The Gruesome Artistic Talent of Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell (12 November 1774 – 28 April 1842) is an interesting character from the early 1800’s. A Scottish surgeon, anatomist, neurologist, and philosophical theologian. Something I’ve always found interesting about learned people from the past – they all have multiple specialties. It’s amazing what you can accomplish without a smart phone in your hand.

He is noted for discovering the difference between sensory nerves and motor nerves in the spinal cord, he was also responsible for describing Bell’s palsy. But that’s not why we are here today. He and his brother were not only students of the body, but were also very artistically gifted and together they taught anatomy and illustrated and published two volumes of “A System of Dissection Explaining the Anatomy of the Human Body.” A at times gruesome, but otherwise magnificent example of Bell’s artistic abilities.

Sir Charles Bell, The anatomy of the brain

The anatomy of the brain

A selection of Bell’s images are available from the Wellcome Library in London, there are a few of the brain dissections that are available for download free of charge so check em’ out. They also display a horrific series of pictures of men in various stages of pain and injury. As with most of Bell’s work, although highly graphic in nature, there is something that keeps the viewer wanting more.

This collection is from his time in the field treating the wounded at the Battle of Waterloo. It was a Sunday, June 18th when the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated during the Battle of Waterloo. Nepoleon was defeated by a coalition of mainly the British, Dutch and Prussian armies that were under command of the Duke of Wellington, this battle marked one of the bloodiest battles in all history.

The reality of war is well, ghastly. Bell’s illustrations of the wounds of war are made with an unusual frankness not usually seen in anatomical sketches. Volunteering as a surgeon, Bell worked tirelessly in the treatment of the wounded, and documented his experiences through his drawings.

Though Bell’s accomplishments as a surgeon during the aftermath of Waterloo, was less than impressive; with only one of the 12 amputation cases surviving, his artist and scientific skills are clear. And as Chair of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, his experiences at Waterloo, his artist and scientific talent made him a an authority on the realities of war. Below I have included a gallery of some of these images – Be warned – they are not for the faint of heart.

Sir Chalres Bell - Battle of waterloo

Soldier wounded at Waterloo, with right arm missing 


Sir Chalres Bell - Battle of waterloo

Soldier with missing arm, lying on his side, grasping a rope


Sir Chalres Bell - Battle of waterloo

Soldier with bandaged head and arm in a sling


Sir Chalres Bell - Battle of waterloo

Soldier suffering from head wound


Sir Chalres Bell - Battle of waterloo

Sabre wound to abdomen

Illustrations by Charles Bell

explore the collection

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