Astronomers teach us that, when a star implodes in the heavens, the night sky becomes measurably darker. This same principle applies on earth, in the affairs of humans. When a dazzling intellect is lost, the rest of us are left groping in the dark. Such is the case following the death of Dr. William Bell. Bill Bell was a giant beacon in the field of child neurology. His death on June 28, 2023, at the age of 93 years, leaves a dark void, not only for child neurologists, but for the whole world.
Dr. William (“Bill”) Bell was a superb physician, skilled administrator, and erudite scholar. But mostly, he was a consummate thinker and teacher. Twenty-six years ago, I was officially the last of his many trainees in child neurology, and I had a chance to witness, firsthand, the actions that made him legendary.
Bill was born in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1929. He attended the University of West Virginia as an undergraduate and received his MD degree from the Medical College of Virginia in 1955. Bill was Phi Beta Kappa at WVU, so he clearly excelled as a student. But I wonder what it was like to be a teacher of someone like Bill Bell. Did his instructors recognize what an unusual and brilliant mind their student had? It would be fascinating to know.
Following medical school, Dr. Bell completed an internship and residency in neurology at the University of Iowa. He then served for three years as a captain in US Airforce, where he was stationed in Japan and was the only Airforce neurologist in the Pacific. Following his stint in the military, he returned to the University of Iowa, where he received one year of training in pediatrics and joined the faculty as the sole pediatric neurologist. It’s astounding to think that this individual, who had very little official training in pediatrics and none from an actual child neurologist, would become one of the most authoritative figures in child neurology that the world has known. He achieved this by way of his voracious appetite for knowledge, capacity to learn from patients and colleagues, and uniquely capable mind.
Dr. Bell contributed mightily to the field of child neurology. He authored two highly lauded textbooks, including Neurologic Infections in Children, and Increased Intracranial Pressure in Children. Both were the authoritative texts of their time, and, outside of the new information that has been discovered since their publication, one would be hard-pressed to find better sources today.
Dr. Bell was a towering figure in the “institutions” of child neurology. He was one of the eight founding members of the Child Neurology Society. He served as an oral examiner and Director of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and was elected President of the board in 1992. He contributed to several committees within the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and served as Chair of the Review Committee for Neurology, as well as a member of the Appeals Committee for Child Neurology Training Programs. He authored numerous articles in the fields of pediatrics and neurology and was a member of the Editorial Board for the Annals of Neurology and Pediatric Neurology.
All of these achievements reflect his success and skill as a physician and leader. But none of these feats capture the real reason why people were so fascinated and inspired by Dr. Bell. People were drawn to him because of his mind. He was, simply, the smartest person that anyone had ever met. He absorbed information instantly and voluminously and never forgot it. He was, literally, a walking encyclopedia. With a voracious appetite for knowledge, he read widely and deeply, and he could converse with awareness and humor about any subject. This was especially true regarding the subject of medicine. He could tell you, off the top of his head, why a child did or did not likely have Rubenstein-Taybi syndrome, or how a newborn with isovaleric acidemia differs from one with glutaric aciduria.
He seemed to have a specialist’s grasp of knowledge for virtually every branch of medicine – not just pediatrics and neurology. At the University of Iowa Hospital, when physicians in any department were confronted with a diagnostic dilemma and had run out of ideas, they would get a “Bill Bell Consult.” As a fledgling resident who accompanied him to some of these consults, I saw him accurately diagnose schistosomiasis in an adult gynecology patient and Budd Chiari syndrome in a jaundiced man.
When I was a medical student at the University of Iowa, I was told that there was this legendary guy on the pediatrics faculty, named Dr. Bell, who had a photographic memory and could quote to you the content, article title, journal, and year of publication of almost any subject in pediatrics or neurology in which you might be interested. I greeted this rumor with skepticism that bordered on disbelief. Several years later, I was tasked with writing a review article on Sydenham’s Chorea. I asked Dr. Bell for advice, and he promptly provided, from memory, a list of three articles with their content, article title, journal, and year of publication. Everything was correct. A skeptic I was no more.
While his knowledge of medicine was seemingly endless, he had wide-ranging interests outside of medicine. He was an avid book collector and reader. He enjoyed travel, good food, and wine, and he was a skilled amateur photographer. He loved the outdoors, especially Nantucket Island, which he visited with his wife, Dr. Gail McGuinness, annually for over 40 years. He could converse about anything and always did so with respect and humor.
Because of his mastery of medicine and ability to teach it, he received numerous important honors and awards. One was the Ernest Theilan Faculty Award at the University of Iowa for excellence in clinical care and teaching. At the University of Iowa, there is an endowed chair in his name, the William E. Bell and Gail A. McGuinness Chair in Neurodevelopment. And, of course, he received the 1996 Hower Award from the Child Neurology Society for outstanding teaching, scholarship, and contributions to the Child Neurology Society.
Dr. Bell was a truly unique individual, and it was an experience just to know him. The field of child neurology is lucky and enriched by the fact that he landed among us. Although we have lost the light of his brilliant mind, he inspired all who met him to illuminate their own paths forward.