Papers of Professor Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842)

Scope and Content

The collection consists of: a manuscript page of Bell's Anatomy and philosophy of expression with corrections, 1842, and a letter, at Gen. 1730 Bell; letters to Professor Robert Jameson (1774-1854) at Gen. 129/23; and, a copy of Idea of a new anatomy of the brain made from the printed edition of 1811, at Gen. 2007/13.

Administrative / Biographical History

Charles Bell was born in Edinburgh in November 1774. He studied at Edinburgh University where his artistic talent also began to flourish. While still a student, Bell published A system of dissections (1798) which was illustrated with his own drawings. In 1799 he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and served as a surgical attendant at the Royal Infirmary in the city. In 1802 he published a series of engravings of the brain and nervous sytem, and in 1804 wrote on the nervous system and special senses in Anatomy of the human body. In November 1804, Bell went to London and in 1806 he published Anatomy of expression which received a lot of attention. From experiments conducted in 1811, Bell discovered the distinct functions of the nerves, establishing the existence of sensory and motor nerves. His investigations into the nervous system were completed between 1821 and 1829, and were read before the Royal Society. They were published in The nervous system of the human body (1830). Bell was knighted for his work. It was at this time too that London University was founded and he was invited to take office in the new institution, but later resigned. Bell's work continued however, and he published his observations on the organs of voice, the hand, diseases of the urethra, spinal and thigh bone injuries, and the five senses. In addition, he conducted lectures at his home, at the Middlesex Hospital, and at the College of Surgeons. In 1836, Bell was offered the Chair of Surgery at Edinburgh University and he accepted, pleased to return to the city. While there he published Institutes of surgery (1838) and Practical essays (1841). Professor Sir Charles Bell died on 28 April 1842 while staying at Hallow Park, near Worcester, and he was buried in the local parish churchyard there.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Manuscript page purchased 27 February 1969. Letter at AAF purchased November 1974, Accession no. E74.35. Copy made from printed edition received May 1961, Accession no. E61.17.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Stephen, Leslie. and Lee, Sidney (eds.). Dictionary of national biography. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

The local Indexes show other references to Bell related material (check the Indexes for more details): in the Laing Collection, a letter to Professor A. Thomson, at La.III.366; a letter to Lady Bell with an invitation for her and Sir Charles to dine, at Dc.4.101; and, a mention in a letter, at Gen. 1429/8.