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New Exhibit: The Bell Brothers and the Art of Surgical Anatomy


Now on Display in the Eckenhoff Reading Room

At the turn of the 19th century, Scottish brothers John and Charles Bell detected a gap in the medical training offered by the University of Edinburgh, the world’s preeminent medical school of the time. The anatomy curriculum was rudimentary and narrow in scope; aside from a few dissections in a large, crowded anatomical theater, instruction was limited to lectures, textbooks, and models. Students were lucky to even watch a surgeon perform an operation. Actual surgical experience often came after physicians began practicing, meaning that a surgeon may have only read about how to do an operation and only seen the relevant anatomy from a 100-foot vantage point high up in the anatomical theater.

Through their work as teachers of surgery and anatomy and as writers of medical textbooks, the Bells aimed to give students an experience-based education that they could apply to their future careers as physicians and surgeons. What made the Bells’ work especially unique was their skills as artists, which they used to illustrate their own books. Combining their knowledge of anatomy, their real-world experience as surgeons, and their clear and realistic artistic styles, the Bell brothers presented anatomy and surgery from a practical perspective, encouraging their students to apply this knowledge to their own practices.

Now on display in the Eckenhoff Reading Room, The Bell Brothers and the Art of Surgical Anatomy showcases the Bells’ books as well as other rare items from Special Collections. Discover how the brothers’ upbringing, personalities, and location put them in the right place at the right time—and gave them the right skills—to leave a lasting impact on medicine and medical education.

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Updated: February 8, 2024