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.