Sir Charles Bell, a British surgeon and anatomist, born in Edinburgh in November, 1774, died at Hallow Park, Worcestershire, Aprii 29, 1842. He began his education in the high school and university of his native city, and pursued his professional studies under his elder brother John. He was admitted in 1799 to the college of surgeons, became at the same time one of the surgeons to the royal infirmary, and while still a youth delivered lectures before 100 pupils on the science of anatomy. He removed in 1806 to London, where he immediately began a course of lectures, and rapidly rose to distinction. He now published his work on the "Anatomy of Expression," which was designed to show the rationale of those muscular movements which follow and indicate the excitement of the various passions and emotions. His "System of Operative Surgery" was published in 1807. He supported himself unconnected with any medical schools till 1811, when he was invited to the Hunterian school, and three years later he was appointed surgeon to the Middlesex hospital, an institution which during the 22 years of his connection with it he raised to the highest repute both by his striking manner of lecturing and his great dexterity as an operator.
He visited the fields of Corunna and Waterloo immediately after the battles, and gave his services to the wounded. In 1821 he produced his ideas on the nervous system in a paper in the "Philosophical Transactions." It immediately arrested the attention of anatomists throughout Europe, seme of whom contested with him the priority of discovery; yet it was fully proved that Dr, Bell had taught the doctrine for many years to his pupils, had explained it in a pamphlet, a private edition only of which was printed, in 1810, and had clearly stated it in letters to his brother in 1807, when all his rivals were teaching the old theory. The principle of the discovery is that there are distinct nerves of sensation and of motion or volition, one set bearing messages from the body to the brain, and the other from the brain or will to the body. It was shown by Dr. Bell that the brain and spinal marrow are likewise divided into two parts, which minister respectively to the functions of motion and sensation; that those roots which join the back part of the spinal marrow are nerves of feeling, messengers from the senses, but incapable of moving the muscles, while those roots which have their origin in the front column of the spinal marrow and the adjacent portion of brain are nerves of voluntary motion, conveying only the mandates of the will.
He showed that though three distinct nerves may be bound together in a single sheath for convenience of distribution, they yet perform different functions in the physical economy, and have their roots divided at the junction with the brain. The nerves of the different senses are connected with distinct portions of the brain. For this discovery Bell received a medal from the royal society of London in 1829, and upon the accession of William IV. he was invested, in company with Brewster, Herschel, and others, with the honor of knighthood, in the new order then instituted. He was also made senior lecturer on anatomy and surgery in the London college of physicians, where his lectures were attended both by pupils and practitioners, and where he attracted crowds by a series of discourses on the evidence of design in the anatomy of the human body. He published about this time two essays, "On the Nervous Circle," and "On the Eye," having reference to the theory of a sixth sense, and a treatise on "Animal Mechanics," for the society for the diffusion of useful knowledge.
Being invited to take part in the great argument published by the bequest of the earl of Bridgewater, he wrote the treatise on "The Hand," and he soon after assisted Lord Brougham in illustrating Paley's "Natural Theology." In 1836 he accepted the chair of surgery in the Edinburgh university, and afterward visited Italy, making observations, with which he enriched a new edition of the "Anatomy of Expression." He died soon after returning to England.