Treasures of the PI Nixon Library Blog

Treasures of the P.I. Nixon

Electrotherapy: Stimulating Medicine


The early twentieth century was a transforming period for the United States. Progress was the name of the game and science became a way to play. Physicians of the day used scientific language and data to authenticate their methods and equipment. The PI Nixon Medical Historical Library has such medical equipment from the period available, particularly in the realm of electrotherapy.

Figure 1 STAR-RIGHT Violet Ray Electrotherapy Apparatus. Manufactured by The Fitzgerald MFG. CO.

Figure 1 STAR-RIGHT Violet Ray


Popular for the treatment of minor muscle discomfort, the Violet Ray electrotherapy apparatus was believed to provide healthy stimulation to ease anxiety, rheumatism, and inflammatory conditions. Developed using Nikola Tesla’s (1856-1943) invention of the resonant transformer circuit, known as the Tesla coil, and growing knowledge of alternating electrical currents, these violet ray machines were manufactured and became accessible to the public.  Figure 1, a STAR-RIGHT Violet Ray electrotherapy apparatus was manufactured by The Fitzgerald MFG. CO out of Torrington, Connecticut in approximately 1926.  The Grey 10″ X 6″ box, with a cloth interior, contains 2 general body electrodes (glass)used to provide electric therapy to various parts of the body, 1 metal electrode, an insulated handle with cord connected to the transformer, with a  secondary cord connecting the transformer to the plug.

Figure 2, is another Violet Ray electrotherapy apparatus manufactured by the A.S. Aloe company out of St. Louis between 1900 and 1940. It is in a wooden box with a cloth interior and,

Figure 2 Violet Ray Electrotherapy Apparatus. Manufactured by the A.S. Aloe Company.

Figure 2 Violet Ray

contains 3 general body electrodes (glass), one surface electrode, one comb electrode, and one throat electrode. An insulated handle with cord and plug is also included.

Another type of electrotherapy device in use was the McIntosh combined, dry cell, Galvanic and Faradic battery. This battery is unique because it was the first combination of two different types of batteries. This combination had its appeal to physicians and other scientists because either battery, or current, could be used separately or simultaneously, and it was portable. Galvanic currents were used to create localized muscle contractions or to remove or reduce moles, ulcers and tumors. The Faradic current gave a more powerful jolt to the body and was used as a general stimulant. The electrolytic needle holder was used in the removal of hair. Figure 3 shows a McIntosh Combined dry cell Galvanic and Faradic Battery, manufactured by the McIntosh Electrical Corporation out of Chicago between 1922 and 1946. It has a black, leather covered, wooden case with a covered handle and two latches, and has a purple velvet false lid that covers the compartment and is attached by two poppers.

The box contains instructions (stained with various holes) on how to use the machine and how to recharge / replace the battery, 3 felt pad electrodes, 2 wooden handles

Figure 3 Combined Dry Cell Galvanic and Faradic Battery. Manufactured by the McIntosh Electrical Corporation. 1922-1946

Figure 3 Combined Dry Cell Galvanic and Faradic Battery, 1922-1946

with metal shafts, 1 electrolytic needle holder, and 2 miscellaneous rollers. The use or purpose of these rollers is unknown.  The set may be missing a magnifying glass that attaches to the electrolytic needle holder, as well as conducting leads.

MiscRoller.ResizedIf you have any ideas or knowledge of what the two miscellaneous rollers may have been used for or if you would like to see this equipment first hand, please visit the Nixon Library or contact Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470.


Trinaé Weldy, Special Collections Intern

Information Courtesy of:

Behary, Jeff. “AS Aloe Lightning Catalog.” The Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum. The Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum, 28 Aug 2004. Web. 9 Sep 2013. <>.

“Biographies.” Corrosion Doctors. Kingston Technical Software, n.d. Web. 12 Sep 2013. <>.

Blaufox, M. Donald. “The Instruments: Electricity.” Museum of Historical Medical Artifacts. Museum of Historical Medical Arifacts. Web. 4 Sep 2013. <>.

“Electrical Stimulator, 1922-1946.” British Cojumbia Medical Assocation: Medical Museum. British Cojumbia Medical Assocation, n.d. Web. 9 Sep 2013. <>.

“Museum Collection: 1800-1900 Galvanism and Faradism.” The Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum. The Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum. Web. 9 Sep 2013. <>.

“Museum Collection: Violet Rays.” The Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum. The Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum. Web. 9 Sep 2013. <>.

Vujovic, Ljubo. “Tesla Biography: Nikola Tesla The Genius Who Lit the World.” Tesla Memorial Society of New York. Tesla Memorial Society, 10 Jul 1998. Web. 9 Sep 2013. <>.

Additional Links:

For pictures of electrotherapy newspaper advertisements, please visit The Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum, the AS Aloe Lightning Catalog at

For more information on Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), who discovered the Galvanic current, Michael Faraday (1791-1867), who discovered the Faradic current, or Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), who invented the battery please visit the Corrosion Doctors’ website

Through the Eye Piece of the Microscope … San Antonio Nature Observations

Dr. Rudolph Menger was an early San Antonio doctor who loved nature and is best remembered for his nature observations and pictures.  He was born in San Antonio, Texas on April 21, 1851, to Johann and Augusta Menger.  His parents, native Germans, arrived in Texas in 1846. Menger attended the German-English school, a school established in 1858 by German immigrants, which endeavored to educate the children of recent immigrants. After graduation, he studied medicine in Germany at the University of Leipsic, in Saxony, graduating in November, 1874.

After graduating from medical school, Menger returned to San Antonio and served as Assistant Surgeon in the United States Army for one year then was appointed City Physician of San Antonio from 1875 until 1881, and was appointed once more in 1892. He was an active member of the West Texas Medical Society, wrote numerous articles for various medical journals, and worked in private practice.

He married Barbara C. Menger in 1879, a native of San Antonio and daughter of William L. Menger, owner of the Menger Hotel but unrelated to Ruldolph.  They had eight children: Minnie, Edward, August, Louis, Gustave, Rudolph, Theodore, and Margaret.

Dr. Menger’s book Texas Nature Observations and Reminiscenses, published in 1913, includes many of his photo-micrographs and observations.  It is available in the P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, and the university’s copy may be viewed online in full text through the University of North Texas’ Portal to Texas History at .

Picture from Menger book of scorpions

Picture of scorpions from Menger book


The P. I. Nixon Library owns the original scrapbook with Menger’s microphotographs.  It has been digitized for preservation, and the library hopes to make it viewable soon through the UTHSC Digital Archive.

Page from Menger Scrapbook

Page from Menger Scrapbook


A Guide to the German-English School (San Anonio, TX) Records, 1858-1893.  Texas Archival Resources Online.

Guide to the Rudolph Menger Papers. Texas Archival Resources Online.

“Menger Hotel,” The Handbook of Texas

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read my post.  If you have a story of the early days of the Health Science Center or medicine in San Antonio to share, please send it to or call 210-567-2470.


Mellisa DeThorne, keeper of precious things

Archives Matter!

What is an Archives?  Is it some mysterious club that only library workers belong to?  The short answer is no.  Chances are you have an archive at home -maybe love letters to your spouse, family photos, mom’s wedding gown, a collection of your favorite vinyl records.  My personal archives consists of photographs, handwritten love letters from my husband, my first piece of jewelry from my dad.  Yes, everyone has something worth preserving for future generations.

The Society of American Archivists defines archives as  materials created or received by a person, a family, or an organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value in the information they contain or because they provide evidence of the function and the responsibilities of their creator.  Both these records, and the places in which they are kept, are called archives.  Archival records take many forms, including correspondence, diaries, photographs, video or audio recordings, publications, and electronic records.  The people who manage these records are called Archivists.   Archivists, or in my case Archival Assistants, keep records that have enduring value as reliable memories of the past, and they help people find and understand the information they need in those records.  Now that you understand the terms archives and archivist, let’s move on to preservation.

As defined by the Society of American Archivists, Preservation is the act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through invasive treatment.  Have you ever seen the yellowing, fading, and warping of papers, books, or photographs exposed to too much light  (artificial and natural) and heat , perhaps from sitting around somebody’s hot garage for days, months, or years or from hanging near a window?  What about the mold spots growing on that picture in Grandma’s attic?  If you want to save these materials for future generations, place them in a room with minimal light exposure and with climate control to lower temperature and humidity.

light exposure before uv filter installation--before and after photo

light exposure before uv filter installation–before and after photo


Your University Archives has many records that document the history of the campus.  Do you know that in the very beginning this campus was a medical school, not the UT Health Science Center?  Do you know the names of the founding faculty members?  Are you curious about the first graduating class or are you interested in researching early medical doctors who lived and practiced in San Antonio?

Materials in the University Archives include photographs (like the ones pictured below), yearbooks, news clippings, meeting minutes, student newsletters, graduation programs, video and sounds recordings, college catalogs, casebooks and journals, and many other items – too many to list here.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read my post.  If you have a story of the early days of the Health Science Center or medicine in San Antonio to share, please send to or call 210-567-2470.  Happy Archives Month, All.

Information Courtesy of:

Mellisa DeThorne, Keeper of precious things

Anatomists and their art

In October 2011, Dr. Charleen Moore, Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Health Science Center’s Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, gave a fascinating presentation on “Anatomists and Their Art” which featured many of the most important works in the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library.  Dr. Moore explained the interrelationship between anatomical study and art by looking at:

  • Artists who dissected (such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer),
  • Anatomists who drew (such as Robert Hooke and the Bell brothers), and
  • Anatomists who teamed up with artists (as  Vesalius did with van Calcar, or Albinus did with Wandelaar).

You can see and hear Dr. Moore’s presentation (28 minutes long) by clicking the “play” button below.

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Rare Treasure at the P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library

Illustration of Charles Darwin

Summer is a great time to explore nature and science with your family. The P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library may be a place to begin your adventure.

The library owns a rare first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of
Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Published in 1859, the library’s fragile volume is a treasure. The valuable first editions with iconic green spines are in high demand for book collectors and science lovers. A first edition was recently found in the lou of a home in Southern England. It was sold to an anonymous buyer through Christie’s of London. The library’s copy, one of only approximately 1,250 printed, is part of many antiquarian texts originally donated to the Health Science Center in the early 1970’s by the Bexar County Medical Society.


Copy of Origin of Species

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. His mother, the daughter of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood, passed away when he was eight and he was raised by his sisters. Darwin’s school record wasn’t outstanding yet he began his medical studies in 1825 at Edinburgh University.  He found “anatomy and material medica dull and surgery unendurable.” He entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1828 and took a course in botany where his beetle collection became famous. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1831, he took his botany instructor’s advice and accepted the position of naturalist for the second voyage of the H. M. S. Beagle. In December 1831, the voyage took Darwin to the coast of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego off the coast of South America.

The breakthrough in his ideas came in the Galapagos Islands, 500 miles west of South America. In observing the birds and animals on the islands, Darwin noticed that each island supported its own form of finch, which were closely related but differed in important ways.  On his return to England in 1836, Darwin proposed a theory of evolution occurring by the process of natural selection to solve the riddle of how different species evolve.  He worked on his theory for 20 years and along with another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, announced the discovery in 1858.

Illustration of FinchesDarwin had published several articles on his species studies but On the Origin of Species introduced Darwin’s works to a much larger audience. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, “The publication of Darwin’s book secured worldwide attention and aroused impassioned controversy.” Jon van Wyne, Bye-Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, England, explains how the work “demonstrated with converging evidence from geological distribution, comparative anatomy and embryology, and the fossil record that life evolves.”

No matter your take on Darwin’s science, consider your nature exploration in San Antonio. The Witte Museum is currently hosting the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibit Darwin: How One Man’s Theory Turned the World on its Head. It runs through September 3, 2012 and includes Darwin’s handwritten journals of his observations while on the Galapagos Islands. For additional resources for children and families, visit the American Museum of National History’s Resources for Darwin. Darwin’s complete works can also be read online.

To view the Health Science Center’s first edition of On the Origin of Species, or any of the other 5,000 treasured medical texts, contact Special Projects Librarian Susan Hunnicutt at (210) 567-2406 or; or Mellisa DeThorne at 210-567-2470 or  Additional and selected materials from the Nixon Library may also be viewed online in the UTHSC Digital Archives / Historical Collection.

 – Melva Ramirez, MLS, Records and Information Management Intern, Special Collections

 Information Courtesy of:

Christ’s College, Cambridge

 Gale Document Number: GALE|K1631001688

The Huffington Post

P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library

San Antonio Express News

 Photographs Courtesy of:

Early ophthalmology text turns 500 this year

First page of treatise "De oculis" from Champier's _Speculum Galeni_

The PI Nixon Medical Historical Library is celebrating the 500th birthday of one of its treasures, an edition of Symphorien Champier’s Speculum Galeni.  The book includes one of the first treatises on ophthalmology ever printed.

Symphorien Champier (1472-1539) was an early French humanist and physician to Charles VIII, Louis XII, and the Duke of Lorraine.  He settled in Lyon, where he established the College of the Doctors of Lyon and studied Greek and Arab scholars as well as medicinal science, composing a great number of historical works.   He was also an admirer of Galen, the great second-century Greek physician and philosopher.  Champier set out to expand his contemporary colleagues’ knowledge of Galen by using a powerful new tool: the printing press.  

Speculum Galeni, printed in Lyon in 1512, begins with Champier’s own biography of Galen and a list of Galenic works.  It continues with Champier’s careful compilation of Latin translations of key works that were (at that time) attributed to Galen, to form a complete Treatise of Medicine.  Included in the compilation is “De oculis,” a treatise on the eyes, the first page of which appears in the photo above. According to later historians, “De oculis” may not have been Galen’s at all — it is only known today from this Latin translation, and no Greek original has ever been found.  Nonetheless, its inclusion in Champier’s compilation makes it one of the first printed works on the subject of ophthalmology. Photo of cover of our copy of Champier's book

Our copy of Speculum Galeni is bound together with another work of Champier called Practica nova in medicina which was probably printed several years earlier, around 1509. The beautiful binding was also created around the same time; it is stamped pigskin over wooden boards with metal clasp closures, and the whole volume is in beautiful condition.  We know from the stamps and inscriptions in the book that it once belonged to the Strahov Monastery Library in Prague.

The book came to the PI Nixon Medical Historical Library as part of the Andrew A Sandor Ophthalmology collection, a group of some 400 rare and historical books that the library acquired in 1988. We invite you to come and see this historical treasure, along with many other treasures on the history of ophthalmology such as Georg Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia (1583) and Samuel Thomas Sommering’s Abbildungen des menschlichen Auges (1801).

The P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library Reading Room is located on the fifth floor of the Briscoe Library and is open Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. In order to view books in the collection, it is best to schedule an appointment prior to visiting by calling 567-2470.

— Luke Rosenberger, Director of Library Technology & Historical Collections

A cure for what ails you

Photograph of a pharmacy case from 1910 holding medicine vials

This is a 1910 pharmaceutical case produced by The Abbott Alkaloidal Company in Chicago. The folding case has loops to hold 12 small vials — two brown glass vials with rubber caps and 10 clear glass vials with cork stoppers. The vials contain “dosimetric granules,” an early form of pills created by Dr. Wallace C. Abbott, physician and pharmacy owner (History timeline, 2010).

(Note: these particular vials are not necessarily original to the kit.) Description of vials from left to right:

(1) Typho Bacterin Mulford, First immunizing dose containing 500 million killed typhoid bacilli, Lab. No. 26521A;

(2) Typho Bacterin Mulford, Second immunizing dose containing 1000 million killed typhoid bacilli, Lab. No. 29299A;Photograph of pharmacy vials from 1910

(3) label missing, granule residue;

(4) atropine sulfate, Gr. 1-500, (32) Gm. .000125, full of granules;

(5) Anticonstipation, (233) Waugh, Alkaloidal Formula;

(6) empty;

(7) Aloin, Gr. 1.12., (16) Gm. .005. [used as a laxative]

(8) Pilecarpine, Gr. 1-10, Gm. .01;

(9) Colchicine, Gr. 1-134, Gm. .0005.;  [used to treat gout]

(10) Quinine Arsenate, Gr. 1-67., (184) Gm. .001.;

(11) Morphine Sulfate, Gr. 1-12., (152) Gm. .005.;

(12) Anodyne (Waugh), (231) For Infants. [generic term for pain killer]


History timeline. (2010). Abbott Labs: Global health care & medical research. Retrieved March 8, 2011, from

(At UT Health Science Center Historical and Special Collections, we have initiated a project to identify items in a collection of medical artifacts.  If you have further information about the items highlighted, please comment.)

Plagiarist from the Past

William Cowper is infamous for being one of the biggest medical plagiarists of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1698 Cowper published the book The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, becoming famous above and beyond the imaginable. Even though the attention was negative, any fame at all is good, right?

A short 13 years earlier, Govard Bidloo published his book Anatomia Humani Corporis using 105 beautiful plates drawn by Gerard de Lairesse and engraved by Abraham Blooteling. When Bidloo’s book did not create much attention or sales, he decided to sell 300 copies of his engravings to Cowper’s publishers. Cowper’s publishers asked him if he would translate Bidloo’s text from Dutch to English, while using the same information and engravings but with “…many of them showing a great deal of original research and fresh new insights.” When the book was published, Cowper added nine new engravings because “…he believed Bidloo’s work failed to properly express or cover relevant information,” while replacing Bidloo’s name and original title with his own. Cowper did not credit Bidloo on the title pages, but rather strategically placed Bidloo’s name in his introduction. Even though Cowper clearly plagiarized Bidloo’s work, plagiarism laws were not as strict as they are now. Many people plagiarized others’ work without giving credit, but Cowper’s had been significant because it clearly undermined Bidloo’s work and criticized the original author. Before the publishing of his disputed book, Cowper was elected in 1696 into the Royal Society as one of the first surgeons in the reputable group. Bidloo petitioned the Royal Society to repeal Cowper’s membership because of his act of plagiarism, but since Cowper legally purchased the plates from the publisher, there were no retributions.

Cowper was a credible anatomist despite his critics, performing research on significant medical topics and finding the bulbourethral glands. He also mentored and housed the young surgeon William Cheselden. Mark A. Sanders states: “Cheselden became the most skilled English surgeon of the first half of the 18th century,” giving Cowper some credibility in his medical abilities.

The Anatomy of Humane Bodies is located on the 5th floor of the Dolph Briscoe Library in the P.I. Nixon Library, along with Govard Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corporis. Come compare the two texts for yourself and see plagiarism of the 18th century at its finest. Contact Mellisa DeThorne at or call 210-567-2470 if you have any questions about this blog, or would like to view the special collections.

Forever Historic,

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern

Photographs and Information Courtesy of:

National Library of Medicine, Historical Anatomies on the Web:

University of Windsor, Leddy Library:!OpenForm

William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials by Mark A. Sanders

John Bell, Scottish Anatomist and Surgeon

Engraving from Principals of Surgery
John Bell was born on the 12th of May 1762 to humble beginnings.  He was the second of four boys, his father, Rev. William Bell, was a man of considerable courage, and John’s mother was well educated and quite a talented artist.  And so we fast forward to 1779.

It was in 1779 at the young age  of seventeen that John apprenticed to Alexander Wood, the leading surgeon  in the Edinburgh Royal infirmary, who was not only a skilled surgeon, but had a good reputation for being loved by all who knew him.  He left a mark on young Bell, so much so that John Bell dedicated two of his books to Wood.

John studied at the University of Edinburgh under great teachers such as William Cullen and Joseph Black.  After his graduation, John traveled to Russia with a large group of Scottish doctors who contributed greatly to Russian medicine–men like Sir James Wylie, who became Physician General to Czar Alexander I, and Sir William Burnett, who became the first Medical Director of the Royal Navy.

John returned to the University of Edinburgh, his mind set on changing the way Anatomy was taught at the University.   You see, the Chair of Anatomy, although a fine professor, was not a practicing surgeon like John.  Knowing this, John moved swiftly to change the way anatomy was taught,  and the outcome was his own school of anatomy in 1790. Bell taught for many years, and some say that the subject of surgical anatomy was given birth by Bell.  He, along with Pierre-Joseph Desault and John Hunter, is also considered a co-founder of the modern surgery of the vascular system.  It’s interesting to note that John was a successful teacher and his students admired his teaching style.  Later, John was passed up for a prestigious professorship,  and the University suffered as a result.  A quote by Charles Darwin best sums up the man that received the appointment that John so richly deserved.  “Dr. Monro made his lectures on human anatomy as dull as he was himself.” Unfortunately,  John Bell had many enemies due to outspokenness about the unnecessary pain and suffering inflicted by incompetent surgeons practicing in Scotland.  Dr. James Gregory, Professor of Medicine at the University, launched a horrendous campaign against John, resulting from very acrimonious dispute over the right of the junior members of the College of Surgeons of Edinburg to perform operations in the Royal Infirmary.   He went so far as to hand out pamphlets warning students against attending Bell’s lectures. Gregory also posted a sign on the Gates of the University and at the entrance to the Infirmary stating “Any Man, if himself or his family were sick, should as soon think of calling in a mad dog as Mr. John Bell.”  Maybe it was academic jealousy.  We will never know, but I’d like to think that  John was a great professor, admired by his students, and maybe hated by his colleagues.

Bell, in his fifties, moved to Italy for his health.  He died in Rome on April 15, 1820.

John Bell may not have the same fame as his younger brother, Charles, but he will be remembered as a teacher, a writer of notable medical texts, and for his illustrations, which  speak volumes of his talent as an artist.  He was one of the few medical men to illustrate his own work. This writer is intrigued by John Bell, and I hope my readers are too.

I urge the Health Science Center community and beyond to see Bell’s work.  The Nixon Medical Historical library recently acquired a first edition, three volume set of Bell’s Principles of Surgery.  Come see the beautiful leather and marbled cover and open it to discover a world of illustrations that will leave their mark on the reader.

To view any of our old and rare treasures call Mellisa DeThorne at 210-567-2470 or email  Any questions about this post should be sent to or call 210-567-2470.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read our little blog.


Keeper of all things old and precious,


Mellisa D.


The Compassionate Surgeon: A Tribute to Sir Charles Bell

Engraving of Leg Amputation- Photo Courtesy of

Sir Charles Bell was Scottish and grew up in Edinburgh during the 18th century. He was a part of the famous Bell surgeons of Scotland. His older brother  John Bell was a surgeon and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of the city of Edinburgh. John is best known for founding the subject of Surgical Anatomy. Charles attended lectures that his brother John gave at the University and apprenticed under him, influencing Charles’  love for surgical anatomy. John and Charles were both known for their compassion towards their patients. Charles struggled with the unsavory aspects of dissection of animals and humans. He also vehemently opposed animal experimentation because he despised inflicting pain on his patients. Charles stated in the preface of his Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery: “In performing the operations of Surgery, this neglect of yourself is very necessary. Why simplicity should be so rare a virtue in Operations, is very remarkable; since it requires but this one rule- think only of your patient.”  Charles volunteered at the Battle of Waterloo, which took place in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (present-day Belgium) and put an end to Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule as Emperor of the French. The battle left 40,000 men dead or wounded, and volunteers were needed to help these fallen soldiers. Charles wrote to a friend of the battle:

“It is impossible to convey to you the picture of human misery continually before my eyes. What was heart-rending in the day, was intolerable at night…while I amputated one man’s thigh, there lay at one time thirteen, all beseeching to be taken next…”

Charles was a student while volunteering at Waterloo, allowing him to grasp the realities of his field outside of a classroom. He made advances in the science of physiology, with the study of nerves and description of  muscle sense or prorioceptive sensation. Bell’s palsy, which is facial paralysis due to nerve dysfunction, was named after Charles’ research findings. Charles became an important figure in London, where he lived for 40 years, and was knighted and appointed to the Chair of Anatomy of the Royal College of Surgeons. Charles was celebrated by many– For example, he went to Paris to visit the surgeon Philibert Joseph Roux, who announced to his class that they were dismissed because “You have seen Charles Bell, that is enough.” Charles was not immune to his importance among the surgical community and continued to write articles while compiling information from research.

One of his most celebrated works is the Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery: Trepan, Hernia, Amputation, Aneurism, and Lithotomy that colorfully displays images of various operations. These detailed and beautiful images were intended to be a teaching tool for medical students, but they were also admired by the art community. Charles drew the pictures himself with the engravings done by Thomas Landseer. His compassion shines through with elegant images of hands carefully touching an amputated leg and shoulder.  He also gives his opinion on what responsibilities surgeons have, stating in the preface: “Nor is the public aware of the temptations which men of our profession withstand. Credit for great abilities, gratitude for services performed, and high emoluments are ready to be bestowed for a little deception, and that obliquity of conduct, which does not amount to actual crime.”

Successful and named the first Professor of Anatomy and Surgery of the College of Surgeons in London in 1824, Charles grew tired of the University and decided to move to private practice. Even though Charles was not teaching, he still worked hard on his studies of physiology and was knighted by King William IV in 1831. Charles was always a man of humbleness and at the age of 62 moved back to Edinburgh to be the Professor of Surgery, stating that “London was a good place to live in but not to die in.” He died in 1842 while traveling to London for unknown reasons.  Charles Bell teaches us the importance of humanity when dealing with patients and how surgeons can make a difference in everyone’s lives. He is the epitome of a person with many talents and passions that shares experiences with the world through his studies and artwork.

The P.I. Nixon Library owns a copy of Bell’s illustrious work Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery: Trepan, Hernia, Amputation, Aneurism, and Lithotomy, and I encourage you to view it for yourself. A man as interesting and influential as Sir Charles Bell should not be forgotten, so please come by to relive his masterpiece.

If you have any questions or concerns about this blog, please contact Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470.

Forever Historic,

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern


Information and quotations courtesy of:

Great Ideas in the History of Surgery By Leo M. Zimmerman, Ilza Veith

Sir Charles Bell: The artist who went to the roots! By Rehan Kazi