Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 23, 1995

Obit: James Bell, Man of Research Surgery, Music, Dead at 80

By Ken Keatley 

     James F. Bell, who during a 50-year career as a researcher
and professor at Johns Hopkins University earned widespread
acclaim in solid mechanics, cardiac surgery and music, died
Sunday, Jan. 15, of cancer, at his home in Baltimore. He was 80.
     On Jan. 11, in commemoration of his long service and
distinguished contributions to the university and the field of
solid mechanics, Bell was presented with the President's Medal of
The Johns Hopkins University. 
     At the time of his death, five research papers were in press
and scheduled for publication in 1995. Despite his failing
health, Bell managed to complete another paper, on his research
in the physics of crystalline solids, just last Tuesday.
     "He wanted to stay alive until he finished it," said Jane
Kiester, his daughter. "He even said that he was the only
scientist he knew who would kick the bucket with five papers in
     During his years at Hopkins, as professor and since 1979
professor emeritus, Bell worked continuously as an experimentist
in the fields of non-linear mechanics and the dynamic plasticity
in metals.
     He gained renown within the research community for his
invention in the 1950s of a diffraction grating strain gauge,
which he continued to refine over the years to conduct
experiments and develop general theories of dynamic plasticity.
He held patents for both his diffraction grating method for
determining strain and the strain gauge itself, and authored or
co-authored more than 80 papers based on his research.
     During the 1950s and 1960s, Bell simultaneously carried on
an extensive research program with the Johns Hopkins Medical
School in the area of cardiac surgery. He was the first director
of a doctoral program in the department now called Biomedical
Engineering, and worked on the development of a mechanical pump,
for use during cardiac surgery, and a dialysis apparatus. He held
a patent on the latter device.
     "He was well-known and respected for his intense enthusiasm
for his research," said William Sharpe, chairman of the
Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of several students
to earn doctorates under Bell's tutelage.
     That enthusiasm wasn't limited to research, according to
Robert Pond Sr., professor emeritus of materials science and
engineering at Hopkins, an associate and friend of Bell's for
five decades.
     "He was one of the most dynamic lecturers we had," Pond
said. "No one was more demonstrative, or more willing to lace his
lectures with history."
     He recalled one occasion when Bell's spirited lecturing
style got him into trouble. While teaching a course in dynamics,
Bell attempted to demonstrate some properties of momentum by
balancing a six-foot bamboo pointer on his finger while racing
across a Maryland Hall classroom.
     "All the while he kept lecturing, and was looking at his
students," Pond continued. "So he crashed right into the wall."
     "He was unusual in that he was a capable mathematician and
theorist, as well as a capable researcher," said Charles
Westgate, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of
Engineering. "He had a healthy skepticism and sense of humor. He
was always a delightful guy to talk to."
     Bell's avocation was music. During the Depression in 1932,
he began supporting himself by playing the saxophone and clarinet
in dance bands that toured the country.
     During his years in Baltimore, he continued his interest in
music, studying oboe at the Peabody Institute and playing it in
the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years. He was a
member of the governing board of the Chamber Music Society of
Maryland since 1953, and also enjoyed playing the piano and organ
in his home.
     He also conducted research on acoustics, and co-authored
with Clifford Truesdell, professor emeritus of rational mechanics
at Hopkins, a chapter on the history of the physics of music for
The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980).
     Since 1985, he had combined his love of engineering and
music by teaching a course in acoustics at Hopkins' Peabody
     Born in Melrose, Mass., and raised in Bangor, Maine, Bell
attended the University of Colorado before earning an
undergraduate degree in mathematics from New York University in
1940. Until joining the Hopkins faculty in 1945, he worked as a
mathematics consultant in private industry in New York.
     He was a fellow of the American Academy of Mechanics, a
founding member of the Society for Natural Philosophy, a fellow
of the Society for Experimental Stress Analysis (now the Society
for Experimental Mechanics), co-editor of the International
Journal of Plasticity, and a visiting professor or invited
lecturer at over 75 universities in the United States, Europe,
Africa and Asia. 
     In 1974, he received the B.J. Lazan Award for distinguished
contributions to experimental mechanics from the Society of
Experimental Stress Analysis, and was the recipient of its
William M. Murray medal in 1989. The International Symposium on
Plasticity at the University of Oklahoma in 1984 was dedicated in
his honor (commemorating his 70th birthday), as was the meeting
of the Society of Natural Philosophy in Pisa, Italy, in 1978
(commemorating his 65th birthday). 
     He is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Perra
Somers; a daughter; three grandchildren; and a sister.
     A memorial service will be held at Johns Hopkins University
in the spring.
     The family asks that memorial contributions in Bell's honor
be made to the Oncology Department at Union Memorial Hospital in

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage