- Agrippa Nelson Bell, general practitioner and a pioneer in public health matters, was born in Northampton County, Virginia, August 3, 1820. His father was George Bell and his mother, Elizabeth Scott; he was the youngest of five sons. His ancestors, among the earliest Virginia colonists, were English and Scotch. His early education was in his native state; his father died when he was fourteen and finding work on his mother's farm distasteful, he became a clerk in a country store. Later he went to an academic school in Newtown, Connecticut, but in his second year turned his thoughts to medicine and became the private pupil of George C. Blackman, afterwards professor of surgery in the Medical College of Ohio. He entered the Tremont Street Medical School, Boston, under Jacob Bigelow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edward Reynolds and David Humphreys Storer. He took his first course of medical lectures at Harvard University, a second at Jefferson Medical College, where he graduated in 1842.
He settled to practise at Franktown, Virginia, and in 1844 passed the examination of the naval board in Philadelphia, but did not receive his commission as assistant surgeon until 1847; in the meantime he practised at Waterbury, Connecticut. His first naval service was on the Saratoga, commanded by Farragut, under orders to the Gulf Squadron, in the Mexican War. He was on duty throughout the war, on several vessels and in the yellow-fever hospital on Salmadina Island, near Vera Cruz. He contracted yellow-fever on board the frigate Mississippi, and was ill for six weeks. His last sea-service was on the west coast of Africa, on board the flagship Germantown, beginning December, 1850, lasting two years and four months. He had a brief leave, then served on the receiving ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; in 1854 he was promoted passed assistant surgeon. On October 30, 1855, he resigned from the Navy.
Being already a resident of Brooklyn, he began there the successful practice of medicine. The next year yellow-fever prevailed on Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton; he worked with Elisha Harris, physician-in-chief of the Marine Hospital, Staten Island, to aid the poor who were sick with the disease and to prevent its spread.
Bell was the first to discover the effect of steam as a disinfectant and to use it on the vessels Vixen and Mahones of Tuxpan, Mexico, in 1848.
He was a member of the National Quarantine and Sanitary Conventions, 1857-1860, and chairman of the committee and formulated the report on national and international quarantine regulations, adopted by the convention in Boston, 1860. During the first year of the Civil War he was medical superintendent of the floating hospital for the care of yellow-fever in the lower bay, New York, and he drafted the law for the New York quarantine establishment; he designated the site of the quarantine. In 1870-1873, he was supervising commissioner of quarantine, appointed by Governor Hoffman. In 1879 he was made one of the inspectors of quarantine and was assigned to the Atlantic Coast from Brunswick, Georgia, to Norfolk, Virginia; later to New Orleans and Memphis.
Bell was an active member of the American Public Health Association from its beginning, and was a large contributor to its proceedings; he discussed school hygiene, sanitary inspection, epidemic diseases, disinfection, quarantine, and allied subjects. In 1873 he established The Sanitarian, a journal in the interests of public health.
His writings include two books, "Knowledge of Little Things" (1860) and "Climatology and Mineral Waters of the United States" (1885), as well as many articles, chiefly on sanitary subjects, to periodical literature. In 1864 he won the "Merrit H. Cash prize" of the New York State Medical Society; another prize essay was "The Physiological Conditions and Sanitary Requirements of School-Houses and School Life" (1887).
In 1842 Bell married Julia Ann, daughter of Arcillus and Jerusha Hamlin, of Newtown, Connecticut. They had three daughters and three sons; one son was a physician, Harry Kent Bell, of New York.
Bell died at his home in Brooklyn.