The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described, Plate 18


This image, Plate 18 of Bell's illustrations, depicts the semicircular canals of the ear. Bell further describes the image: "The cochlea is named by its similitude to the shell of a snail. It is the most difficult part of the ear to be described."

Another helpful text, from Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, is given below, demonstrating what was known about the ear at the time:
The oval window was the part mentioned as closing up the cavity of the drum, on the inner side. Beyond it is situated the labyrinth, the deepest seated portion of the organ of hearing. It consists of three portions—the semicircular conals placed superiorly, the vestibule in the middle, and the cohlea undermost. The semicircular canals are three tubes shaped like three loops of a knot, and rise out of the vestibule, a round chamber, from which the cochlea hangs down, resembling, as its name partly implies, the shell of a snail. The canals, vestibule, and cochlea, are all formed of bone, and are called the bony labyrinth . . . though the use of every minute portion of this complicated structure is by no means clear, the impressions of sound, according to our best knowledge of the subject, permeate the ear in the following manner:--the sonorous vibrations of the air, being collected by the external ear, are directed down the auditory passage, and, striking against the membrane of the ear-drum, throw it into vibrations of the same frequency. Corresponding vibrations, again, are excited in the air contained in the cavity of the drum, which communicates with them in its turn to the membrane of the foramen rotundum, or round hold, which, it will be recollected, divides the cavity of the drum from the cochlea. By this means, the fine nervous expansion lining the cochlea, and the fluid in it, are affected by the sonorous vibrations. ("The Ear" 411)

Primary Works: 

The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described

Accession Number: 

RE26 O6 B45 074


Charles Bell’s work, The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described, contains twenty colored plates. In addition, Bell includes eighty-five pages of descriptive text. The text was made available by Harvey and Co., Gracechurch Street, sometime in the 1830s.

Exhibition History: 

No exhibition history identified.

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Parts Description: 

Plate 18 of the original twenty in Bell’s The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described.

Printing Context: 

These plates, each of which depicts a different part of the ear, appear as illustrations in Bell’s text. We can assume the plates are like those encountered by surgical students in Bell's lectures on the structure and function of the ear.

Associated Events: 

In 1828, Bell accepted the Professorship of Physiology and Surgery at the newly opened University of London (Gordon-Taylor). Even after the college incorporated the Middlesex Hospital School and Bell was able to practice surgery there in 1835, his alma mater, Edinburgh, wooed him back to be Chair of Surgery. The estimated publication date of this text makes it likely that the text was written during his time at one of these two schools, which may indicate that the text was either a reference book for beginning medical students in anatomy or an informal way of introducing anatomy to the public. Bell was interested in producing texts that were useful to both scientists and artists. One of his better known texts, Anatomy of Expression, was “justly a favorite of students of anatomy and students of drawing”: in this text, Bell analyzed drawings by Hogarth and others through “the aid of anatomical science, and [demonstrated] how precisely true to nature are the highest delineations of genius” (F. A. 92). It is likely that his own experience and facility with drawing influenced this desire to combine science with art. As an additional influence, however, there was at the time an ongoing discussion concerned with the possible ways in which anatomy influenced human expressions. This conversation, connected to the Romantic fascination with physiognomy, contributed to painters’ and artists’ ability to convey emotion through anatomical verisimillitude and a burgeoning understanding of the function of the muscles and nerves in the face itself (Delaporte).

Associated People: 

Charles Bell (1774-1842)

Charles Bell was a respected medical man whose research on the nervous system transformed scientists’ understanding of the way nerves and the senses function. Earlier understandings of the nervous system did not differentiate the form or function of individual nerves, maintaining that they conducted a nervous fluid in both directions along the nerve in order to control muscle movement. “That he was virtually the one to whom it should first occur that definite nerves have a definite course from some part of the brain to a certain portion of the periphery, and further, that different nerves have quite distinct functions” is the reason Bell is still known today (Gordon-Taylor 104). Even more interesting for the purposes of this gallery, Bell was also a talented artist, having been taught by his mother as a child. The plates for Bell’s written work were also drawn by Bell.

Associated Places: 

University of London. Middlesex Hospital School. Edinburgh.

Associated Texts: 

Charles Bell's The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described


The series of plates given in this gallery depicts the ear and how it works. In this image, the fourth plate of the series, we see the semicircular canals.


The senses. Organs of sense. Processing the world around us. Man and the body.


Bell’s understanding of the ear and the specificity and function of the bundling of different types of nerves (such as auditory nerves) significantly increased scientists’ ability to study acoustics and sound theory in the early nineteenth century. As he noted to his brother, “I consider the organs of the outward senses as forming a distinct class of nerves from the other. I trace them to corresponding parts of the brain totally distinct from the origins of the other” (F. A. 95).

By providing a more explicit account of how nerves connected to the senses—such as the aural—worked, he reduced some of the mystery surrounding the hearing process. Bell’s illustrations dovetail with his text in a way that aligns the visual and the aural: what he describes, we see, even though he is attempting to explain the ineffable process of making sense of sound. Though Romantic culture seemed to give primacy to the sense of sight, this did not necessarily result in the primacy of what was visible; the fascination with the visible carried with it a silent twin, the lure of the invisible. Acts such as looking at ruins or allegorical portraits required moments of memory and reflection—a tracing of what was visible in an invisible realm. Sophie Thomas notes:
. . . an important part of this history . . . is related to how visual and literary culture in the period engages with what is inherently imaginative, and with what borders on the invisible. And more pointedly, with how the epistemology of the invisible functions as a secret counterpart to the visible, structuring it, conditioning it, even doubling it. (7)
Part of the allure of Romantic spectacles such as the phantasmagoria was created by the trappings of illusion and the accompanying uncertainty about what was seen and how it was being seen. Bell participates in this work—which both elevates and unsettles the trustworthiness of the eye—by seeking to lay bare the underlying mechanisms that make hearing possible: to bring the invisible interior to light, and to make it visible, even though sound itself was ephemeral and fleeting. Work like Bell’s strengthened parallels that were frequently drawn between the functions of eye and ear, such as the comparison between spectacles and ear trumpets. In addition, since scientists and philosophers in the Romantic period were just as invested in the way the observer experienced phenomena as they were in the causes and effects of the phenomena themselves, Bell’s text provides an accurate and concise sketch of how the aural senses of the observing body were perceived.




Bell, Charles. The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described. London: Harvey and Co., 1803. Print.

DeLaporte, Francis. Anatomy of the Passions. Stanford UP, 2008. Print.

F. A., "Sir Charles Bell." Fraser's Magazine Jan. 1875: 88-100. Print.

Gordon-Taylor, Gordon. Sir Charles Bell: His Life and Times. Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone Ltd., 1958. Print.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past. Durham: Duke UP. 2003. Print.

"The Ear." Chambers's Edinburgh Journal Jan. 1837: 410-411. Print.

Thomas, Sophie. Romanticism and Visuality. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Long Title: 

Plate 18: Openings into the semicircular canals (labyrinth). A colored plate. Aquatint.



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