Wolverhampton BTW

John Bell

Bell, John, 1763—1820

by Benjamin Colbert

John Bell was born in Edinburgh, the second son of the Revd William Bell (1704-79), Scottish Episcopal clergyman, and Margaret Bell, née Morrice. Bell was early drawn to medicine and at seventeen was apprenticed to Alexander Wood, surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Upon completing his apprenticeship, Bell travelled to Russia and Northern Europe, returning home around 1786 when he began a lecture series that helped establish his medical practice.

Bell became chiefly known as an advocate for the practical training of surgeons and, alongside a prosperous private practice, he established his own lecture theatre in 1790 where he demonstrated surgical technique. He wrote and illustrated a number of respected books in the ensuing decade, including The Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints (1793-94) and Discourse on the Nature and Care of Wounds (1795). His Principles of Surgery (1801-06) was republished in augmented editions and became a standard textbook.

Principles coincided with and was a reaction to a decision by the Royal Infirmary to exclude members of the Royal College and Corporation of Surgeon Apothecaries, including Bell, a loss of an important venue for practical training. Bell participated in a pamphlet war with his chief opponent, Dr James Gregory, culminating in Bell’s Letters on Professional Character and Manners: On the Education of a Surgeon, and the Duties and Qualifications of a Physician (1810), which was addressed to Dr Gregory.

On 26 December 1805, Bell married Rosina Agnes Congalton (1763-1858), the eldest surviving daughter of a retired Edinburgh physician and herself a talented musician. While the controversy with Gregory overshadowed the early years of marriage, Bell also enjoyed a thriving practice, and the Bells frequently entertained guests with musical parties. After Bell fell from a horse in 1816, his health deteriorated, and the following year the Bells travelled to the continent for his convalescence, touring Italy in 1818. By 1819, he had taken up residence at Rome where he continued to practice medicine, his patients including by March the family of Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley as well as the Princess Pauline Borghese. Around that time, Bell undertook to accompany the Princess to Florence for the summer and such was the trust the Shelleys placed in Bell that they altered their own travel plans so as to be in Florence, too, as Mary Shelley was expecting a child for which Bell was to be attending physician.

In the event, Bell remained in Rome, his own health worsening. He died 15 April 1820 and was buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome. The manuscript materials for Observations on Italy were placed in the hands of Daniel Sandford, Scottish Episcopal bishop of Edinburgh (1766-1830; ODNB), but, in the words of Rosina Bell, ‘occupations of a high and important nature, obliged him, after a period of eighteen months, entirely to relinquish the attempt’ (Observations xi). Rosina Bell herself completed the task and later edited an augmented second edition (Naples 1834; London 1835).


Baston, K. Grudzien. ‘Bell, John (1763-1820), surgeon and anatomist’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Web. 14 July 2021. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/2013

Chambers, Robert. ‘Bell, John’. A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen. Vol. 1. Glasgow: Blackie & Son, 1835. 197-200. Print.

Feldman, Paula R., and Diana Scott-Kilvert, eds. The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. 254n3. Print.


Title Published
Observations on Italy 1825

[see updates]