Dr. John Bell

Personal Details
Main nationality
Physician to the Russian Embassage
Year of visit
Reason for travel

Left Moscow where he was Physician at the Court of Tsar Peter 1, in 1719 to accompany Ambassador Ismailov and Lorenz Lange ((possibly a Swede who entered Russian service in 1712 as an engineer Lieutenant) on a Russian Embassage to Peking to the Emperor K'ang His. This visit followed one made by Lorenz Lange in 1716  when he was accompanied by another Scottish doctor, Dr. T Garvin. Lange was sent to Peking on this first trip on the orders of Peter the Great to promote Russian commercial interests although  C W Campbell claims 'The primary objects of this mission were to learn something of Chinese architecture and art for use in the construction of the Peterhof Palace, and to make special observations on the trade and conditions of the Siberian frontier.'


The Embassage entered Mongolia via Selingkinsky and Strealkha at Saratzyn then down across the Iro, Shara and Kara rivers to the Tola river - from there they entered the Hungry Desert - the Gobi - passing Guchon, Korpartu, Khododu  and onwards south east marching from one spring to another crossing through the Great Wall six weeks later. This route, described in Lorenz Lange's Journal (Journal of Laurence Lange's Travels to China), is similar to that made by Lange in 1716 - they too arrived in Mongolia from Seleginsk and took one month to reach Peking. Route. 

Published by

BELL, JOHN. 1764. Travels from St Petersburg in Russia, to diverse parts of Asia. Dublin: Robert Bell Two volumes pp.ix, [3], large folding map.                                 

STEVENSON Mr. I. Ed. Reprinted 1966. A Journey from St Petersburg to Pekin 1719 -22. Introduced and edited by Mr. I Stevenson and includes some unpublished paper's of Bell's. Edinburgh: University Press 

Published about

MORGAN, GERALD. Ney Elias Explorer and envoy in High Asia. London George Allen & Unwin 1971 pp54                                                                     

CHISHOLM, HUGH, ed. (1911).  "Bell, John". Encyclopædia Britannica 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.  

British Museum, Sloane MS 4019 records items given by Bell to Sir Hans Sloane in 1922
Location of references
British Museum



As a surgeon Bell also showed interest in medical plants, especially in rhubarb, which still at that time 
kept an important place in the medical practice. Bell came to speak of the rhubarb (p.107) when describing the 
marmot, since in Mongolia, where one sees some rhubarb plants growing, he can also suspect a colony of 
marmots. Bell then states that he will describe the plant more in detail, since he had “never met with an 
author, or person who could give a satisfactory account where, or how it grows”.
17) Bell's description of the 
collecting and treatment of the plant seems to have been well noted, since it is still quoted in the 
Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 ed. 1911, Vol. 23 p.273.


Sue Byrne:

Bell describes a Dr. Thomas Garvin as a friend in his book.. Vol 1. Pp12. Bell's journey linked to the one Garwin was on in 1716 led by Lorenz Lange (Described as Secretary of the Embassy by Bell) who went on both. Bell and, no doubt, Garwin, had an introduction to Dr. Robert Erskine when he arrived in Russia. Erskine  "arrived in Russia in 1704, having undertaken medical studies in Edinburgh, Paris and Utrecht and after being made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1703. By the time of his death, in 1718, the Scot had arguably become one of the most powerful of Peter the Great’s trusted advisors: he was the tsar’s chief physician, was head of the entire medical chancellery, had been appointed the first director of the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera and library and in 1716 had been made a privy councilor. In short, he held enormous sway over the Russian monarch; a fact not overlooked by his Jacobite kinsmen." Robert Collis Freemasonry and Fraternalism in Eighteenth-Century Russia, with Andreas Önnerfors (Sheffield: Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, 2009).            In the 1966 re-print of Bell's book Stevenson gives a short biography of Bell who made four major journeys in Russia over a time period of 20 years. Stevenson also offers an explanation of why Bell entered Russian service in 1914: Russia's urgent need of experts of many kinds as Peter the Great attempted to modernize the country. Russian service appealed particularly to the Scots. One in particular played a part in Bell's going to Russia - Dr. Areskine (Dr. Robert Erskine), personal physician to the Czar to whom John Bell had a letter of introduction. 'Bell was remembered as a warm-hearted, benevolent sociable man and that he is known locally as 'Honest John' . . . .John Bell is described as having been remarkable for an amiable simplicity of manners, in private life, and the most sacred regard for the truth in all he said and did.' STEVENSON Mr. I. Ed. Reprinted 1966. A Journey from St Petersburg to Pekin 1719 -22.p6.