcopal rectories faced considerable financial hardship, made worse in his case by the death of his father when Charles was only 5 years old. His widowed mother, Margaret Morris, herself a gifted artist, ensured that despite the family’s poverty, his artistic gifts should be encouraged and developed. The Edinburgh artist David Allan became his mentor and Bell would later recall these painting lessons as among the happiest memories of his life. “Allan the painter was a man very dear to me in my early boyhood” he wrote “To him I am principally indebted for my pleasure in drawing”
Charles enrolled as a medical undergraduate at the University but attended anatomy classes at the School of Anatomy run by his elder brother John Bell (qv), whom he greatly admired and from whom he drew inspiration.
Both John and Charles were snubbed by the Scottish surgical establishment – neither was given a post in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. While his elder brother remained in Scotland and, in a tempestuous career, became the foremost Scottish surgeon of his day, Charles left for London, aged 30, in 1804. There he established a reputation as a teacher of anatomy and surgery and in 1814 was appointed to the staff of the Middlesex Hospital. Throughout his surgical career he continued to develop his skills as an artist in sketches, watercolours and oils. His repertoire was that of the professional painter, including portraits in many of which he sought to portray human facial emotion, based on his understanding of the anatomy of the muscles of facial expression. In “The Anatomy of Expression” he described the anatomical basis for displays of facial emotion. His landscapes largely depicted Scotland, England and Italy.
As a surgeon he tended to the wounded in two campaigns of the Napoleonic wars – after the retreat from Corunna in the face of Napoleon’s advancing army and after Waterloo. After the evacuation from Corunna Bell attended to the wounded in Portsmouth where he made sketches and paintings of gunshot wounds. His drawings and watercolours of the wounded after the battle of Waterloo were made in Brussels in the days following the War.
Many of his portraits and landscapes and all of the Corunna oils are currently on display in The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, whilst the Waterloo watercolours are held at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London.
Bell’s other great legacy to the Edinburgh College was his museum collection. During his London years he taught at the Great Windmill Street School of Anatomy which had been founded by William Hunter in 1746. Here he amassed a museum of pathology specimens. This had grown to become one of the largest collections of its time, so that by 1926 Bell decided to sell this to The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The collection was packed under the supervision of Professor Robert Knox (qv) and shipped to Leith. It formed the heart of the Playfair Museum when the Playfair building opened in 1828, and it remains on display to this day.
Bell’s greatest scientific contributions were to revolutionise our understanding of the function of the nervous system. In a series of animal experiments he observed that spinal nerves were connected to the spinal cord by two roots, an anterior and a posterior. His simple demonstration that stimulation of the anterior roots resulted in muscle contraction while that of the posterior roots did not paved the way for our understanding of nervous pathways between the periphery and the brain. He discussed these findings with Magendie, the French physiologist in Paris in 1921, and shortly after the visit Magendie published a classical paper demonstrating that the anterior roots served a motor function while the posterior had a sensory function, a concept encapsulated as “the Bell-Magendie Law”. Bell’s name lives on eponymously elsewhere: Bell’s palsy, still common today, a lower motor neurone paralysis of the facial nerve, still retains his name. Before anatomists increasingly moved away from eponyms, the nerve to serratus anterior was commonly known as the long thoracic nerve of Bell.
His contributions to science were recognised by his Fellowship of The Royal Society of London and the award of the Society’s Gold Medal. He was knighted in 1831 and in 1836 returned to his native Edinburgh as Professor of Surgery.
Chiene Looking back p 32
Comrie Hist.Scot.med vol 1, p 325
Pettigrew’s memoirs Vol 3
Boyes: On the Shoulders of Giants p 28
Saunders; The Middlesex 1745-1848
Bailey & Bishop Notable Names etc p 37
Knight’s Dictionary and Life by Lady Bell
Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, March 2012, v42 (1), p90
Journal Medical Biography, May 2017, v25 (2), p.81-3
Surgical News, April 2018, 19(3), p.28-9