Fonds MG2042 - Robert Bell Fonds

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Robert Bell Fonds

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  • 1858-1907 (Creation)
    Bell, Robert, 1841-1917

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20 cm of textual records

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Biographical history

Robert Bell was born in Toronto. He was the son of Rev. Andrew Bell (an early pioneer in Canadian geology), and the older brother of John Bell 1845-1878 (fellow McGill graduate and friend/colleague of William Osler). In 1861, at the age of 19, Robert Bell graduated from McGill with a Bachelor of Science. From 1863 to 1867 he taught chemistry and natural science at Queen's University, but it was his connection with the Geological Survey of Canada, one which went back as far as 1857, which dominated his professional life. Bell was responsible for surveys covering northern Québec and Ontario, northern Manitoba, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories. He also took part in expeditions to Hudson's Bay (1884, 1885 and 1897) and Baffinland (1897). He served as director of the Survey from 1901 to 1906. See also Section II. McGill Students; Special Collection: Medical Students' Notes
It was Bell’s connection with the Geological Survey of Canada, which he began in 1857, that dominated much of his professional life. Over the years, he was responsible for Canadian surveys covering northern Quebec and Ontario, northern Manitoba, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories. He also took part in early expeditions to Hudson’s Bay (1884, 1885 and 1897) and Baffinland (1897). Bell would go on to serve as Director of Survey from 1901 to 1906. Throughout his career, Bell was instrumental in naming more than 3000 geographical features such as hills, promontories, rivers, and places for possible habitation. The Geological Survey Board acknowledged his legacy by naming the Bell River in western Quebec after him, as well as naming Bell Island in Hudson Bay in his honour.

Bell was impressively known as a ‘doctor-explorer’, as he had returned to McGill and earned an MD in 1878 at the age of 37. Fifteen years later, he was given an LLD by Queen’s in 1893 and was made a DSc at McGill in 1901. His services to science were also recognized by Cambridge University in another doctorate of science (ScD) in 1903. In that same year, he was awarded the Companionship of the Imperial Service Order (ISO) from the British government. Robert Bell’s professional honours included the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the Cullum Gold Medal from the American Geographical Society.

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Bell's papers are evenly divided between student notebooks and professional correspondence. The notebooks for his undergraduate courses in mathematics, physical and biological sciences, and engineering cover the period 1858-1861. His correspondence includes letters from John William Dawson, George Mercer Dawson, Archibald Byron Macallum, Henry Taylor Bovey, C.H. McLeod, B.J. Harrington, David Ross McCord, and Major H.H. Lyman, largely on Bell's expeditions and publications, and on the affairs of the Geological Survey and the McGill Graduates' Society, 1898-1907.

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