Story: Bell, Francis Gordon

Page 1 - Biography

Bell, Francis Gordon

1887–1970

Surgeon, university professor

This biography was written by A. W. Beasley and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Francis Gordon Bell was born on 13 September 1887 at Grovetown, Marlborough, the son of Scottish-born William Bell, who ran merino sheep in the Wairau Valley, and his wife, Emma Amelia Dolamore, a schoolmistress and daughter of New Zealand’s first Baptist clergyman, Decimus Dolamore. Gordon (as he was known) was a foundation pupil of Marlborough High School (later Marlborough College) in 1900, then undertook medical training at the University of Edinburgh. He gained the Vans Dunlop Scholarship in anatomy in 1908, graduated MB, ChB in 1910, and combined a period as an anatomy demonstrator with clinical work. He became an FRCS in 1912 and in 1913 completed his MD with a thesis on the cellular architecture of the cortex of the brain, a work that gained him the Goodsir Memorial Fellowship.

At the outbreak of the First World War Bell took up a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, writing home his impressions of the lavish scale of the institution. In 1915, however, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in France, mostly as a surgeon at casualty clearing stations. Attaining the rank of major, he became highly experienced in battlefield surgery, and served with distinction during the battle of the Somme in 1916. A number of his colleagues in France were to become leaders of Australasian surgery. He was awarded the Military Cross (1916) and was mentioned in dispatches. On 15 March 1916, after a three-year engagement, Bell married Marion Welsh Berry Austin in Edinburgh. She ran a Red Cross convalescent hospital, and was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal. They were to have three daughters and one son.

Bell returned to practise in Edinburgh after the war, initially as a surgical tutor with his old chief, Professor Alexis Thomson. In 1924 he was appointed assistant surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and became an FRCSE. He conducted significant research on tumours of the testicle (published in 1925) and the pattern of his career seemed established. Then Louis Barnett declared his intention of retiring as professor of surgery at the University of Otago Medical School, Dunedin, and endowed £8,000 to establish the Ralph Barnett chair of surgery, in memory of a son killed in the war. Gordon Bell applied for the position and was appointed.

He arrived in Dunedin in March 1925 and commenced a 27-year tenure of the chair. He taught a generation of Otago graduates with sound commonsense and a dry wit, gaining universal respect. Although his tenure was a period of consolidation of surgical technique and diagnosis rather than one marked by great advances in research, he oversaw the development of sub-specialities and the appointment of full-time specialist surgeons in the 1940s and 1950s. During the Second World War he bore a tremendous load of teaching and clinical work.

In 1927 Bell became a founding fellow of the College of Surgeons of Australasia (later the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons). He succeeded Barnett as a member of its council (1939) and in 1947 he became president, the second New Zealander (after Barnett) to hold the office. On retirement from his chair in 1952 he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and the following year he was knighted (KBE). In 1957 he was persuaded to return to the Otago Medical School for a year.

In 1964, with Sir Charles Hercus, Bell published a history of the school under its first three deans and, four years later, his autobiography, Surgeon’s saga. In retirement he chaired the Otago and Southland division of the New Zealand Branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign Society and its Cancer Appeal Committee, helping to raise $202,000 to build an x-ray therapy unit at Wakari Hospital, Dunedin. It was named the Gordon Bell Unit. He made an appropriate final public appearance as representative of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh at the centenary celebrations of the University of Otago in 1969. He died in Dunedin on 28 February 1970, survived by his children; his wife had died in 1968. He is commemorated by an annual Royal Australasian College of Surgeons lecture.