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Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell (Born November 1774, in Doun in Monteath, near Edinburgh - Died 28 April 1842[1], in North Hallow, Worcestershire) was a Scottish anatomist, surgeon and natural theologian. His father was a clergyman in the Scottish Episcopal Church who died when Bell was a small child. He was the younger brother of John Bell (1763-1820), also a noted surgeon and writer.


Bell lived and studied in Edinburgh, where he took his medical degree in 1799. He and his brother had remarkable artistic gifts, and together they taught anatomy and illustrated and published two volumes of A System of Dissection Explaining the Anatomy of the Human Body. Bell's career was characterised by the accumulation of quite extraordinary honours and achievements as well as by acrimonious disputes unusual even by the standards of medicine during the regency.

Soon after his graduation Bell was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, where he operated and taught anatomy. He and his brother published two additional volumes of their anatomical treatise in 1802 and 1804. His success, however, led to the jealous opposition of local physicians, and he was barred from practice at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He then moved to London in 1804, where he held a private surgery and school of anatomy. From 1812 to 1825, he ran, with his brother, the Great Windmill Street School of Anatomy, which had been founded by the anatomist William Hunter (1718-1783). He also served as a military surgeon, making elaborate recordings of neurological injuries at the Royal Hospital Haslar and famously documenting his experiences at Waterloo in 1815, where the anatomist Robert Knox commented very negatively on Bell's surgical abilities. Bell was instrumental in the creation of the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, and became, in 1824, the first professor of Anatomy and Surgery of the College of Surgeons in London. In 1829, the Windmill Street School of Anatomy was incorporated into the new King's College London. Bell was invited to be its first professor of physiology, but resigned shortly afterwards.

Bestowed with honours and national and international recognition (he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society on 16 November 1826,[1] was knighted in 1831 and, like Sir Richard Owen, was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), Bell wished to return to Scotland. In 1836, he accepted the position of professor of surgery at the University of Edinburgh. He died in the Midlands, travelling to London, six years later, in 1842.


The Maniac (1806)
Opisthotonus (Tetanus) (1809)

Charles Bell was a prolific researcher and author. Only two years after arriving in London, he set his sights on the Chair of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, and, in furtherance of his cause, he published Essays on The Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806), later re-published as Essays on The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression in 1824. In this work, Bell slavishly followed the principles of natural theology, asserting the existence of a uniquely human system of facial muscles in the service of a human species with a unique relationship to the Creator. After the failure of his application (Sir Thomas Lawrence, later President of the Royal Academy, describing Bell as "lacking in temper, modesty and judgement" and therefore quite unsuited to succeed the great William Hunter), Bell turned his attentions to the nervous system. He first published his detailed studies of the nervous system in 1811, in his book An Idea of a New Anatomy of the Brain.[2] He described his experiments with animals and later emphasised how he was the first to distinguish between sensory and motor nerves. This book is considered by many to be the founding stone of clinical neurology. However, Bell's 1811 essay did not actually contain a clear description of motor and sensory nerve roots as Bell later claimed, and Charles Darwin (and others) saw in Bell's published views as much evidence of his personal ambitions as of the scientific truth. Bell's studies on emotional expression, flawed though they were, played a catalytic role in the development of Darwin's considerations of the development of human emotional life. Darwin spelled this out in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), written with the active collaboration of the psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne. Victorians would find Bell's attitude towards the mentally ill unsympathetic, even by the standards of the day, but his artistic gifts remained beyond dispute.

Nevertheless, Bell was one of the first physicians to combine the scientific study of neuroanatomy with clinical practice. In 1821, he described in the trajectory of the facial nerve and a disease, Bell's Palsy which led to the unilateral paralysis of facial muscles, in one of the classics of neurology, a paper to the Royal Society entitled On the Nerves: Giving an Account of some Experiments on Their Structure an Functions, Which Lead to a New Arrangement of the System.

He also combined his many artistic, scientific, literary and teaching talents in a number of wax preparations and detailed anatomical and surgical illustrations, paintings and engravings in his several books on these subjects, such as in his beautiful book Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery: Trepan, Hernia, Amputation, Aneurism, and Lithotomy (1821). He wrote also the first treatise on notions of anatomy and physiology of facial expression for painters and illustrators, titled Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806). In 1833 he published the fourth Bridgewater Treatise, The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design.

A number of discoveries received his name:

  • Bell's (external respiratory) nerve: The [long thoracic nerve.
  • Bell's palsy: a unilateral idiopathic paralysis of facial muscles due to a lesion of the facial nerve.
  • Bell's phenomenon: An upward movement of the eye and the eyelid which occurs when a person affected with Bell's paralysis tries to close the eye.
  • Bell's spasm: Involuntary twitching of the facial muscles.
  • Bell-Magendie law or Bell's Law: States that the anterior branch of spinal nerve roots contain only motor fibers and the posterior roots contain only sensory fibers.[1]


  1. ^ a b Robinson, Victor, Ph.C., M.D. (editor) (1939). "Bell's Law, within the description of Bell's Palsy, including a brief discussion about Charles Bell, 1774-1842". The Modern Home Physician, A New Encyclopedia of Medical Knowledge. WM. H. Wise & Company (New York). , page 92.

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Further reading

  • Bell, C., The Hand. Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design; Bridgewater Treatises, W. Pickering, 1833 (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 9781108000888)


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