Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Forgotten Best-Sellers: ‘Bell’s Surgery’

William and I. Walker, ‘Benjamin Bell, 1749-1806. Surgeon’ (1791) Engraving after Sir Henry Raeburn. Scottish National Portrait Gallery SP IV 239.1

‘Bell’s Surgery’, or, to give it its proper title, A System of Surgery, was published in its first edition in six volumes between 1783 and 1788. It was a popular textbook that became what Richard Sher describes as a ‘strong seller’[1] with seven editions in print by 1801.

Its influence went beyond its sales figures. In 1790 alone, medical students at the University of Edinburgh borrowed various volumes of the second edition 89 times.

The Books and Borrowing Database shows that the textbook was also borrowed from the University of St Andrews Library and the Advocates Library.

2 January 1790: University of Edinburgh medical student Alexander Anderson starts the new year with a borrowing of the first volume of ‘Bell’s Surgery’. EUL Da.2.23, f. 8

Born in 1749, Benjamin Bell was a successful surgeon and alumni of the University of Edinburgh where he studied from 1766 to 1770. He borrowed books on medical topics from the university library on at least six occasions. He joined the Edinburgh Medical Society in 1769 and became a Fellow of the College of Surgeons in 1771.

28 March 1769: Benjamin Bell borrows ‘Monro on the Dropsy’. EUL Da.2.8, f. 20

Bell then studied in Paris and London, where he met leading surgeons and anatomists such as William Hunter, John Hunter, and Percivall Pott, before returning to Edinburgh to start his surgical practice. Badly injured in a fall from a horse, he retired to a farm near Edinburgh – he’d grown up in a farming family – to recover and gave up his practice for two years. While convalescing, Bell turned to writing the medical books that would make his name.

Bell’s A Treatise on the Theory and Management of Ulcers appeared in 1778 and was a ‘good seller’.[2] It reached a seventh edition in 1801 and was popular on the Continent with translations into French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.[3] His A System of Surgery followed and was translated into Italian, French, Spanish, and German.[4] It was the first comprehensive text book of surgery in the English language and it established Bell’s legacy as the ‘father of the Edinburgh Surgical School’.[5] Bell used his own experience and information from his travels to create his comprehensive survey of surgical practice and technique. He advocated for the use of pain relief after operations, preserving skin in operations like amputations and mastectomies to promote wound healing, and limiting the use of instruments.[6]

Bell returned to practice, but the demanding schedule of a top surgeon led to regular breakdowns in his own health. His success meant that he was able to build a portfolio of land which gave him places to recover and write. He published A Treatise on Gonorrhoea Virulenta and Lues Venerea in 1793. This ‘moderate seller’[7] treated the two venereal infections as separate diseases, which went against contemporary theories held by John Hunter and others. The following year saw A Treatise on the Hydrocele, on Sarcocele, or Cancer, and other Diseases of the Testis, which perhaps unsurprisingly as it was a specialised text aimed at practitioners, was a ‘poor seller’.[8]

Alongside his surgical practice and medical writing, Bell took an interest in agricultural matters and estate management. He corresponded with his farmer father and wrote essays about reforming production methods, taxation, and political economy. He published a collected version of these, which he had been publishing since 1783, in 1802. His Essays on Agriculture, with a Plan for the Speedy and General Improvement of the Land in Great Britain was borrowed ten times from the Selkirk Subscription Library between 1802 and 1813, mostly by tenant farmers.

17 July 1813: Mr Alexander Park borrows ‘Bell on agriculture 1 V’. Park was a writer (lawyer) and brother of the famous explorer Mungo Park. He served as secretary to the Selkirk Agricultural Club. (See this blog next week for more on Mungo Park.)

Benjamin Bell died at Edinburgh on 5 April 1806. His surgical textbook was read by generations of medical students and his innovative ideas came to be accepted in medical practice. His fascinating ‘Clinical Case Book’ from the 1780s until 1799 has been digitised by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and can be accessed here. This also gives evidence of his own reading, with citations of journals and books, organised by subject. It would have provided a ready reference for all the latest innovations and theories in surgery and helped Bell both in practice and in composing and revising his own works.

[1] Richard B. Sher, The Enlightenment & the Book: Scottish Authors & Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland & America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pbk edn, 2010), p. 664.

[2] Sher, p. 654.

[3] John Kirkup, ‘Bell, Benjamin (1749-1803)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006),, accessed 31 August 2023.

[4] Kirkup, ‘Bell, Benjamin’.

[5] ‘Benjamin Bell’,, accessed 31 August 2023.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sher, p. 678.

[8] Ibid., p. 680.