Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, John (1763-1820)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BELL, JOHN (1763–1820), surgeon, was born in Edinburgh 12 May 1763, being the second son of the Rev. William Bell, and elder brother of Sir Charles Bell. He was educated at the High School of Edinburgh, and early showed a liking for medical studies. He became a pupil of Mr. Alexander Wood, an eminent surgeon in Edinburgh, and, after attending the lectures and practice of Black, Cullen, and the second Monro, became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, in 1780. In 1790 he established himself as a lecturer on anatomy and surgery in Edinburgh in a lecture-theatre built for him in Surgeon's Square, where he carried on dissections, and formed a museum. He vigorously attacked the stereotyped methods of Monro and Benjamin Bell, and naturally met with strong opposition in this extra-university enterprise; but his ability and zeal as a teacher brought him popularity and success. Among his pupils wasiiis brother Charles, who for some years assisted him. His extended work on the 'Anatomy of the Human Body,' to which Charles largely contributed, went through numerous editions, and was translated into German. A rapid improvement in the surgery of the arteries followed the publication of the volume of the 'Anatomy' in which they were described. His 'Engravings of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints 'appeared in 1794. His 'Discourses on the Nature and Cure of Wounds' (1793-5) were remarkable for their clear expositions of the then recently introduced practice of aiming at the early union of wounds after operations, of the importance of the free anastomosis of arteries in dealing with injuries to the main trunks of the arteries, and other novel modes of treatment founded on rational views of anatomy and physiology. For twenty years he was the leading operating surgeon in Edinburgh. Unfortunately for his health and reputation, Bell entered into the lengthy and bitter controversy set on foot by Dr. James Gregory, professor of medicine in the university of Edinburgh, about the arrangements for the attendance of surgeons at the Royal Infirmary, writing an 'Answer for the Junior Members of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh to the Memorial of Dr. J. Gregory,' 1800. One result was the limitation of the number of surgeons to six, and the exclusion of Bell and many others, in 1800; and although Dr. Gregory was subsequently severely censured by the College of Physicians for violations of truth. Bell unwisely spent much time and feeling in the composition of his 'Letters on Professional Character and Manners,' addressed to Dr. Gregory, extending to 636 pages (1810). After his exclusion from the infirmary Bell published (1801-8) the 'Principles of Surgery,' in three quarto volumes, in the second edition of which (1820) Sir Charles Bell speaks of the admirable capacity he had for teaching, as well as the correctness and importance of the principles which he taught. In 1805 Bell married Rosina, daughter of a retired physician, Dr. Congleton; but he never seems fully to have recovered from his exclusion from the infirmary, and although his private practice was extensive, this did not make up to him for the lack of a public position. Early in 1816 he was thrown from his horse, and in 1817 his health was still so impaired that he went on a foreign tour, and spent the last three years of his life in Italy, where he found mean» of gratifying those artistic tastes which he had shown in the illustrations to many of his own and his brother's works. He diligently made notes on paintings, statuary, architecture, and life, and these were embodied in the 'Observations on Italy,' edited by his friend Bishop Sandford, of Edinburgh, and published in 1825, and again, with additional chapters on Naples, in 1835. This work abounas in fine descriptions and just criticisms, based on anatomical knowledge. His widow remarks in the preface : 'With warm affections and sanguine temper, he looked forward with the hope that his labours and reputation would one day assuredly bring independence; and meanwhile, he would readily give his last guinea, his time and his care, to any who required them. Judging of others by himself, he was too confiding in friendship, and too careless in matters of business; consequently, from the one he was exposed to disappointment, and from the other involved in difficulties and embarrassments which tinged the colour of his whole life.' He died of dropsy, at Rome, 16 April 1820. Dr. Lankester says of him in the 'Imperial Dictionary:' He was impetuous and energetic, and in his controversial writings almost violent. He had no sympathy with conservatism, and was indignant with those who had not made the same advances with himself. He was one of those men who, without apparently achieving great success, leave behind them an abiding impression, and stamp their character in the institutions and thought of the age in which they live.' In person he was below the middle height, of good figure, active-looking, and dressed with excellent taste. Keen and penetrating eyes gave effectiveness to his regular features, so that his expression was of a most highly intellectual type.

[Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, ed. Thomson, 1858. Letters of Sir C. Bell.]

G. T. B.