BELL, JOHN, an eminent
surgeon in Edinburgh, and of distinguished literary qualifications, was
born in 1762. He was the second son of the Rev. William Bell, a clergyman
of the Scottish Episcopal Church, established at Edinburgh. His mother was
the daughter of Mr Morrice, also a member of the Scottish Episcopal
Church. Mr John Bell, after receiving a liberal education, became the
pupil of Mr Alexander Wood, surgeon, who was long celebrated in Edinburgh
as a medical practitioner. From the first, Mr Bell devoted himself to his
professional studies with that enthusiastic ardour so characteristic of
genius, and almost always the precursor of distinction. After completing
his professional education he travelled for a short time in Russia, and
the north of Europe; and on his return commenced his professional duties
by delivering lectures on Surgery and Midwifery. These lectures, which he
delivered between the years 1786 and 1796, were very highly esteemed, and
speedily brought him into practice as a consulting and operating surgeon.
The increase of his private practice, indeed, rendered it necessary for
him, in 1796, to discontinue his lectures, and from that time forward he
devoted himself to his patients, and to the preparation of the several
publications of which he was the author.
For upwards of twenty years
Mr Bell may be said to have stood at the head of his profession in
Edinburgh as an operator. Patients came to him from all quarters, both of
Scotland and England, and even from the continent; and during that
interval he performed some of the most delicate and difficult operations
in surgery. Nor was his celebrity confined to Edinburgh. He was generally
known both in this country and throughout the world, as one of the most
distinguished men in his profession; and his works show that his
reputation was well founded.
Early in 1816, he was
thrown by a spirited horse; and appears never to have entirely recovered
from the effects of the accident. In the autumn of that year he made an
excursion, partly on account of his health, to London; thence he proceeded
to Paris, and afterwards pursued his journey southwards, visiting the most
distinguished cities of Italy. During his residence on the Continent, he
was treated in the most flattering manner by the members of his own
profession; and his countrymen, who, after the peace of 1815, had gone to
the Continent in great numbers, gladly took his professional assistance.
In Paris, Naples, and Rome in particular, his numerous patients occupied
him perhaps too exclusively; for his health continued todecline,
and he died at Rome, April 15, 1820, in the fifty-seventh year of his age.
Mr Bell very early in life
became impressed with a high notion of the advantage of combining general
accomplishments with professional skill; he therefore spared no pains to
qualify himself in every way to assume a favourable position in society.
He was a good classical scholar, and so general a reader that there were
few works of any note in literature, either ancient or modern, with which
he was not familiar. This was remarkably shown in his library, in which
there was hardly a volume on any subject which did not bear traces of
having been carefully perused and noted by him. His practice was to make
annotations on the margin as he read; and considering the engrossing
nature of his professional labours, and the several works in which he was
himself engaged, nothing is more extraordinary than the evidence which is
still in existence of the extent and variety of his miscellaneous reading.
The information which he
thus acquired was not lost upon him; he was polished and easy in his
manners—his perception of the ludicrous was keen—and the tact with
which he availed himself of his extensive reading and general knowledge of
all the interesting topics of the day, will be long remembered by those
who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. His conversational powers,
indeed, were of the very highest order; and as he had great urbanity and
kindness of manner, and was happily free from that affectation by which
good talkers are sometimes distinguished, there were few of his
cotemporaries whose society was more generally courted by the upper
classes in Edinburgh; and none who were better fitted to adorn and enliven
the circle in which he moved.
Mr Bell’s notions of the
dignity of his profession were very high; and no man perhaps ever
discharged his professional duties with more disinterested humanity, and
honourable independence. His generosity to those whose circumstances
required pecuniary aid was well known, and his contempt for any thing
approaching to what he thought mean or narrow minded, was boundless, and
frequently expressed in no very measured terms. The warmth of his temper,
however, involved him in several misunderstandings with his professional
brethren; the most remarkable of which was that which brought him and the
late Dr Gregory into collision. The question on which these two
distinguished men took opposite sides, related to the right of the junior
members of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, to perform operations in
the Royal Infirmary. This dispute divided the medical men of Edinburgh
towards the close of the last century; and Dr Gregory and Mr Bell wrote
several volumes about it. But, although great wit and much happy sarcasm
were displayed on both sides, it is impossible to look back to this
dissension without feeling regret that two of the most eminent medical men
of their day should have wasted their ingenuity and high talents in
acrimonious and unprofitable controversy, on a topic of ephemeral interest
and comparatively minor importance. Mr Bell’s principal publication in
this controversy was entitled, "Letters on Professional Character and
Manners; on the education of a Surgeon, and the duties and qualifications
of a Physician; addressed to James Gregory, M.D." Edinburgh, 1810. It
is a large octavo volume, and is characterised by extraordinary acrimony.
In the fine arts, Mr Bell’s
taste was very correct. As a painter and draughtsman his talents were far
above mediocrity; and the anatomical drawings by which his works are
illustrated have been much admired. He was also a proficient in music,
with more taste, however, than execution; and, as Mrs Bell was also a
highly accomplished musician, his musical parties, although conducted on a
scale of expense which his circumstances hardly warranted, assembled at
his house the elite of Edinburgh society. He had no family, and his
whole house was laid out for this species of display—a foible which
those who were inclined to laugh at his expense, did not overlook; and
which was to a certain extent censurable, since his income, although very
large, was never equal to his expenditure.
Mr Bell’s personal
appearance was good. Although considerably under the middle size, he was
exceedingly well proportioned, very active, and studiously elegant in his
movements. His head was well formed, his features regular, his eyes keen
and penetrating, and his whole expression intellectual and intelligent in
no ordinary degree. He was also remarkable for the good taste which he
exhibited in his dress; and was altogether a person whom even a stranger
could not have passed without recognizing as no ordinary man.
The limits of this work do
not admit of an analysis of Mr Bell’s writings. The best is his treatise
on "Gun-shot wounds," to enable him to prepare which, he passed
some weeks amongst the wounded men of Lord Duncan’s fleet, after the
battle of Camperdown.
The following is a complete
list of his professional works:—l. The Anatomy of the Human Body, vol. i.
8vo. 1793, containing the Bones, Muscles, and Joints; vol. ii. 1797,
containing the Heart and Arteries; vol. iii. 1802, containing the Anatomy
of the Brain, Description of the course of the nerves, and the Anatomy of
the Eye and Ear; with plates by Charles Bell, third edition, 3 vols. 8vo.
1811. 2. Engravings of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints, illustrating the
first volume of the Anatomy of the Human Body, drawn and engraved by
himself, royal 4to. 1794, third edition. 3. Engravings of the Arteries,
illustrating the second volume of the Anatomy of the Human Body, royal
4to. 1801, third edition, 8vo. 1810. 4. Discourses on the nature and cure
of wounds, 8vo. 1795; third edition, 1812. 5. Answer for the Junior
Members of the Royal College of surgeons to the Memorial of Dr James
Gregory, to the Managers of the Royal Infirmary, 8vo. 1800. 6. The
Principles of Surgery, 3 vols. 4to. 1801-1808. 7. Letters on Professional
Character, &c. His Observations on Italy is a posthumous work, which
was edited by his respected friend, the late Bishop Sandford of Edinburgh.
Mr Bell married Miss
Congleton, daughter of Dr Congleton of Edinburgh. His eldest brother was
the late Robert Bell, Advocate, Professor of Conveyancing to the Society
of Writers to the Signet; author of the "Scotch Law Dictionary,"
and of several other works on the law of Scotland; who died in 1816. John
Bell’s immediately younger brothers were, the late George Joseph Bell,
Advocate, Professor of the Law of Scotland in the University of Edinburgh,
and author of "Commentaries on the Law of Scotland," a work of
high authority; and the late Sir Charles Bell, F.R.S. of London, the
distinguished anatomist and physiologist. It is rare to find so many
members of the same family so favourably known to the public.
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