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Significant Scots
John Bell


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 to decline, 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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