Charles Bell: Surgeon, Expert on the Nervous System, and Christian Apologist

One of the contributors to the volume of Natural Theology, The Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation was the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century surgeon and anatomist, Charles Bell. Bell was the son of a Scots Episcopalian minister, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University. After graduation, he moved to London, where he set up a school of anatomy. As well as doctors and surgeons, Bell also taught anatomy to artists, and his lectures for them were published in 1806 as The Anatomy of Expression. With his partner, Wilson, he took over the Windmill Street School of Anatomy. He conducted research on the human nervous system, publishing A New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain and Nervous System in 1811. In it he noted that stimulating the anterior root of the spinal nerves resulted in contractions. This did not occur when the posterior root was stimulated. This formed the basis of Magendie’s identification of sensory and motor nerves. Bell also described the trigeminal and facial nerves of the face. It was Bell’s student, Mayo, however, who realised that the facial nerves were motor and the trigeminal sensory. He became surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital in 1814. After the Battle of Waterloo the following year, he and his brother-in-law, John Shaw, rushed over to the battlefield to provide medical aid for the wounded troopers on both sides. During his work there he sketched the horrific wounds the soldiers had sustained during the Battle. In 1830 he published a further edition of his work, Nervous System of the Human Body, which has been recognised as a classic of medical literature. In 1836 he moved back to Edinburgh, where he had been appointed to the chair of surgery. It was Bell, who gave his name to the condition, Bell’s Palsy, and the thoracic nerve of Bell.

Bell was also deeply religious, and he was invited to contribute to the above book of Natural Theology by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. The book was written according to the provisions of the will of the Earl of Bridgwater, who set up a trust fund for that purpose. Bell’s contribution was the chapter, ‘The Hand: its Mechanisms and Vital Endowments, as evincing design, and illustrating the power, wisdom and goodness of God’, published in 1833.

Bell’s career demonstrates that during the 19th century a prominent and brilliant surgeon and medical scientist could not only be a devout Christian, but also use his knowledge to proclaim God’s existence and glory. While the argument from biological design has been largely discredited following Darwin, nevertheless Bell is outstanding as a both a medical figure and someone who tried to put their faith into practice for God’s glory and the welfare of humanity.

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2 Responses to “Charles Bell: Surgeon, Expert on the Nervous System, and Christian Apologist”

  1. Ilíon Says:

    Welcome back!

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Ilion- great to see you too!

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