Sir Charles Bell’s watercolours


The harsh reality of war and nineteenth-century surgery is encountered in the anatomical watercolours of Charles Bell. They depict his patients and their injuries, especially the horrific wounds dealt with by army surgeons in Wellington’s army.

“Johnnie! How can we let this pass? Here is such an occasion of seeing gun-shot wounds come to our very door. Let us go!”: Charles Bell to his brother.

Charles Bell (1774-1842) KGH, FRS, FRSE, was a renowned surgeon, anatomist and artist, who discovered Bell’s Palsy and produced many anatomical drawings and watercolours, some of the most important of which were produced while he was working as a medical officer at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was born in Scotland and came to London in 1804. He built up a private teaching practice and then bought the Great Windmill Street School of Anatomy founded by William Hunter. His association with The Middlesex began in 1814 when he was appointed surgeon there. This was followed by appointments as Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1824, and then as Professor of Surgery at the new University of London (now University College London). Bell left the University in 1830 and was instrumental in establishing a Medical School at The Middlesex Hospital in 1835. In 1836 Bell went back to Edinburgh to take up a post of Professor of Surgery, and died in 1842.

Born into a respectable Scottish family in 1774, Charles Bell was an accomplished anatomist, surgeon, physiologist, author and artist. His highly successful civil medical career coincided with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1792–1815. In early 1809, Sir John Moore’s Peninsular Army landed on the South Coast following the desperate retreat to Corunna. About 28,000 ill and wounded soldiers disembarked, causing consternation in the local population. The army medical services were overwhelmed and Bell was among a number of civilian surgeons who volunteered to help. He performed a similar altruistic service 6 years later in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo where 55,000 dead and wounded were left on the field. These sudden transitions from civilian to military surgery were not straightforward and Bell’s operation results in the Brussels hospitals were not impressive. Only one of his 12 amputation cases survived—a mortality rate of 92% which was high even allowing for the more hazardous nature of secondary operations which had had to be delayed long after the initial injury.From: Howard, M. R. 2005. ‘A surgical artist at war: the paintings and sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809-1815: review’, J R Soc Med, 98 (11): 517.

 Watercolour of the brain by Sir Charles Bell

Wellcome Collection (not for the squeamish).

Further reading:

Crumplin, M. K. H. & Starling, P. original 1819 (2005 reprint). A Surgical Artist at War: The Paintings and Sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809-1815, Royal College of Surgeons (London).


2 comments on “Sir Charles Bell’s watercolours

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Pleased to have found your fascinating blog. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

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