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