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

BELL, JACOB (1810–1859), founder of the Pharmaceutical Society, and patron of art, was born in London on 5 March 1810. His father, a prominent member of the Society of Friends, first established the pharmaceutical business which, in the hands of the son, acquired a world-wide fame. At the age of twelve Bell was sent to a Friends' school at Darlington to be educated. He exhibited a decided faculty for composition both in prose and verse, and at the age of sixteen gained the prize in a competition for the best original essay on war. In conjunction with a schoolfellow, he also founded a manuscript journal devoted to literature and the events of his school life. His education completed, he entered his father's business in Oxford Street, London, but at the same time diligently attended the lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution, and those on the practice of physic at King's College. He also devoted his leisure to the study of practical chemistry, and converted his bedroom into a laboratory, fitting it with a furnace and other apparatus. His tastes appear to have been of a varied character, for at one time he gave much attention to comparative anatomy, at another to outdoor sports, while, in a third instance, he studied art under H. P. Briggs, R.A. His faculty for art was considerable, especially upon the grotesque and humorous side. His taste for the works of eminent painters was very early developed, and before he was five-and-twenty he had formed the nucleus of a collection which afterwards became famous. He also strongly interested himself in the question of copyright as affecting artists, and gave valuable advice and assistance in this direction.

In 1840 Bell visited the continent, having as his travelling companion Sir Edwin Landseer, whose health was then in an unsatisfactory condition. The friends travelled through Belgium and up the Rhine to Switzerland, but at Geneva Bell himself was taken ill with a very severe attack of quinsy. The seizure caused him to be detained at Geneva for six weeks, and it laid the foundation of an affection of the larynx, from which he suffered much in after years. Returning to London by way of Paris, he witnessed in the latter city the solemnities which celebrated the arrival of the remains of the first Napoleon.

Bell was a vigilant guardian of the rights of his fellow-traders, and it was chiefly owing to his efforts that in the year 1841 Mr. Hawes was compelled to withdraw a measure which he had submitted to Parliament for the purpose of ‘amending the laws relating to the medical profession in Great Britain and Ireland.’ This measure, if carried, would have pressed heavily upon the chemists and druggists throughout the kingdom. At this time Bell conceived a scheme for a society which should act as an effectual safeguard for the protection of the interests of the trade, and at the same time assist in raising it to the status which it already occupied in other countries. Accordingly, at a public meeting held 15 April 1841, the formation of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was resolved upon. Bell subsequently issued a pamphlet showing the necessity for such a society. Great difficulties were encountered in the formation of the society, but they were all surmounted by Bell's tact and ability. In the formation of provincial branches of the society he also took a deep interest; and for the advancement of the cause of true pharmacy he established the well-known periodical, the 'Pharmaceutical Journal' The publication of this work he superintended for eighteen years. The conduct of the journal was with him a labour of love, for it resulted in no pecuniary advantage during its first fifteen years of existence, notwithstanding its acknowledged usefulness. To the new journal Bell was also a constant contributor himself until his death. His efforts in connection; with an improved pharmacy led to his being; elected an honorary member of various foreign scientific societies, and a Fellow of the Chemical, Linnean, and Zoological Societies of London, and of the Society of Arts.

In 1843 the Pharmaceutical Society was incorporated by royal charter, and the same year Bell published his 'Historical Sketch of the Progress of Pharmacy in Great Britain.' The author dealt with the practice of pharmacy from the time of its partial separation from the practice of medicine until the establishment of the Pharmaceutical Society. It was found that an act of parliament was required for restricting the practice of pharmacy to persons duly qualified, and in 1845 Bell drew up an account of desirable provisions, including the registration of all persons carrying on business as chemists and druggists; the introduction of a system of education and examination; the protection of the public against the proceedings of ignorant persons; the separation of the trade in medicines from the practice of physic and surgery as far as practicable; the recognition of the Pharmaceutical Society as the governing body in all questions relating to pharmacy. For several years the question of pharmaceutical legislation was much discussed, and numerous petitions on the subject were presented to parliament; but as no practical issue was arrived at. Bell decided to seek a seat in parliament for the purpose of advocating the necessary measures. In 1850, accordingly, he contested the borough of St. Albans in the liberal interest, and was returned, although the unscrupulous means used by his agents led to the ultimate disfranchisement of the borough. Bell, however, was absolved from blame, except in regard to the laxity he displayed in placing himself unreservedly in the hands of his parliamentary agents. In June 1851 Bell brought forward in parliament a bill to regulate the qualifications of pharmaceutical chemists, and or other purposes in connection with the practice of pharmacy. The measure passed Its second reading, but could not be further proceeded with. In the following session the bill was reintroduced, and after considerable discussion it was referred to a select committee. The act, as it eventually became law, only very partially fulfilled the intentions of its framer.

At the general election of 1852 Bell offered himself for the representation of Great Marlow, but was unsuccessful. Two years later, on the death of Lord Dudley Stuart., he contested the borough of Marylebone with Lord Ebrington, but was again unsuccessful. He was subsequently solicited to offer himself again for Marylebone, but ill-health compelled him to decline the invitation. During the last winter of his life, while suffering from a painful affection of the larynx, as well as from great debility and emaciation, he still took an active part m professional matters, and also devoted himself to philanthropic causes. He died from exhaustion 12 June 1859. It is stated that Bell spent a fortune in founding and advancing the Pharmaceutical Society, but he felt himself repaid by the knowledge that his efforts had raised enormously the educational standard of his order. On the day of his funeral nearly the whole body of chemists throughout the country closed their places of business.

Bell's chief works were:

  1. 'Observations addressed to the Chemists and Druggists of Great Britain,' 1841.
  2. 'Historical Sketch of the Progress of Pharmacy in Great Britain,' 1843.
  3. 'Chemical and Pharmaceutical Processes and Products,' 1852.

With regard to his patronage of art, the gallery of pictures at his house in Langham Place testified to its extent and catholicity. The finest part of his collection he bequeathed to the nation, including six of the best works of Sir Edwin Landseer, and well-known examples of O'Neil, Sidney Cooper, Charles Landseer, E. M. Ward, W. P. Frith, Rosa Bonheur, &c.

[Annual Register, 1859; Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, 1842, &c; Bell's works.]

G. B. S.