Robert Bell (geologist)

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Robert Bell
File:Portrait of Robert Bell.jpg
Born (1841-06-03)June 3, 1841
Toronto, Upper Canada
Died June 17, 1917(1917-06-17) (aged 76)
Rathwell, Manitoba, Canada
Residence Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Citizenship Canadian
Nationality Canadian
Fields Geology
Institutions Geological Survey of Canada
Alma mater McGill University
University of Edinburgh
Notable awards King's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London
Cullum Geographical Medal of the American Geographical Society of New York

Robert Bell ISO FRSC (June 3, 1841 – June 17, 1917) was a Canadian geologist, professor and civil servant. He is considered Canada’s greatest exploring scientist, having named over 3,000 geographical features.

Personal life

Robert Bell was born in Toronto, Upper Canada to Presbyterian clergy and amateur geologist, Reverend Andrew Bell and Elizabeth Notman. In 1873, Bell married Agnes Smith. They had a son and three daughters. He spent his retirement at his home in Ottawa and his farm in Rathwell, Manitoba. Bell died at the age of 76 at his farm after a brief illness.

Early beginnings

As a 15-year-old he worked as a summer assistant to Sir William Edmond Logan with the Geological Survey of Canada. Even as he started postsecondary education he continued to work summers with the Geographical Survey, heading his own survey party in 1859.

Bell attended McGill University, Montreal, and studied under John William Dawson. In 1861, Bell earned a civil engineering degree with the Governor General’s Medal. He went on the study for two years at the University of Edinburgh.


In 1863, Bell became a chemistry and natural sciences professor at Queen’s College, Kingston, Ontario. He continued to do fieldwork for the Geographical Survey over the summers. In 1867, he left Queen’s to join the Geographical Survey full-time.

In 1869, the Geographical Survey made Bell a permanent officer. He spent the rest of his career with the Geographical Survey. He has promoted to Assistant Director (1877), Chief Geologist (1890), then Acting Director (1901-1906). He was disappointed in never having been appointed Director of the Survey.

Bell led many extensive explorations in northern Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, the eastern Arctic, Saskatchewan prairies, and Athabasca oil sands. He is credited with mapping the rivers between Hudson Bay and Lake Superior. Bell’s work was appreciated because he collected specimens and made notes on geology, flora and fauna, climate and soil, indigenous populations, and exploitable resources. Survey colleagues dubbed him the father of Canadian place-names because estimates credit him with naming over 3,000 geographical features in Canada. Bell wrote over 200 reports and papers, mostly on geology, biology, geography and ethnology.[1]

In 1878, he earned a medical degree from McGill University.

In November 1908, Bell officially retired.

Private library

Bell assembled a private library estimated to contain 26 tons of books and artifacts to support his work over his life. The collection contained rock specimens and hundreds of books on various subjects ranging from natural history texts, medical texts, geological reports, native language and culture texts, and books on the exploration of North America. It also contained research and professional periodicals, several Canadian newspapers and several hundred reprints of scientific and professional reports from other researchers.

On October 28, 1962, some of this collection was damaged or destroyed in a fire in Ottawa. Subsequently the surviving collection was dispersed to family, private collectors, and institutions. The majority went to the National Archives of Canada.



  1. "BELL, Robert". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. p. 130.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "University intelligence" The Times (London). Wednesday, 28 May 1902. (36779), p. 12.

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