Sir Charles and His Journey to Discover a Palsy – Part 1: The Family

Robert Traynor
January 7, 2015

bpWell known for his industry, determination and eloquence John Bell (1676-1708), was a Presbyterian minister who presided over the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland upon the death of William III (1650-1702).   His son, William Bell (1704-1779), left the Presbyterians and became quite well known in the Scottish Episcopal Church at a time when it was under many restrictions and persecutions by the government. It was a departure from the Presbyterian Church of  his father.  To be in the Protestant Church at that time, not only in Scotland, but elsewhere in Europe, caused manybp4 brave souls to leave for the New World and William Bell was steadfast, firm minded independent and fearless staying in the church in 16th century Scotland.  

After a childless first marriage, William Bell remarried, and his second wife, Margaret Morice Bell, bore six children (some references say eight); and four of their sons rose to great prominence in Scotland and England in the late 1700s and early 19th century. The Bell family personalities and careers reflected the great influence of their mother.  According to the Johns Hopkins Bulletin (1912),

Bishop Samuel White

Bishop Samuel White

Margaret was the granddaughter of a prominent Episcopal Bishop.Samuel White. She was known for her piety and many accomplishments, among them was a great talent for drawing which she transmitted to her children. References present Margaret as a woman of intelligence and artistry.  A widow in 1779, she instilled in her children high ideals, ambition, cultural interests, and a devotion that bordered on reverence. With the combined ambition of their grandfather, their fearless father, and their remarkable mother, it is not surprising that members of this close-knit family were motivated to seek education, become successful and work together for the success of each other.  Robert Bell (    -d.1816), the eldest son, was

Dr. John Bell

Dr. John Bell

an advocate and professor of conveyance to the Society of Writers to the Signet and the Scots Law Dictionary and several other works of law in Scotland.  John Bell (1763-1820), the second son, was 16 when their father died.  William had steered him toward a medical career and with Margaret’s influence grew up to become a famous surgeon in his time and author of anatomy and surgical technique textbooks.  Among his books were Discourses on the Nature and Cure of Wounds (1793);  Principles of Surgery (1801) which was published in at least seven editions.  Due to Margaret’s influence John also became an accomplished artist and was one the very few physicians of his time to illustrate his own (and his brother’s) textbooks.  Brother George Bell (1770-1843), only 4 years older than Charles and 9 years old when his father died, chose a legal career, where he began as a member of the Faculty of Advocates and became an expert on Scottish

George Bell

George Bell

Bankruptcy Law.  In 1804 he published a Treatise on the Law of Bankruptcy in Scotland, which he subsequently enlarged and published in 1826 under the title of Commentaries on the Law of Scotland and on the principles of Mercantile Jurisprudence as a professor of Law at the University of Edinburgh.  George was the author of many components of the Scottish law and was ultimately appointed to the Scottish Supreme Court. Margaret had even more reason to be proud as her youngest son, Charles, attended the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine and developed a passion for the field of anatomy. Brother John had a great influence on young Charles Bell (1774-1842), who was only five years old when his father died. John became his mentor and probably responsible for his study of medicine. In 1799, Charles was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons. In the surgical operations he performed at the Royal Infirmary, he proved himself as able in surgery as in anatomy.   According to NNDB (2014) Charles’s first work done in conjunction with brother John was titled “A System of Dissections, exploring the anatomy of the human body, the manner of displaying the parts, and their varieties in disease”.  Charles published a series of engravings of original drawings that showed the anatomy of the brain and the nervous system. 

Sir Charles Bell Anatomy Drawings

Sir Charles Bell
Anatomy Drawings

These drawings, from 1802, remarkable for their artistic skill and finish, were taken from Charles’s dissections made for lectures and/or demonstrations that he gave on the nervous system as part of the course of anatomical instruction with his brother John. In 1804, John and Charles published The Anatomy of the Human Bodywhich  incorporated these drawings.  Both Charles and John, as advocates for patients, saw no reason for individuals to suffer painful operations needlessly and when these operations were necessary they believed that patients should suffer as little pain as possible.

Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell

When they saw that other surgeons were not practicing correctly they were very verbal about their incompetence.  Their outspokenness and the fact that John Bell’s anatomy courses were extremely successful led to jealousy among their colleagues and, after some deadlocked arguments, the expulsion John from the Royal Society and the Royal Infirmary. At the advice of brother George, Charles joined John and migrated to London in 1804, leaving in Edinburgh his first publication titled Anatomy of Expression. This work, apart from its value to artists and psychologists, is of interest historically, as it is evident that the investigations of the author into the nervous supply of the muscles of expression later led to his great discoveries in the physiology of the nervous system and to his interest in the structure and function of the Facial Nerve. While the surgical community was not very friendly, Charles gained the support of some influential colleagues and built his reputation.  In London they practiced at the famous Hunterian School of Medicine in the Great Windmill Street area of London. Next week we will talk more about Sir Charles Bell, and how his famous books and drawings on expressions, led him to the Palsy that bears his name.


Enersen, O. (2015).  Sir Charles Bell.  Retrieved January 6, 2015:

Corson, E. (1912). John Bell 1763-1843.  Johns Hopkins Bulletin. Retrieved January 6, 2015:


Anorak (2015). Traveling Glasgow. Hidden Glasgow Forums. Retrieved January 6, 2015:

Bell, Charles. (1802). Anatomy of the Brain explained in a series of engravings.  University of Otago, New Zealand.  Retrieved January 7, 2015:

Wikipedia (2015). John Bell (Surgeon). Retrieved January 7, 2015:

Wikipedia.  (2015). George Bell.  Retrieved January 7, 2105:

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