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Significant Scots
Sir Charles Bell


BELL, SIR CHARLES, was born at Edinburgh in 1774. His father was a minister of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and held a small living at Doune, in the county of Perth. As the minister died while still young, his family, consisting of four sons, were thrown upon the maternal care; but this, instead of being a disadvantage, seems to have produced a contrary effect, by the early development of their talents, so that they all attained distinguished positions in society, the first as a writer to the signet, the second as eminent surgeon, and the third as professor of Scots Law in the University of Edinburgh. Charles, the youngest, was less favourably situated than his brothers for a complete education, but his own observation and natural aptitude supplied the deficiency. "My education," he tells us, "was the example of my brothers." The care of his mother did the rest, so that her youngest and best-beloved child at last outstripped his more favoured seniors, and his grateful remembrance of her lessons and training continued to the end of his life. The history of such a family justifies the saying which the writer of this notice has often heard repeated by a learned professor of the University of Glasgow: "When I see," he said, "a very talented youth who makes his way in the world, I do not ask, Who was his father, but, Who was his mother?" On being removed to the High School of Edinburgh—where, by the way, he made no distinguished figure—Charles was chiefly under the charge of his brother, John, subsequently the eminent surgeon, and it was from him that he derived that impulse which determined his future career. He studied anatomy, and such was his rapid proficiency, that even before he had reached the age of manhood, he was able to deliver lectures on that science, as assistant of his brother, John, to a class of more than a hundred pupils. In 1799, even before he was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, he published the first part of his "System of Dissections." Longing, however, for a wider field of action, and disgusted with the medical controversies which were carried on in Edinburgh, he removed to London in 1804, and threw himself into the arena of the British metropolis. It was a bold step; for at this time, owing to political causes, a Scotsman of education was regarded with suspicion and dislike in this favourite field of Scottish adventure, and Charles Bell, like the rest of his countrymen, was looked upon as an interloper come to supplant the true children of the English soil. But he bravely held onward in his course, and won for himself the esteem of influential friends, the chief of whom were Sir Astley Cooper and Dr. Abernethy, and he soon extended the circle by his treatise on the "Anatomy of Expression," which was published in London in 1806. It was a work so admirably suited for painters, in their delineations of human feeling and passion, that the most distinguished artists of the day adopted it for their text-book, and were loud in their encomiums of its merits. Still, however, this was but the foundation-stone of his future distinction. Bell had determined to be "chief of his profession in character," and to attain this daring height much had to be surmounted. He commenced as a public lecturer, but upon a humble and disadvantageous scale, as he was still an alien in London; and his early discoveries upon the nervous system, which he was patiently maturing, as his future highest claims to distinction, were as yet but little esteemed by the public, and would be compelled to force their way slowly into notice, if they should ever chance to be noticed. In 1807, the same year in which he commenced his course of lectures, he published his "System of Operative Surgery," a work where all the operations described in it were the result not of mere theory or reading, but of personal experience.

It was amidst this disheartening amount of unthanked, unappreciated toil and disappointment that Charles Bell sought a comforter of his cares; and in 1811 he married Miss Shaw, who not only justified his choice, but made him brother-in-law to two men whose pursuits were congenial to his own. These were John and Alexander Shaw, whom his lessons and example raised into distinguished anatomists and physiologists, while the latter ultimately became the most effective champion of his preceptor’s claims to originality in his physiological and anatomical discoveries. Bell’s darkened horizon now began to clear, and his worth to be properly estimated. In 1811, the happy year of his marriage, after he had long remained unconnected with any medical school or association, he was allied to the Hunterian School in Windmill Street, as joint lecturer with Mr. Wilson. The extent of his knowledge and power of illustrating it, exhibited in his prelections, and the happy facility of demonstration and expression which he had always at command, soon made his lectures popular, so that in 1814 he was appointed surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital; and here his remarkable skill as an operator, combined with his style of lecturing, which, although not eloquent, was full of thought very strikingly expressed, made him a favourite both with patients and pupils. The result of his labours there, which continued till 1836, enabled him to make the honest boast at his departure, that he had left the institution, which at his entrance was but of small account, "with full wards, and 120,000 in the funds."

As the whole of the preceding period, up to the date of Napoleon’s banishment to St. Helena, had been a season of war, the professional talents of Bell had been in request in our military hospitals, and upon the Continent, as well as in London, so that in 1809, immediately after the battle of Corunna, he quitted the metropolis, to attend upon the wounded of the British army. Here his opportunities of acquiring fresh knowledge were eagerly embraced, and the result of his experience was an essay on gun-shot wounds, which appeared as an appendix to his "System of Operative Surgery," published in 1807. After the battle of Waterloo, he also repaired to Brussels, and took the charge of an hospital; and here he was engaged for three successive days and nights in operating upon and dressing the wounds of three hundred soldiers. Of these cases he made various drawings in water-colouring, which are reckoned among the best specimens of such productions in our anatomical school. The following extracts of a letter which he wrote from Brussels to his brother, the distinguished barrister in Edinburgh, will give a clear idea of the occupations of Charles Bell in this labour, which he so kindly and gratuitously undertook, as well as of the men who were now his patients:—"I have just returned from seeing the French wounded received in their hospital; and could you see them laid out naked, or almost so—one hundred in a row of low beds on the ground—though wounded, exhausted, beaten, you would still conclude with me that they were men capable of marching unopposed from the west of Europe to the east of Asia: strong, thickset, hardy veterans, brave spirits and unsubdued, as they cast their wild glance upon you—their black eyes and brown cheeks finely contrasted with the fresh sheets—you would much admire their capacity of adaptation. These fellows are brought from the field after lying many days on the ground; many dying—many in the agony—many miserably racked with pain and spasms; and the next mimics his fellow, and gives it a tune—Aha, vous chantez bien! How they are wounded you will see in my notes. But I must not have you to lose the present impression on me of the formidable nature of these fellows as exemplars of the breed in France. It is a forced praise; for from all I have seen, and all I have heard of their fierceness, cruelty, and blood-thirstiness, I cannot convey to you my detestation of this race of trained banditti." The following picture which the letter contains of their enemies by whom they were opposed, is equally striking:—"This superb city is now ornamented with the finest groups of armed men that the most romantic fancy could dream of. I was struck with the words of a friend, E—: ‘I saw,’ said he, ‘that man returning from the field on the l6th—(this was a Brunswicker, of the Black or Death Hussars):—he was wounded, and had his arm amputated on the field. He was among the first that came in. He rode straight and stark upon his horse—the bloody clouts about his stump—pale as death but upright, with a stern, fixed expression of feature, as if loth to lose his revenge.’ These troops are very remarkable in their fine military appearance; their dark and ominous dress sets off to advantage their strong, manly northern features and white mustachios; and there is something more than commonly impressive about the whole effect." After this account, the writer returns to his professional occupations. "This," he adds, "is the second Sunday after the battle, and many are not yet dressed. There are 20,000 wounded in this town, besides those in the hospitals, and the many in the other towns—only 3000 prisoners; 80,000, they say, killed and wounded on both sides."

The time at length arrived when Bell was to acquire that full amount of reputation for which he had toiled so long and laboriously, and amidst such unmerited neglect. From an early period his favourite subject of investigation was the nervous system, upon which the most erroneous opinions had hitherto prevailed. Even professional men of high medical and anatomical knowledge rested satisfied in the belief, that all the nerves were alike, and that the superior amount of susceptibility in any organ merely depended upon the greater number of nerves allotted to it. But even before he left Edinburgh, a suspicion had grown upon the mind of Bell, that this prevalent opinion was erroneous, and farther inquiry satisfied him that himself alone was in the right. He found that the nerves were distributed into different classes, to each of which belonged its proper function; and that the same puncture, which, applied to any other of these conductors to the senses, would produce a sensation of pain, when applied to the eye would give only the impression of a flash of light. He saw, also, that the two roots by which the spinal nerves are connected with the vertebral medulla, impart two different powers, the one that of motion, the other that of sensation. In this way he accounted for those cases in which the motive or sensitive powers are singly or severally lost. This discovery, which was as wonderful as that of the circulation of the blood, astonished the whole medical world: it was a revelation that had remained unknown till now, and when announced, could not be controverted; and under this new guidance, practical anatomists were directed to the proper seat of the ailments that came under their notice, as well as taught the right mode of cure. His theory, which was published in 1821, in the "Philosophical Transactions," in the form of an essay on the "Nervous System," produced immediate attention, and when its value was appreciated, attempts were made to deny him the merit of the discovery. Fortunately, however, for his claims, he had printed a pamphlet for distribution among his friends, as early as 1811, in which the principal points of his theory were already announced; while his letters, written to his brother upon the subject, were sufficient to put to flight the numerous pretenders who claimed the discovery as their own. His subsequent publications on the "Nervous Circle," and "On the Eye," completely established the existence of a sixth sense, by which we are enabled to ascertain and estimate the qualities of size, weight, form, distance, texture, and resistance.

Bell had now reached the summit of his ambition, and established for himself a European reputation. His suggestions and improvements were adopted in every country where the healing art was studied as a science, while the leading men of the Continent united in testifying to the value of his labours. In 1824 he was appointed to the Senior Chair of Anatomy and Surgery in the London College of Surgeons, while his treatises on "Animal Mechanics," and "On the hand," and his "Illustrations of Paley’s Natural Theology," secured that professional distinction which seemed capable of no farther extension. On the accession of William IV. to the throne, it was resolved to commemorate this event, by conferring the honour of knighthood upon a few of the most eminent scientific men of the period, and in this chosen number Bell was included, with his countrymen Brewster, Leslie, and Ivory. An opportunity now occurred for Sir Charles Bell to return to Scotland after an absence of thirty-two years, by an offer in 1836 of the professorship of Surgery in the university of Edinburgh, which he accepted. It was his prevailing desire, notwithstanding his wide and lucrative practice in London, to have leisure for prosecuting his scientific researches, and to prosecute them among the friends of his youth, and in the place where they had commenced. But unfortunately he found Edinburgh too limited a field for his purposes, and especially for a new and great work upon the "Nervous System," which he wished to publish, with numerous splendid illustrations. Instead of this, he was obliged to content himself with a new edition of the "Anatomy of Expression," which he greatly extended and improved, in the course of a tour through Italy, during the interval of a college session. He also published his "Institutes of Surgery," containing the substance of his lectures delivered in the university. In 1842, during the vacation of summer, Sir Charles left Edinburgh on a journey to London; but, on reaching Hallow Park on the 27th of May, he died suddenly the same night. The cause of his death was angina pectoris, brought on, as was supposed by his friends, from disappointment, chiefly arising from the new Medical Reform Bill, which he believed was hostile to the best interests of the profession. His intellectual originality, acuteness of perception, and steady perseverance, by which he attained such distinguished reputation and success, were connected with an amenity and gentleness of disposition that endeared him to the circle of his friends, and the society in which he moved. An excellent portrait and striking likeness of Sir Charles Bell was painted by B. Mantyne, of which an engraving by Thomson will be found in the third volume of Pettigrew’s "Medical Portrait Gallery."


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