Sir Charles Bell, 1774 - 1842

Sir Charles Bell

1774 - 1842
by David F. Coppedge

Have you heard of Bell’s Palsy? Bell’s Nerve? Bell’s Phenomenon or Bell’s Spasm? These are medical terms attributed to the work of Charles Bell, a Scottish surgeon who is regarded as the premier anatomist of the early 19th century. If you are the youngest in the family, take heart: Charles was the youngest of four boys, but outshone his brothers – one another distinguished anatomist, and one an esteemed jurist. Charles Bell was also a devout Christian who saw the hand of God in human anatomy. He contributed to the Bridgewater Treatises, a collection of natural theology essays by esteemed scientists. He also provided an annotated and illustrated edition of Paley’s venerable Natural Theology.

One of the gifts from childhood Charles brought to his medical career was skill in art. His ability to sketch anatomical details accurately contributed to elegant books of anatomy published from 1798 onward. “These drawings, which are remarkable for artistic skill and finish, were taken from dissections made by Bell for the lectures or demonstrations he gave on the nervous system as part of the course of anatomical instruction of his brother” states a biography at One of his original contributions was tracing the activity of the mind to the facial muscles and showing how emotions were expressed. Another, just during the Napoleonic crisis, was his discovery (independent of similar work by Francois Magendie) that some nerves go from the brain to the muscles (motor nerves) and others go from the sense organs to the brain (sensory nerves). Bell-Magendie’s Law and other findings relating to perception and reflex response, “as a whole must be regarded as the greatest in physiology since that of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey” (Ibid.). Bell’s book Idea of a New Anatomy of the Brain (1811) has been called the “Magna Carta of neurology”

In 1815, just three years into his 24-year service as surgeon at Middlesex Hospital, he went to Brussels to treat the wounded from the Battle of Waterloo.  John Hudson Tiner says, “Charles Bell was present on June 18, 1815, at Wellington’s decisive defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. It was one of the bloodiest battles in history. About 45,000 soldiers lay dead or dying in an area of three square miles. Bell worked tirelessly in their treatment. His coat became stiff with blood, and he only stepped aside when the prolonged exertion left his arms and hands incapable of functioning” (For Those Who Dare, pp. 127-128). Nevertheless, the death toll was high in spite of his heroic efforts. Bell learned from these experiences things that would help future battlefield surgeons. He had also treated the wounded from Coruna in the hospital at Portsmouth in 1809, and had “rendered meritorious services” there.

Upon return from the war, he also served as professor of anatomy, physiology and surgery at the College of Surgeons of London. His fame continued to grow until in the 1830s he was one of the foremost scientific men in London. In 1826 he had been made a fellow of the Royal Society; in 1831 he was knighted by King William IV. On the European continent some considered him greater than William Harvey. Rather than remain in London to die there, he returned to Edinburgh in 1836, and continued teaching and writing up till his last year.

The Sir Charles Bell Society, an organization of neurosurgeons specializing in facial nerves, organized in 1996 in Cologne and remains active today. “Disorders of the facial nerve are extremely complex and can seriously decrease the quality of life in many patients,” the society home page states. “The intention of the SCBS is to concentrate knowledge and to present a platform of exchange for all people and professions dealing with facial nerve problems. It is dedicated to the collection, the dissemination and the interchange of ideas relating to the facial nerve, thus furthering cooperation and encouraging global friendship to improve the quality of care of facial palsy patients.” In the society’s biography of Sir Charles Bell, which contains quotes by him, the ending quote is worth pondering. Biographer Jonathan Cole writes,

He understood that the spring of the foot acts to absorb and then elastic recoil forces during running, which aids propulsion, something shown empirically in the 1980’s. Lastly he realised that,

‘exercise of the muscular frame is the source of some of our chief enjoyments. This activity is followed by weariness and a desire for rest; and although unattended with any describable pleasure of local sensation, there is diffused through every part of the frame a feeling almost voluptuous.

It would appear in modern times that we know comparatively little of the pleasures arising from motion. The Greeks and even the Romans, studied elegance of attitude and of movement… Their dances were not the result of mere exuberance of spirits and activity; they combined harmony in the motion of the body and limbs, with majesty of gait…’

The Hand book is full of observation and theoretical discussion, much of which seems to anticipate neuroscientific ideas by many years.

Durability and anticipation are good marks of science. Bell anticipated the wonder of proprioception, the ability to sense one’s position in space even with the eyes closed, even though it was named 60 years after him. He called it a “sixth sense” because “Great authorities made no account of the knowledge derived from the motions of our own frame,” he said.

When a blind man, or a man with his eyes shut, stands upright… by what means is it that he maintains an erect position? How is it that a man inclines in due degree towards the winds? It is obvious that he has a sense by which he knows the inclination of his body and that he has a ready aptitude to adjust it… It can only be by the adjustment of muscles that the limbs are stiffened. There is no source of knowledge but a sense of the degree of exertion in his muscular frame…

This internal sense enables soldiers to stand for long periods without damage by unconsciously shifting their feet so as to avoid pressure sores. Proprioception is automatic for familiar settings, such as walking down the street, but becomes focused and accentuated when in unfamiliar or dangerous surroundings, he noted.

Sir Charles Bell wrote the Fourth Bridgewater Treatise in 1833, entitled, The Hand: its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as evincing Design. (a digitized version can be located on Google Books). Bell said, “If we select any object from the whole extent of animated nature, and contemplate it fully and in all its bearings, we shall certainly come to this conclusion: that there is Design in the mechanical construction, Benevolence in the endowments of the living properties, and the Good on the whole is the result.” (These quotes are taken from Christine Dao’s booklet, Thinking God’s Thoughts After Him: Great Scientists Who Honored the Creator, Institute for Creation Research 2009, p. 10). How shall a man respond to the evidence of design?  Here are the words of a scholar, anatomist, surgeon, professor, and scientist:

Now, when a man sees that his vital operations could not be directed by reason—that they are constant, and far too important to be exposed to all the changes incident to his mind, and that they are given up to the direction of other sources of motion than the will, he acquires a full sense of his dependence….

When man thus perceives that in respect to all these vital operations he is more helpless than the infant, and that his boasted reason can neither give them order nor protection, is not his insensibility to the Giver of these secret endowments worse than ingratitude?

In his mature years, Bell was aware of the uniformitarian debates surrounding London. He maintained that “our notions of the ‘uniformity’ of the course of nature must suffer some modification” in light of the proofs of a beginning and the “great revolutions that have taken place” in the condition of the earth and the structure of animals living on it. Christine Dao says, “Bell thought science should be allowed to follow the evidence—even if it leads to a supernatural origin.”

In 1836, along with Lord Brougham, Charles Bell annotated and illustrated a new edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, thus placing him firmly in the long tradition of eminent scientists using reason and evidence to infer a benevolent designing intelligence from the observations of the natural world consistent with the revelation of the Deity revealed in Scripture.

Epilogue.  That noble tradition continues today. Speaking of the hand, Dr. Randy Guliuzza (P.E., M.D.) of ICR has written a short article on the design of the hand as an introduction to the subject. If you can ever hear him speak live and give his longer Powerpoint presentation about the marvels of the hand, you will be truly amazed. The discoveries made in the last 168 years would even have Sir Bell shouting Hallelujah: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:4) for we are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13).

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