Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, Thomas (1792-1880)

BELL, THOMAS (1792–1880), dental surgeon and zoologist, was born at Poole, Dorsetshire, 11 Oct. 1792, being the only son of Thomas Bell, surgeon. In 1813 he entered as a student at Guy's and St. Thomas's hospitals, London, and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1815, and a fellow in 1844. In 1817 he was appointed dental surgeon to Guy's, a post he held till 1861. He was for a long period the only capable surgeon who applied scientific surgery to diseases of the teeth; but his work on the teeth (1829) was largely a compilation from Hunter, Blake, and Fox. He was early attracted to natural history, especially zoology, and for some years he lectured on comparative anatomy at Guy's. In 1836 he was appointed professor of zoology at King's College, London, but in this capacity he made no mark.

The first edition of his 'History of British Quadrupeds' (1837), being written in an easy and attractive style, became popular but it was not without serious defects. It was followed in 1839 by the 'History of British Reptiles,' and in 1853 by the 'History of British Stalk-eyed Crustacea.' A second edition of the 'British Quadrupeds' appeared in 1874, revised and partly rewritten by the author, assisted in regard to cheiroptera and insectivora by Mr. R. F. Tomes, and in regard to seals and whales by Mr. E. R. Alston, whose additions are standard contributions. The matter relating to our domestic quadrupeds is omitted from the second edition.

Bell was elected F.R.S. in 1828, was one of the originators of the scientific meetings of the Zoological Society, and for eleven years one of its vice-presidents. His excellent administrative qualities found full scope as one of the secretaries of the Royal Society from 1848 to 1853, and as president of the Linnean Society from 1853 to 1861. Under his guidance the latter society greatly advanced in prosperity; and to him is especially due its location in Burlington House, to which the government was originally strongly opposed. He was president of the Ray Society from its foundation in 1843 till 1859. At the age of nearly seventy he retired from practice to the Wakes at Selborne, Hampshire, which he had purchased from Gilbert white's grandnieces.

Here he collected relics and memorials of White, receiving with delight White's admirers who visited Selborne. Thus, enjoying robust health almost to the last, he spent a happy and prolonged old age, and in 1877 produced his classic edition of the 'Natural History of Selborne.' It contains a memoir of White, written in his most pleasing style.

Bell's manners were most attractive, gaining the confidence of young and old of all classes. His remarkable memory, stored with very varied information, remained intact almost to the close of his life, 13 March 1880. As a naturalist he was more at home in his study than in the field, and he made few original contributions of special value to zoology. As a writer, his chief merit is that of agreeable compilation.

Besides the works already mentioned, Bell published 'Monograph of Testudinata,' parts 1-8, 1832-6, folio, not completed; Presidential Addresses to Linnean Society, 1853-1861; 'Palælontographical Society Monograph on Fossil Malacostracous Crustacea,' two parts, 1857, 1862; 'On Chelonia of London Clay,' in 'Fossil Reptilia of London Clay,' by Professors Owen and Bell, 1849; 'Catalogue of Crustacea in British Museum,' part i. 1855; account of Crustacea in Belcher's 'Last of the Arctic Voyages,' vol. ii. 1855.

[Athenæum (1880) i. 379; Academy (1880), i. 215; Lancet (1880). i. 507; Nature, xxi. 473, 499; information from Mr. Salter, F.R.S.]

G. T. B.