1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bell, Sir Charles
BELL, SIR CHARLES (1774–1842), Scottish anatomist, was born at Edinburgh in November 1774, the youngest son of the Rev. William Bell, a clergyman of the Episcopal Church of Scotland; among his brothers were the anatomist, John Bell, and the jurist, G. J. Bell. After attending the high school and the university of Edinburgh, he embraced the profession of medicine, and devoted himself chiefly to the study of anatomy, under the direction of his brother John. His first work, entitled A System of Dissections, explaining the anatomy of the human body, the manner of displaying the parts, and their varieties in disease, was published in Edinburgh in 1798, while he was still a pupil, and for many years was considered to be a valuable guide to the student of practical anatomy. In 1802 he published a series of engravings of original drawings, showing the anatomy of the brain and nervous system. These drawings, which are remarkable for artistic skill and finish, were taken from dissections made by Bell for the lectures or demonstrations he gave on the nervous system as part of the course of anatomical instruction of his brother. In 1804 he wrote the third volume, containing the anatomy of the nervous system and of the organs of special sense, of The Anatomy of the Human Body, by John and Charles Bell. In November of the same year he migrated to London, and from that date, for nearly forty years, he kept up a regular correspondence with his brother George, much of which was published in the Letters of Sir Charles Bell, &c., 1870. The earlier letters of this correspondence show how rapidly he rose to distinction in a field where success was difficult, as it was already occupied by such men as John Abernethy, Sir Astley Cooper and Henry Cline. Before leaving Edinburgh, he had written his work on the Anatomy of Expression, which was published in London soon after his arrival and at once attracted attention. His practical knowledge of anatomy and his skill as an artist qualified him in an exceptional manner for such a work. The object of this treatise was to describe the arrangements by which the influence of the mind is propagated to the muscular frame, and to give a rational explanation of the muscular movements which usually accompany the various emotions and passions. One special feature was the importance attributed to the respiratory arrangements as a source of expression, and it was shown how the physician and surgeon might derive information regarding the nature and extent of important diseases by observing the expression of bodily suffering. This work, apart from its value to artists and psychologists, is of interest historically, as there is no doubt the investigations of the author into the nervous supply of the muscles of expression induced him to prosecute inquiries which led to his great discoveries in the physiology of the nervous system.
In 1811 Bell published his New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain, in which he announced the discovery of the different functions of the nerves corresponding with their relations to different parts of the brain; his latest researches were described in The Nervous System of the Human Body (1830), a collection of papers read by him before the Royal Society. He discovered that in the nervous trunks there are special sensory filaments, the office of which is to transmit impressions from the periphery of the body to the sensorium, and special motor filaments which convey motor impressions from the brain or other nerve centre to the muscles. He also showed that some nerves consist entirely of sensory filaments and are therefore sensory nerves, that others are composed of motor filaments and are therefore motor nerves, whilst a third variety contains both kinds of filaments and are therefore to be regarded as sensory-motor. Furthermore, he indicated that the brain and spinal cord may be divided into separate parts, each part having a special function—one part ministering to motion, the other to sensation, and that the origin of the nerves from one or other or both of those sources endows them with the peculiar property of the division whence they spring. He also demonstrated that no motor nerve ever passes through a ganglion. Lastly, he showed, both from theoretical considerations and from the result of actual experiment on the living animal, that the anterior roots of the spinal nerves are motor, while the posterior are sensory. These discoveries as a whole must be regarded as the greatest in physiology since that of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey. They were not only a distinct and definite advance in scientific knowledge, but from them flowed many practical results of much importance in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. It is not surprising that Bell should have viewed his results with exultation. On the 26th of November 1807, he wrote to his brother George:—“I have done a more interesting nova anatomia cerebri humani than it is possible to conceive. I lectured it yesterday. I prosecuted it last night till one o’clock; and I am sure it will be well received.” On the 31st of the same month he wrote:—“I really think this new anatomy of the brain will strike more than the discovery of the lymphatics being absorbents.”
In 1807 he produced a System of Comparative Surgery, in which surgery is regarded almost wholly from an anatomical and operative point of view, and there is little or no mention of the use of medicinal substances. It placed him, however, in the highest rank of English writers on surgery. In 1809 he relinquished his professional work in London, and rendered meritorious services to the wounded from Coruña, who were brought to the Haslar hospital at Portsmouth. In 1810 he published a series of Letters concerning the Diseases of the Urethra, in which he treated of stricture from an anatomical and pathological point of view. In 1812 he was appointed surgeon to the Middlesex hospital, a post he retained for twenty-four years. He was also professor of anatomy, physiology and surgery to the College of Surgeons of London, and for many years teacher of anatomy in the school which used to exist in Great Windmill Street. In 1815 he went to Brussels to treat the wounded of the battle of Waterloo. In 1816, 1817 and 1818, he published a series of Quarterly Reports of Cases in Surgery; in 1821 a volume of coloured plates with descriptive letterpress, entitled Illustrations of the great operations of Surgery, Trepan, Hernia, Amputation and Lithotomy, and in 1824 Observations on Injuries of the Spine and of the Thigh Bone. On the formation of University College, Gower Street, he was for a short time head of the medical department. In 1832 he wrote a paper for the Royal Society of London on the “Organs of the Human Voice,” in which he gave many illustrations of the physiological action of these parts, and in 1833 a Bridgewater treatise, The Hand: its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as evincing Design. Along with Lord Brougham he annotated and illustrated an edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, published in 1836. The Royal Society of London awarded to him in 1829 the first annual medal of that year given by George IV. for discoveries in science; and when William IV. ascended the throne, Charles Bell received the honour of knighthood along with a few other men distinguished in science and literature.
In 1836 the chair of surgery in the university of Edinburgh was offered to him. He was then one of the foremost scientific men in London, and he had a large surgical practice. But his opinion was “London is a place to live in, but not to die in”; and he accepted the appointment. In Edinburgh he did not earn great local professional success; and, it must be confessed, he was not appreciated as he deserved. But honours came thick upon him. On the continent of Europe he was spoken of as greater than Harvey. It is narrated that one day P. J. Roux, a celebrated French physiologist, dismissed his class without a lecture, saying “C’est assez, messieurs, vous avez vu Charles Bell.” During his professorship he published the Institutes of Surgery, arranged in the order of the lectures delivered in the university of Edinburgh (1838); and in 1841 he wrote a volume of Practical Essays, two of which, “On Squinting,” and “On the action of purgatives,” are of great value. He died at Hallow Park near Worcester on the 28th of April 1842.