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J R Soc Med. 2005 November; 98(11): 517.
PMCID: PMC1276004

A Surgical Artist at War: the Paintings and Sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809–1815

Reviewed by Martin R Howard

M K H Crumplin, P Starling
96 pp Price £14.99 ISBN 0-95-46-2131-X (p/b)
Edinburgh: Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh .

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.

Bell’s artistic skills were more adaptable and he made sketches and paintings of both the Corunna and Waterloo wounded and post-surgical cases. It is these unique illustrations that have been expertly gathered together in this very attractive book produced by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Medical readers may be familiar with some of the Waterloo images but the earlier Corunna paintings are very little known and their wider circulation is long overdue. The authors, one a retired surgeon and current curator of surgical instruments and the other a curator of the Army Medical Services Museum, are very well qualified to describe Bell’s paintings and to provide the historical background. The 15 Corunna and 16 Waterloo paintings are superbly reproduced as colour plates. The chronological ordering gives at once an immediate impression of the artist’s talent and a sense of how his style evolved between the two campaigns. The great strength and appeal of this project is the intelligent combination of the painstakingly detailed pictures and the contemporary comments of Bell and his colleagues with a perceptive modern surgical commentary. The latter is of sufficient detail to inform a surgeon but well enough explained to engage an intelligent lay reader (or physician). The authors refer to Bell’s paintings as rare ‘photographs’ of the Napoleonic Wars. They are certainly a powerful antidote to the ubiquitous glamorizing salon paintings of the era. I unreservedly recommend this work to all with any interest in medical and military history.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press