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Summary Article: Bell, Charles (1774-1842) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Italy

Subject: biography, biology

Scottish anatomist and surgeon who carried out pioneering research on the human nervous system. He gave his name to Bell's palsy, an extracranial paralysis of the facial nerve (the VIIth cranial nerve) - not the same as the long thoracic nerve of Bell, which he also named and which supplies a muscle in the chest wall.

Bell was born in Edinburgh in November 1774. His brother, John Bell, was a renowned surgeon who taught him anatomy. After qualifying in 1799 Bell became a surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He went to London in 1804 as a lecturer, and in 1812 was appointed surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital, London. He became professor of anatomy and surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1824 and four years later was invited to become the first principal of the medical school at University College, London. He was knighted in 1831. In 1836 he became professor of surgery at the University of Edinburgh. He died at Hallow, Worcestershire, on 28 April 1842.

Bell carried out meticulous dissections and made the important discovery that nerves are composite structures, each with separate fibres for sensory and motor functions. His findings first appeared in a short essay ‘Idea of a new anatomy of the brain’ (1811); his main written work was The Nervous System of the Human Body (1830). The chief significance of Bell's discovery was the impetus it gave to other researchers in neurology.

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