Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, Charles

BELL, Sir CHARLES (1774–1842), discoverer of the distinct functions of the nerves, was the youngest of six children of William Bell, a clergyman of the episcopal church of Scotland. His mother was daughter of another episcopal clergyman. The family had produced many useful and prominent men for three centuries, and had been seated during that time in and near Glasgow. Charles was born at Edinburgh in November 1774, and received his chief literary education from his mother. Two others of her children became known in the world—John as an anatomist and surgeon, George Joseph as professor of Scots law in Edinburgh University. Charles had a passion for drawing; and when he went to the university of Edinburgh as a student, he soon became known for his artistic power. He had inherited it from his mother, and she from her grandfather, White, primus of Scotland. While still a student, in 1798, Bell published 'A System of Dissections,' illustrated by his own drawings. In 1799 he was elected a fellow of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and as a fellow became one of the surgical attendants of the Edinburgh Infirmary. In 1802 he published a series of engravings of the brain and nervous system, in connection with John Bell's course of lectures. In 1804 he wrote the account of the nervous system and special senses in the 'Anatomy of the Human Body' by John and Charles Bell. Edinburgh did not then offer to him sufficient prospect of professional advancement, and after consultation with his brother George he left Scotland for London, where he arrived 28 Nov. 1804. He was already known by his published works, and he had written, but not published, his 'Anatomy of Expression.' He called upon Dr. Matthew Baillie, the morbid anatomist, on Wilson the anatomist, on Abernethy and Astley Cooper, the principal surgeons of the time, and on other prominent members of his profession. Sir Joseph Banks received him kindly, and the chief physicians and surgeons asked him to dinner; but for a time he was uncertain whether he could find a place in the world of London, and longed to return to Edinburgh, and to the society of his beloved brother George, to whom at this time and throughout his life he wrote often and at length. West, then president of the Royal Academy, advised the publishers to accept Bell's 'Anatomy of Expression,' and it appeared in 1806. It was widely read, and has since passed through several editions. The book is interesting, because it explains the mechanism of familiar movements of expression, and criticises well-known works of art, and it is written in a pleasant intelligible style, and illustrated by striking drawings, but the scientific treatment of the subject is not very deep. It received all the attention which the first book on a subject deserves: Flaxman and Fuseli both enjoyed it; the queen read it for two hours; and the Nabob of Arcot had a copy in red morocco and satin. Bell now lectured to artists, and took medical pupils into his house, and, amid hard professional work and great anxiety about money, found time to make full use of all the intellectual advantages of London: heard Fox speak, saw Mrs. Siddons act, witnessed Melville's impeachment, went to Vauxhall with Mr. and Mrs. Abernethy, enjoyed operas, and read much good literature–Dryden, Spenser, Virgil, Madame de Sévigné. The first step in Bell's discoveries in the nervous system was made in 1807, and is recorded in a letter to his brother George, dated 26 Nov. 1807. He says: '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.' In 1811 he published 'A New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain, submitted for the observations of his Friends, by Charles Bell, F.R.S.E.' This essay is not dated, but if the letters of Bell did not establish its exact date, this could be fixed by a copy in the British Museum, bearing Bell's known address in 1811, and presented by him, with a written inscription, to Sir Joseph Banks. The work contains an exact statement of the prevailing doctrine as to nerves, of Bell's discovery, and of the experiment which established that discovery. Bell says (p. 4): 'The prevailing doctrine of the anatomical schools is that the whole brain is a common sensorium: that the extremities of the nerves are organised, so that each is fitted to receive a peculiar impression, or that they are distinguished from each other only by delicacy of structure and by a corresponding delicacy of sensation. It is imagined that impressions thus differing in kind are carried along the nerves to the sensorium and presented to the mind, and that the mind, by the same nerves which receive sensation, sends out the mandate of the will to the moving parts of the body.' His own conclusions were, 'that the nerves are not single nerves possessing various powers, but bundles of different nerves, distinct in office;' and 'that the nerves of sense, the nerves of motion, and the vital nerves, are distinct throughout their whole course.' These conclusions were established by the fact that, 'on laying bare the roots of the spinal nerves, I found that I could cut across the posterior fasciculus of nerves which took its origin from the posterior portion of the spinal marrow without convulsing the muscles of the back, but that, on touching the anterior fasciculus with the point of the knife, the muscles of the back were immediately convulsed.' 'I now saw,' he adds, 'the meaning of the double connection of the nerves with the spinal marrow.' His apprehension of the meaning of this observation was at first obscured by a recollection of the old doctrine that all nerves were sensitive, and for a time he spoke of two great classes of nerves distinguishable in function, the one sensible, the other insensible (letter dated 6 Dec. 1814). But he had established beyond doubt the existence of sensory and of motor nerves. Majendie (Journal de Physiologie, Paris, 1822, ii. 371) claims to have first shown this experimentally in 1821, but he is refuted by the printed record of Bell's experiment in 1811, as is admitted by Béclard in his most recent account of the controversy (ib., Paris, 1884, p. 405), where, speaking of Bell's discovery, Béclard says: 'Il n'est pas douteux qu'il a résolu, le premier, cette question par la voie expérimentale.' It was not till 1826 that Bell's discovery was complete in its modern form. He thus explains it (letter, 9 Jan. 1826): 'It shows that two nerves are necessary to a muscle, one to excite action, the other to convey the sense of that action, and that the impression runs only in one direction, e.g. the nerve that carries the will outward can receive no impression from without; the nerve that conveys inward a sense of the condition of the muscle cannot convey outward; that there must be a circle established betwixt the brain and a muscle.' His investigations were completed from 1821 to 1829, in a series of papers read before the Royal Society, and were published, with some slight alterations, in a separate volume in 1830, entitled 'The Nervous System of the Human Body.' Before his time nothing was known of the functions of the nerves, and the reason of the relation between hemiplegia or paralysis of one vertical half of the body and injury of the brain was explained through groundless hypotheses. A few vague expressions in earlier writers have been quoted as showing that something was known; but whatever the words, the interpretation of them was never given till after Bell's discovery had made the whole subject clear. Bell himself states, with perfect fairness, in his republication, all the details known before the time of his discoveries (Nervous System, pp. vii, viii). 'Dr. Alexander Monro discovered that the ganglions of the spinal nerves were formed on the posterior roots, and that the anterior roots passed the ganglion. Santorini and Wrisberg observed the two roots of the fifth pair of nerves. Prochaska and Sœmmering noticed the resemblance between the spinal nerves and the fifth pair, and they said, "Why should the fifth nerve of the brain, after the manner of the nerves of the spine, have an anterior root passing by the ganglion and entering the third division of the nerve?"'

Bell's great discovery, thus gradually completed, was that there are two kinds of nerves, sensory and motor; that the spinal nerves have filaments of both kinds, but that their anterior roots or origins from the spinal cord are always motor, their posterior roots sensory. He further (Phil. Trans. 28 May 1829) demonstrated that the fifth cranial nerve is a motor as well as a sensory nerve, and that while the fifth supplies the face with sensory branches, the motor nerve of the facial muscles is the portio dura of the seventh nerve. From this discovery of its true function, the portio dura is often spoken of by anatomists as Bell's nerve. His discoveries as to the fifth and seventh nerves were suggested by their anatomical relations, confirmed by observation of the results following accidental injuries in man, and completely established by experiments on animals. These experiments were a cause of delay; for in a letter dated 1 July 1822 (Letters of Sir C. Bell, p. 275) he says: 'I should be writing a third paper on the nerves, but I cannot proceed without making some experiments, which are so unpleasant to make that I defer them. You may think me silly, but I cannot perfectly convince myself that I am authorised in nature or religion to do these cruelties.' Bell's discoveries were the greatest which had been made in physiology since Harvey had demonstrated the circulation of the blood, and Bell was only expressing a just idea of their importance when he wrote of them in a letter to his brother (November 1821) that they 'will hereafter put me beside Harvey.' Their importance was not perceived by all who heard of them, but they were not controverted as fiercely as Harvey's had been, and scientific men at once gave their author all the honour he had justly won. Brougham was at that time dashing like a comet among the constellations of science and literature, as well as through those of politics, and he was a warm friend of Bell. It was by his advice that the compliment of knighthood was paid to the discoverer of the functions of the nerves, to his great contemporary Herschel, and to some lesser men of science. Bell had already (1829) received the medal of the Royal Society for discoveries in science. The London University had been founded under the auspices of Brougham; and Bell, with Brougham's friend Horner, was persuaded to take office in the new institution. The differing views of its originators prevented the new university from flourishing. In the midst of trivial controversies learning was stifled, and what was to have been a great source of modern science and new learning dwindled into an examining board. Bell and Horner resigned in disgust. In 1832 Bell wrote a paper in the 'Philosophical Transactions' on the organs of voice, and in 1833 a Bridgewater treatise on the mechanism of the hand, illustrated by drawings of his own. In 1836, with Lord Brougham, he wrote annotations of Paley's 'Natural Theology.' He had besides written several books on surgery: in 1807 a 'System of Comparative Surgery;' in 1816, 1817, 1818, quarterly reports of cases in surgery: in 1820, 'Letters on Diseases of the Urethra;' in 1821, 'Illustrations of Great Operations;' in 1824, 'Observations on Injuries of the Spine and of the Thigh Bone,' and somewhat later a small popular work, 'a familiar treatise on the five senses.' Besides all this labour he lectured at his house, at the Middlesex Hospital (1812-36), in the school of Great Windmill Street (Prospectus, Lancet, ix. 27), at the College of Surgeons, and on several occasions elsewhere. He went in 1809 to Haslar Hospital to help to treat the wounded of Corunna, and in 1815 to Brussels to treat the wounded of Waterloo. When he went round his wards in the Middlesex Hospital, his method was to examine a patient with minute care and in silence before the students. Then he would retire a little way from the bed, and would give his opinion of the nature of the case, and of what the treatment ought to be, adding with particular emphasis his expectation as to the final result (communication from Rev. Whitwell Elwin.) Like many great medical teachers of his day, he was abused in the numbers of the 'Lancet' (vol. v.) for reasons now difficult to discover, and not worth tracing out in detail. Bell was never completely at home in the medical world of London. In spite of his unceasing labours, perhaps partly in consequence of them, his practice did not increase in proportion to his merits, and when in 1836 he was offered the chair of surgery in the university of Edinburgh, he was glad to return to his early home. He there published in 1838 'Institutes of Surgery,' and in 1841 some 'Practical Essays.' These, like all his surgical works, are worth reading as the productions of close observation and considerable experience; but they are not of the same consequence as his physiological writings. The time he spent in the wards and at the bedside of patients was not lost to science, for the observations there made helped him to his great discoveries; but as an operating and consulting surgeon he does not stand higher than many of his contemporaries. A sensation of failing health was probably the chief reason for his retirement to Edinburgh. He still worked, but less strenuously, and in 1840 enjoyed a tour in Italy. A little more than a year later he was, as he said (letter, 24 April 1842), 'chained in activity' by terrible attacks of angina pectoris, and in one of these he died on the morning of 28 April 1842. He was staying at Hallow Park, near Worcester, and was buried in the churchyard of the parish. In Hallow church there is a tablet to his memory, with an English inscription by Lord Jeffrey.

The anxieties of life and the necessary abstraction of scientific musing made Bell at times seem grave; but his friends all agree in Lord Cockburn's statement about him: 'If ever I knew a generally and practically happy man, it was Sir Charles Bell.' 'He had,' says one of his friends, 'too profound a faith in the Providence who governed the world to be otherwise than deeply thankful for his lot.' The style of his scientific papers is sometimes involved, nor are happy turns of expression frequent in his popular works. His letters are his best compositions. He had a thorough enjoyment of literature and of music, and the intervals of his scientific work were always employed. Fishing was one of his favourite recreations. He kept White's 'Natural History of Selborne' on his table, and loved the sights and sounds of the country. He had married (3 June 1811) Marion, second daughter of Charles Shaw, Esq., of Ayr, and their marriage was one of perfect happiness. His wife's health was at first precarious, but she became strong, and lived to be more than eighty. In 1870 she published 'Letters of Sir Charles Bell,' a book which gives from his own letters an interesting picture of the character and daily life of her husband, of his unremitting labours, of his frequent disappointments, many difficulties and glorious triumphs. The admirable preface was written off at the publisher's desk by a friend of Sir Charles Bell, the Rev. Whitwell Elwin, who happened to come in at the moment when Lady Bell was expressing to Mr. Murray her inability to compose the introduction which he thought necessary for the completeness of the book. The frontispiece is a portrait of Bell from a painting by Anthony Stewart.

[Letters of Sir Charles Bell, London, 1870; Bell's Works.]

N. M.