SRS Newsletter
March 2013
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Historian’s Corner: A Piece of History

Alistair G Thompson, FRCS
SRS Historical Committee Member

Alistair G Thompson, FRCS

The Historical Committee welcomes all members to submit articles of historical significance related to scoliosis or spinal deformity for consideration to be featured in the Historian’s Corner. If you are interested in submitting an article please contact the Historical Committee’s staff liaison, Katy Kujala-Korpela at

Sir Charles Bell 1774 – 1842 best known for the description of the lower motor neurone paralysis of the facial nerve which bears his name; made major contributions to our understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system. He also developed a special interest in spinal conditions including deformity and paralysis.

In 1804 he left his native Edinburgh for London and established a reputation as a teacher of anatomy and surgery, eventually purchasing the anatomy school of William Hunter (brother of John Hunter.) The site of the school is marked today by a plaque in Great Windmill Street, Soho, London, England. Charles Bell acquired a huge collection of anatomical and pathological specimens which were sold to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1825. A superb artist, he illustrated many of his clinical observations in drawings and paintings.

The Bell Collection contains a large number of articulated scoliotic spines which were probably prepared by a process of boiling and may be unique. Examination of theses spines by C.T. scanning has revealed typical findings of the changes in scoliotic spines in the concave pedicles so relevant to current surgical treatments of these deformities. Bell may have treated some scoliotic spines by tenotomy. Visitors to Edinburgh today may visit the RCSEd Museum and view his exhibits. 

Bell is jointly recognised with François Magendie of France as the first to describe the dorsal roots of the spinal cord as sensory and the ventral roots as motor. Bell postulated a ‘sixth muscle sense’ and believed that disturbance of this may lead to spinal deformity – an extremely far sighted concept. He published a New Anatomy of the Brain and Nervous System in 1811 and his contributions to science were recognised when he became a fellow of the Royal Society. He was the first Professor of Surgery at the London Middlesex Hospital and was knighted in 1831. He returned to Edinburgh as Regius Professor of Surgery in 1836 – a pioneering clinical surgeon indeed!

Committee Chair: Behrooz A. Akbarnia, MD Committee Members: Nathan H. Lebwohl, MD, Past Chair; Vishal Sarwahi, MD; Azmi Hamzaoglu, MD; Reinhard D. Zeller, MD; Lawrence I. Karlin, MD; Alistair G. Thompson, FRCS; Jason Lowenstein, MD.