La Bell Époque: A Century of Julia Bell (part 1)
Black and white studio portrait of Julia Bell.
Julia Bell

Searching through files upon files of deceased doctors in the archives, I stumbled across a slim folder comprising a black and white photograph and a single letter addressed to the Harveian Librarian, Gordon Wolstenholme. The first line of the letter piqued my interest:


‘Everyone knew Julia Bell, but when it comes to writing about her no one knew her!’


In the photograph a young woman stared off into the distance, inviting my gaze as I mulled over the words of EB Robson, the Galton Professor at University College London, that, ‘everyone knew her, and no one knew her’. The mystery seemed too enthralling to pass up.

Curious, I did some initial digging. Dr Bell worked for the Galton Laboratory of Eugenics – which would become the Department of Human Genetics and Biometry after World War two – she never married and, apparently, she lived alone to the ripe old age of one hundred. This information merely sparked further questions: what stories did this woman have to tell? What did Bell do for the Eugenics laboratory? Since she had lived through the two world wars, the invention of computers and the first gene splicing, surely there was more to Bell’s story than this thin little folder?

The Royal College of Physicians Archives, Heritage Library and Museum Service are currently undertaking an investigation to expose the colonial heritage of the RCP and also to bring to the fore fellows who have been traditionally underrepresented. As part of this wider project, I have been looking through the obituaries of former fellows which drew me to Dr Bell, the fourth woman to become a fellow at the RCP. [1]

During the first few days of research, I came upon some of the letters from Bell to Professor JBS Haldane – a figure who became a staunch opposer of the eugenics movement with his book, Heredity and politics (1938) – and an unexpected piece of her life that is absent from her obituaries revealed itself. On 14 November 1939 Bell was in mourning. She wrote to Professor Haldane explaining why she had not written to him recently: ‘[my] very dear friend with whom I have lived for twenty four wonderful years suddenly died last week and left me feeling – the very abomination of desolation is the phrase which trips to my pen’.[2] Contrary to the extensive article on Bell by Sarah Bundy, this letter reveals that Bell did not, in fact, live alone, at least for some of her life. Additionally, the choice of wording Bell used in her letter, ‘very dear friend’, reminded me of some work I had done with Professor Sharon Marcus on the international theatre star Sarah Bernhardt: since this was the early 20th century, ‘dear friend’ could mean something other than platonic friendship. Perhaps people did not know much of Bell’s life because her personal life was considered illicit.[3]

Bell originally came from a large family in Nottingham where she was the tenth of fourteen children. Bell’s parents Katherine Heap and James Bell eloped, as Heap’s upper-class family disapproved of her relationship with James who was of lower position, a friend of the family’s steward.[4]  

Fortunately for Bell, both her parents were in support of her education, and she was encouraged to read and learn from a young age. After a sickness which lasted for two years, a time that she spent deep in books on literature and poetry, Bell passed the entrance exam to Girton College, at Cambridge University in 1898. At this time women could study at Cambridge, but they were still prevented from graduating and obtaining their degree, despite taking the same exams as the men. It was only a year before Bell attended the college that the male students had voted against women students being granted a degree. After the vote, effigies of women students riding bicycles were even burnt in the streets![5]

Despite the atmosphere at Cambridge University during this time, Bell fostered her love of mathematics and statistics, she studied in depth astronomy and the earth’s crust as an undergraduate and then a postgraduate. What’s more Bell did eventually obtain her degree, but from overseas. More specifically, over the Irish sea on a steamboat! Monopolising on the rules against women’s degrees, Trinity College Dublin offered women from Oxford and Cambridge a chance to officially gain their degrees and undertake their degree ceremony. In 1907 Bell crossed the Irish Sea on steamboat and paid a fee of 10 pounds 3 shillings 0 pennies for her BA and 9 pound 16 shillings 0 pennies for her MA.[6]

In 1908, a year after Bell visited Dublin for both of her degrees, she was employed by Karl Pearson, the first Galton Professor of Eugenics. Pearson and his family would become close friends with Bell. Pearson was pioneering in his field and one of the first to formalise the study of statistics. His mathematics is still used regularly today, and he was even something of an advocate for women’s rights, but it is important to stress, too, that Pearson, like his mentor Francis Galton, was also very much a eugenicist and a racist.

Francis Galton was Charles Darwin’s cousin, a rich gentleman, explorer, and prominent white supremacist, who was responsible for establishing the Eugenics Record Office at University College London in 1904. Perhaps unlike the scientists of today, Galton’s interests were varied, he was also known for his work on forensic fingerprinting, the invention of the weather map and the invention of the dog whistle.[7] Galton’s estate funded Julia Bell’s income at the time and in fact still funds the Galton Professorship, that still pays professors today.[8] Since Bell was a woman, she was paid much less than the £250 per annum reserved for the male research fellows, instead Bell was offered £100 per annum for the title of assistant to the Research Fellow, a sum of which Karl Pearson himself questioned the sufficiency.[9]

It was Galton who coined the phrase ‘eugenics’ from the combination of the Greek prefix eu- meaning ‘good’ and genos meaning 'offspring', together translating as something along the lines of good breeding, or well born. After his death in 1911, the Eugenics Record Office continued to pursue Galton’s interests in eugenics, a defining idea of the twentieth century. Perhaps an indication of the popularity of this theory is that the word Eugenics was the inspiration for the stage name of the famous Victorian body builder of the time, Eugene Sandow, formerly Friedrich Wilhelm Müller. Eugene Sandow is a name still revered today in the world of competitive body building for his ‘perfect form’ which can be seen a-top the Mr. Olympia competition trophy named ‘The Sandow’.


Eugene Sandow, Body-building, or, Man in the making. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection.
Body-building, or, Man in the making by Eugene Sandow. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection. 


Through voluntary or forced sterilisation and ‘education’, eugenics sought to deliberately prevent people from having children if they were deemed unworthy to reproduce due to skin colour, illness, deformities, ethnicity, diseases, or poor mental health.[10] Although eugenicist beliefs were ubiquitous, the most infamous of instances was Nazi Germany’s response to eugenics. The horrific treatment and murder that people dubbed lebensunwertes Leben, meaning ‘lives unworthy of life’, during the Holocaust came about using the pseudo-science of eugenics.

It is not clear how much Bell believed in eugenics, but she worked for the Galton Laboratory for 57 years, a pre-Second World War eugenicist and post-war genetics research institute, so she was committed to a good deal of the studies conducted there. Her views on forced or voluntary population control are unknown too, but as someone who worked at the laboratory from its early beginnings and had professional and personal relationships with individuals at the heart of the eugenic movement, she certainly chose to brush shoulders with some extreme and troubling ideas. From the evidence available it seems Bell was not involved in the Eugenics Education Society, the public facing branch of the Galton Laboratory which sought to promote and disseminate the message of the Eugenics movement. Instead, her efforts and publications focused on the subject’s statistics, genetics, and inheritance applied to the theory.[11] Also, whilst the initial meetings of the Eugenics Education Society were taking place, Bell was still living in Nottingham in 1911 which is evidenced by her characteristic and barely legible penmanship on the census forms, a physician tradition that endures to this day.

Statistics and data collection were Bell’s passion. In 1908, she even wrote a ‘love letter’ to Karl Pearson about his work: ‘I am astonished at the beauty and interest of statistics when approached by your methods – of course I am well aware that I have only touched the fringe of things yet, but I feel full of enthusiasm and hopes for the future’.[12] When Pearson and his family first met Bell, they enjoyed her company greatly. Marina Sharpe Pearson wrote that ‘besides always being ready for interesting chats’ Bell ‘expressed [her] pleasure so kindly’ and ‘put up so cheerfully with all discomforts’.[13]

When Bell did move to London, she continued to work for Karl Pearson at the Galton Laboratory, taking over from Alice Lee, where she became increasingly interested in the observational side of the study of hereditary. In around 1913, Karl Pearson encouraged Bell to undertake a medical degree at London’s Royal Free (the only hospital in London that taught medicine to woman). Pearson’s wife however, the feminist, Marina Sharpe Pearson tried to dissuade Bell from this path on account of the small number of women mathematicians:

The Professor told me last night, namely that you have made up your mind to desert mathematics for medicine. Perhaps if it not kind to use the word desert, too, for you may feel by going into the observational field of medicine, after your biometric experiences, you are not giving yourself the chance of doing independent work of a biometric eugenic character – still there is regret when a woman mathematician leaves mathematics where there are 20 few good women workers; and I suppose it is the fault of eugenics that it has led you into medicine. Anyway I am not going to be discouraging for I am aware you have made up your mind after thorough consideration![14]


In 1914, Bell attended medical school at the age of 35 and was affectionately called ‘Aunty Ju’ by the other medical students.[15] Perhaps Bell should have heeded Mrs Pearson's advice when she discouraged her desertion of mathematics, because in 1916 the additional stresses of her medical training contributed to a breakdown. Her doctor even wrote to Pearson asking him not to demand so much of his researcher who was stretching herself too thinly by working for him whilst also working as a doctor: ‘I don’t like troubling you, being a perfect stranger to you’ writes Bell’s doctor, ‘but I have told her that she really must really try not to do both her medical work and her scientific research at the same time, or she will break down again’.[16] There is no doubt Bell was a perfectionist and meticulous in everything she did, but perhaps, as this letter implies, too much was asked of her.

Part 2 of La Bell Époque: A Century of Julia Bell continues next week.


Caitlín Rankin-McCabe PhD candidate working in the Department of English Studies, Durham University



[1] Helen Marion Macpherson Mackay was the first woman to become a fellow, followed by Hazel Haward Chodak-Gregory and Anne Louise McIlroy.

[2] Letter from Julia Bell to JBS Haldane (14th November 1939), HALDANE/5/1/2/1/2, Wellcome Collection.

[3] See Marcus S. Between women: friendship, desire, and marriage in Victorian England. Princeton University Press, 2007; Marcus S. Sarah Bernhardt’s 'Friend'. Romanic Review 2019;110:223–246.

[4] Bundey S. Julia Bell MRCS LRCP FRCP (1879–1979): ‘Steamboat Lady, Statistician and Geneticist’. J Med Biogr 1996;4:8-13.

[5] Ibid. pp. 8-9. Also, Bundy notes that Cambridge University was the last university in the UK to admit women (1948).

[6] Ibid. 9. Trinity College Dublin earnt £10,000 offering degrees like this, money which they spent on building a women’s student residence.

[7] Rutherford A. Control: The dark history and troubling present of eugenics. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022, pp. 40-1.

[8] Ibid, pp. 140-1.

[9] Love R. Alice in eugenics land. Ann Sci 1979;36:145–58, p. 157.

[10] For more on sterilisation and eugenics please take a look at our blog post: ‘Evil consequences may well follow’: eugenics and the British medical establishment’.

[11] Bell’s absence from the early meetings members and associates list of the Eugenics Society does point to her lack of involvement with the early meetings, yet this may have simply been because she was still living in Nottingham at the time.

[12] Letter to Karl Pearson from Julia Bell (April 6th, 1908), PEARSON/11/1/2/37, Wellcome Collection.

[13] Letter from Marina Sharpe Pearson to Julia Bell (Friday, July 25th, 1911), PEARSON/11/1/16/36, Wellcome Collection.

[14] Letter from Marina Sharpe Pearson to Julia Bell (October 7th, 1913), PEARSON/11/1/16/36, Wellcome Collection.

[15] Bundey S. Julia Bell MRCS LRCP FRCP (1879–1979): ‘Steamboat Lady, Statistician and Geneticist’. J Med Biogr 1996;4:8-13, p. 10.

[16] Letter to Karl Pearson: University College London Collections: PEARSON/11/1/22/108-114, Wellcome Collection.


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