Volume LVIOctober 2009Number 3

Brother Dr. Whitfield Jenks Bell, Jr. • 1914-2009
Memorial Minute by Dr. Glenys A. Waldman, Librarian



Photograph courtesy of The American Philosophical Society.

The fraternity knew Dr. and Bro. "Whit" Bell (without the "h," an apt nickname!) best as an enthusiastic brother and member of the Committee on Library and Museum from 1990 until 2003. The rest of the world respected and loved him as the foremost authority on Bro. Benjamin Franklin and as "Executive Officer and Librarian, Emeritus/APS Biographical Dictionary Project," as he is still listed on the Web site of the American Philosophical Society. The society was founded by Bro. Franklin in 1743 - the year Bro. George Washington was 11 and Thomas Jefferson was born - for "the promoting of Useful Knowledge, especially as it respects the Agriculture, Manufacturies, and Natural History of North America."

According to Bro. Bell's niece, Susan Bell Smith, this gentle man - who volunteered for the Army during World War II even though his eyesight kept him out of the military - drove an ambulance for the British troops who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and was deeply affected by what he saw.

Bro. Bell graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1931, earned his bachelor's degree from Dickinson College in 1935 and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1947. Ms. Smith quoted Bro. Bell, who said that while in graduate school, he "discovered the 18th century and never left." Bro. Bell taught history at Dickinson from 1945 to 1954.

In 1955, the American Philosophical Society purchased the letters of Bro. Franklin - a major addition to its holdings - and Bro. Bell embarked on his work there as associate editor in cooperation with scholars at Yale University in a huge project to organize and publish Bro. Franklin's writings. Volume 39 of the "Papers of Benjamin Franklin" was just published in 2008. Bro. Bell became associate librarian at the American Philosophical Society in 1960, a member of the society in 1964, librarian in 1966 and executive officer in 1977. Dr. Bell held both positions until 1980, when he withdrew from the librarianship. He retired in 1983.

At various times, he was editor of a quarterly journal of William and Mary College, and visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote many books, among them one on John Morgan, a colonial physician, and the history of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Bro. Bell was initiated into Cumberland Star Lodge No. 197, Carlisle, on Oct. 15, 1937, crafted Nov. 12 and raised a Master Mason Dec. 17. He died on Jan. 2, 2009, at age 94.


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