Bell, Robert

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Bell, Robert

(b. Toronto, Ontario, 3 June 1841: d. Rathwell, Manitoba, 19 June 1917)


The son of Rev. Andrew Bell, at fifteen Robert was appointed junior assistant on a Canadian Geological Survey party on the Gaspé Peninsula and continued to work for the Survey during the summers of his high school and college years, When he received a civil engineering degree from McGill University in 1861, he also won the Governor General’s Gold Medal. Following a year at Edinburgh, Bell was appointed professor of chemistry and natural history at Queen’s University in 1863, He resigned four years later, in order to devote full time to the Survey, and served as its chief geologist and acting director from 1901 until his retirement in 1906, By adroit use of his spare time he gained the M. D., C. M. degree in 1878. His knowledge of medicine and surgery proved useful in his travels and resulted in his being appointed medical officer on government ships visiting Hudson Bay.

Among Bell’s honors were honorary D. Sc. degrees from Queen’s and Cambridge universities; fellowship of the Geological Society of London (1862), the Royal Society of Canada (1882), the Geological Society of America (1889), the Royal Society of London (1897) and the Royal Astronomical Society (Canada); the Imperial Science Order (1903); the King’s Gold Medal, from the Royal Geographic Society (1906); and the Cullum Gold Medal, from the American Geographic Society (1906).

After preliminary surveying projects on the Gaspé Peninsula and the north shores of the Great Lakes, in 1870 Bell commenced the work for which he is justly famous—thirty continuous years of exploration of the territory from Lake Superior northward to the Arctic and from Saskatchewan to the east shore of Hudson Bay—work that today would be classified as reconnaissance mapping, He traveled mainly by canoe, and his only instruments were the compass, sextant, boat log, and Rochon micrometer, His most important contribution was the mapping of both shores of Hudson Bay and parts of the Nottaway, Churchill, and Nelson rivers, which flow into it, as a result of which he became a strong advocate of the Hudson Bay route to the Atlantic. Bell also explored other parts of Canada; he was the frist to survey Great Slave, Nipigon, and Amadjuak lakes, the latter in the interior of Baffin Island,. He produced more than thrity reports on the geology of the areas he surveyed the balance of his more than 200 titles dealig with the geography, zoology and botany, resources, and Indian lore along his routes.

No man has accomplished so much pioneer exploration in territory where previously only Indians had been, He used indian names to a very great extent, and he has been called the “place-name father of Canada.”


A complete list of Bell’s writings on North American geolgoy is in Bulletin of the united States Geological Survey. no. 746 (1923), 89–91.

Articles on Bell are F. J. Alcock, “Bell and Exploration,” in A Century in the History of the Geological Survey of Canada, National Museum of Canada, Special Contribution no, 47.1 (Ottawa, 1947), 48–54; H. M. Ami, “Memorial of Robert Bell,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 38 (1927), 18–34; Charles Hallock, “One of Canada’s Explorers,” in Forest and Stream, 53, no, 41 (1901), 9–15; and “Robert Bell,” in Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada (1918), x–xiv.

T. H. Clark