Bell or bust


A search for family history leads to McGill

Jack and Donna McGee with the bust of James Bell, MDCM 1877. (Owen Egan)

by Philip Fine (with files from Medicine Focus)

Amateur genealogist Jack McGee was thrilled to discover that his wife, Donna, had a McGill medical luminary in her family tree.

James Bell, MDCM 1877, was Donna’s great-uncle—a clinician and educator memorialized as “‘the ablest surgeon in America.’”1

He was an early advocate of surgery for appendicitis at onset. “‘When in doubt, operate,’” he famously wrote in 1894.2

Bell was the first at the Montreal General Hospital (MGH) “to make a preoperative diagnosis of appendicitis and perform a successful appendectomy,” in 1889.3

He also instituted a training program for surgeons at the Royal Victoria Hospital, one of the first of its kind in Canada.

He made his name as a surgeon on active service in the North-West Territories during the second of two resistances led by Métis leader Louis Riel.

Bell’s unexpected death at the peak of his career was a loss mourned across the city.

A McGill connection

Vancouver-based Jack McGee was always keen to learn more about Donna’s family. “But it had been difficult to find information on Donna’s grandparents or the Bell family,” he says. “Her mother didn’t speak much about the family.”

All they knew was that Donna’s mother had been born in North Gower, Ont. Then they learned that Donna’s grandfather, Charles Bell, had a brother named James, and that James had a McGill connection.

Three events would have them weave together a fuller family history—and lead them on a pilgrimage this summer to the Strathcona Anatomy Building.

In the late ’80s, when the couple was living in Windsor, Ont., where Jack was president of St. Clair College, Jack met a community leader and former MPP, Darcy McKeough, who mentioned knowing a member of the Kidd family—the married name of Charles and James’ sister, Eliza.

That family member was Eliza’s grandson, Dr. J. Richard Hamilton, who, as it happens, was Physician-in-Chief at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and Chair of Pediatrics at McGill. He told Jack that James had been immortalized with a bust that was on display at the University.

With only that little information on Donna’s grandfather and great-uncle, Jack took the next several years to pursue his side of the family. He discovered his own McGill connection: his great-grandmother was related to Col. John McCrae, author of the poem “In Flanders Fields” and lecturer in pathology at the Faculty of Medicine. Coincidentally, McCrae was active at McGill at the same time as Bell.

The next set of clues came in 2000, after Donna’s mother passed away. Among her effects were several names of relatives.

Then, around 2008, Jack was attending a reunion of former naval officers and happened upon a Greater Ottawa genealogical society meeting across the street. “I went over to a woman who had a table and asked her about North Gower. She said ‘I’m from North Gower!’” He told her he was looking for information about his wife’s grandfather who had lived in the area. A few weeks later, the couple received a treasure trove of information on the Bell family.

This gave Jack and Donna a more complete picture.

The seven Bell boys and three girls grew up on a farm in the eastern Ontario region of Lanark County, where James was born in 1852. Both James and John Henry would become McGill-trained physicians, another brother, a veterinarian, and at least two sisters, teachers. The children, Jack points out, appear to have been quite well educated for their time and place.

For James, that education led to a successful career that would be cut short by tragic circumstances.

James Bell graduated at the top of his class at McGill, earning the Holmes Gold Medal.

During the North-West Resistance, in 1885, he served under Assistant Surgeon-General to the militia, Thomas Roddick, for whom McGill’s iconic Roddick Gates are named.

While Bell was in the Territories, his friends launched a successful bid to secure him a Consultant Surgeon position at the MGH, singing Bell’s praises in an ad, which appeared in the Montreal Gazette.

Bell eventually moved to the newly built Royal Victoria Hospital, where he helped Roddick organize the surgery department. When Roddick retired not long after, Bell took over, as Surgeon-in-Chief.

Colleagues from across North America called upon Bell for his expertise on abdominal work, which extended to the treatment of gall stones and kidney diseases. He was also known for his interest in neurological disease.

Bell would eventually rise to professor of surgery and clinical surgery at McGill and Head of the University’s Department of Surgery.

An ironic turn of events

In a tragically ironic turn of events, Bell, a proponent of surgery as the first (and only) line of treatment for appendicitis—with an extensive bibliography that included two papers on the topic—“died of the consequences of unoperated appendicitis,” on April, 11, 1911, at the age of 59.2

One story has it that a young doctor, a trainee of Bell’s, made the right diagnosis but was disregarded, whether because of his junior status or other factors. Another, that the driver who took Bell to the hospital by horse-drawn ambulance had recently had his appendix removed by Bell.2

Bell’s funeral procession counted dozens of medical students and professors walking behind his casket. “The cortège reformed and passed up to and through the grounds of the University for which he had laboured so many years,” records the 1913 edition of the Old McGill yearbook. Roddick called his death “‘a loss to the medical and surgical profession,’” while the Montreal Gazette hailed him as “‘one of the recognized surgical authorities of his time.’”1

A homecoming

One rainy day this July, Jack and Donna McGee met Vanessa Di Francesco, MA, Assistant Curator, Visual Arts Collection, at the Strathcona Anatomy Building. Together, they made their way to the C.P. Leblond Amphitheatre. There, alongside likenesses of such McGill greats as Sir William Osler, MDCM 1872, and Dr. Maude Abbott, was the object of the McGees’ decades-long quest: the bronze bust of Bell.

Di Francesco shared that sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert is known for his monuments to historical figures, including one of Jeanne Mance at Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal.

As Donna reflected on the bust, it was clear she was moved: “I am thrilled, delighted to be here, to see this magnificent sculpture honouring Dr. Bell and his contributions to medicine.”

“I read that the Board of Governors of the University voted to approve the bust,” wrote Jack in an email afterwards. “That alone speaks volumes of how they felt about Dr. Bell. And to have had a person of Louis-Philippe’s stature do the monument takes the tribute to another level.”

In the end, “there is nothing quite like seeing it,” says Jack of the sculpture that is now, along with the University and the Faculty, a part of his and Donna’s family heritage.


2 Murphy, D. Alton . “James Bell’s Appendicitis.” The Canadian Journal of Surgery, vol. 15, Nov. 1972, pp. 335–338.,

3 Hanaway, J., Cruess, R., and J. Darragh. McGill Medicine, v. 2, Montreal , MQUP, 2006. 


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  1. […] Bell or bust: A search for family history leads to McGill by Philip Fine, McGill University Medicine Focus, Montreal. […]