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Winthrop Pickard Bell: Biography

A virtual exhibition that pays tribute to an illustrious alumnus of Mount Allison University.


Winthrop Pickard Bell was born May 12, 1884, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the son of Andrew Mackinlay Bell (1847-1918) and Mary Emerancy Pickard (1847-1918). His early education began at the Old Albro Street School in 1889 and continued at the Halifax County Academy.

Winthrop Pickard Bell as a child sitting on the ground of a photographer's studio in a white dress. In front of him are wooden playing blocks.

Winthrop Pickard Bell at age four, September 1889

May only be reproduced with the permission of the Mount Allison University Archives.

He began his study towards a Bachelor of Arts Degree with Honours in Mathematics at the University of Mount Allison College in Sackville, New Brunswick, during 1900 and graduated May 31, 1904. In the fall of 1904 he attended McGill University as a student with second year standing in the engineering program. In the summer of 1905 Bell began work for the Halifax and South Western Railway Company Ltd. as a surveyor in Sable River, Nova Scotia, which he continued until the fall of 1906 when he returned to Mount Allison to complete his Master of Arts degree. Upon completion of his thesis entitled "The Defence of Europe" he graduated in the spring of 1907. In the fall of that same year he resumed working as a surveyor in northern Ontario for the National Transcontinental Railway.

In 1908 he commenced further studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, towards the degree of Masters of Philosophy which he completed in 1909. In September of that year he sailed for England where he sought to further his education at Emmanuel College at Cambridge University. He contracted pleurisy that fall and finally left England for a preferable climate in Germany in April of 1910.

In the fall of 1910 Bell began studying at the University of Leipzig and stayed there until March of the following year. While in Leipzig he was influenced by the philosophical teachings of Prof. Edmund Husserl and decided to relocate in April of 1911 to Göttingen University to continue his studies and ultimately his doctoral work with this leader of the German phenomenological movement.

Winthrop Pickard Bell leaning against a railing with what looks like a map in his hands.

Winthrop Pickard Bell during a hike in Germany, [between 1910 and 1914]

May only be reproduced with the permission of the Mount Allison University Archives.

In the summer of 1912 he travelled to Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland, to stay with relatives. While there he visited the Bell ancestral home 'Drumnaha' at Magilligan and met with other members of the family, an experience which sparked his life-long interest in genealogy.

Between semesters in 1913 he travelled extensively in Germany.  In September of that year was offered a position as the chair of psychology and logic at Mount Allison University. He ultimately turned down this offer, citing his opinion that the denominational nature of the institution would not allow him the freedom to fully express his personal views.

On August 7, 1914, Bell wrote his doctoral exams at Göttingen University and was awarded his doctorate magna cum laude. However, his life quickly changed with the outbreak of the First World War and an accusation from a fellow student that Dr. Bell had criticized the Kaiser. He was placed under house arrest at Göttingen University and the faculty later decided to annul his doctorate. Dr. Bell was subsequently transferred to the Ruhleben Prison Camp for enemies of the state near Berlin, Germany. He spent the balance of the war interned there with men from other parts of the British Commonwealth, many of whom became life-long friends and correspondents.

On August 7, 1918, shortly before the end of the war, his father Andrew Mackinlay Bell died. A scant three months later on October 22 his mother Mary Emerancy Bell also died. The news was devastating for Dr. Bell and likely ensured his decision to extend his stay in Europe.

After his release from the Ruhleben Prison Camp Bell traveled to London, England, where he met with Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden who introduced him to Col. Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence. It was suggested that Bell be employed to gather information in Germany because of his knowledge of the country and language. He returned to Germany and remained there until November of 1919, filing regular reports as a correspondent for Reuters through the Danish Press Agency, Ritzau.

Handwritten card in German.

Business card of Albert Einstein with note of introduction for Winthrop Bell, 1919

May only be reproduced with the permission of the Mount Allison University Archives.

Bell returned to Canada in early 1920 and worked with his brother Ralph Bell to expand his interests in the lumber industry in southwestern Nova Scotia. During the fall of 1921 he returned to academia and taught philosophy at the University of Toronto.  Within the same time frame he made an application to have his doctorate from Göttingen University re-instated. The formal doctorate was finally issued to Dr. Bell in May of 1922. His tenure in Toronto was to be short-lived and he resigned after the spring semester. In the fall of 1922 he began teaching in the philosophy department at Harvard University.

On October 7, 1925, he married Hazel Lawrence Deinstadt at a private family ceremony at the Bell home 'Boulderwood' in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was the daughter of the Rev. Thomas J. and the late Rebecca McCallum (Beer) Deinstadt of Saint John, New Brunswick. Her sister Marguerite was married to Dr. Bell's brother Ralph Bell. He took the remainder of the year off from teaching and spent much of his time with his wife in Chester, Nova Scotia.

Dr. Bell took further time off from Harvard in September of 1926 to move his lodgings in Boston and care for his wife Hazel who had fallen ill and was rendered barren. He returned to teaching at Harvard University in October and continued until the spring semester of 1927 when he advised the university that he would not be returning in the fall. Thereafter, he and his wife moved back to Nova Scotia and took up residence in Lockeport, Nova Scotia, where Dr. Bell acted as his brother's overseer in the fishing business in which he had purchased a stake. The Bells took a Caribbean and Latin American cruise during the winter of 1929. Dr. Bell remained involved in the Lockeport business until 1930 when he largely bowed out of his direct responsibilities to focus once again on private scholarship.

The Bell family home 'Boulderwood’ burned to the ground in a fire on February 24, 1933. The following month Dr. Bell received a retirement allowance from the Lockeport Company. On July 5th he sold his house in Lockeport to his niece Mrs. Dorothy Maclaren and began to look for a new home. The Bells ultimately settled in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia, where he was able to begin plans to construct his own home. He called it ‘Drumnaha' after the Bell ancestral home he had visited in Northern Ireland in 1912. The construction began in 1935 and the Bells moved into their new home in April of 1936.

Dr. and Mrs. Bell made their first trip to Europe together in 1934, visiting many old friends and contemporaries from his university days and his internment at the Ruhleben prison camp. Dr. Bell remained very interested in corresponding with his friends as well as writing and sending letters to the editors of various newspapers and periodicals. He was also called upon to write a two-part article in 1939 for Saturday Night Magazine about Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

With the outbreak of the Second World War he once again sought to put his knowledge and expertise at the disposal of the British and Canadian governments. Ultimately, he became involved in the war-time aircraft industry which his brother spearheaded for the federal government. Dr. Bell spent much of this period away from home while his wife Hazel contributed her expertise to the work of the Red Cross and to helping raise the two small children of an old Cambridge University friend, Michael Pease.

After the war concluded Dr. Bell attempted to resume correspondence with many old friends in Germany. Once the lines of communication had been re-opened he and his wife immediately sought to begin the process of forwarding CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) packages and additional packets of food and clothing to his contacts in Europe to help them survive the immediate post-war period.

In 1948 Dr. Bell began a four year term on the Board of Regents of Mount Allison University and was very actively involved in the work of that institution. The year 1950 saw the Bells again travel to Europe to visit with friends and to see first-hand the devastation that had resulted from the war.

Bell was elected President of the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1951 and during that same time period sat on the Board of Directors of National Sea Products Ltd. which was controlled by his brother Ralph Bell. He also began in earnest his investigative work on the settlement of the Foreign Protestants in Nova Scotia. He conducted his research at the Public Archives of Canada (presently known as Library and Archives Canada) in Ottawa in May of 1951. Later in the year Dr. Bell experienced his first major health set-back with the occurrence of angina and arterial thrombosis. This condition forced him to curtail some of his former activities.

Winthrop Pickard Bell leaning in front of a filing cabinet looking through files.

Winthrop Pickard Bell working on files [likely in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia], [195-?]

May only be reproduced with the permission of the Mount Allison University Archives.

He returned to the Public Archives of Canada in May of 1952 to conduct further historical research. The 1950s also saw him become involved in helping a family and some of the children of friends in Germany to immigrate to Canada. He actively supported this process by providing factual information, corresponding with authorities and prospective employers in Canada, and writing to his Member of Parliament. By 1955 he was also compiling documentation on the Bell family genealogy and stated that "realizing that nobody else would ever be able, later, to amass anything like the amount of material I have gathered, I have thought I should put it all down in proper tabular form, for printing, while I still could." (Source: Mount Allison University Archives, Winthrop Pickard Bell fonds, Letter to Marjorie Young Bell dated August 21, 1955, 6501/3/2/1, Folder No. 7, Item No. 5).

By 1957 Dr. Bell had almost completed his manuscript on the settlement of the Foreign Protestants in Nova Scotia and began to seek a publisher. In 1958 he was asked by his sister-in-law, Marjorie Young Bell, to be her designated representative in the administration of the financial donations that she was making to Mount Allison University. In 1960 he was able to secure a publisher for his magnum opus at the University of Toronto Press. Unfortunately, he suffered the first of two serious heart attacks that same year while in Toronto before meeting with his copy-editor. The direct result of his poor health meant that he was no longer able to travel and his writing activities had to be further curtailed. His book, The "Foreign Protestants" and the Settlement of Nova Scotia, was finally published on March 4, 1961, and he later received a certificate of merit from the American Association for State and Local History for this work.

The following year Dr. Bell also finished his family research and had his book A Genealogical Study privately published by the Tribune Press Limited in Sackville, New Brunswick. The success of its completion was tempered by two serious falls that his wife Hazel experienced in 1962. These severely limited her mobility and precipitated a need for extended care.

The remaining years of Dr. Bell's life saw him continue to struggle against the effects of heart disease. His mind remained active and he sought to contribute to society by directing that the residue of his estate be used to create the Pickard-Bell Memorial Funds in support of another of his many interests, music. The main beneficiary of his largesse was the Music Department at Mount Allison University where his mother had once been a teacher. He arranged for the transfer of his personal library to Mount Allison University.  He instructed that his body be donated to Dalhousie University for the study of atherosclerosis, to be followed later by cremation and burial.

Dr. Winthrop Pickard Bell died on April 4, 1965, at in his home, 'Drumnaha', in Chester, Nova Scotia, just shy of his 81st birthday. His remains were later buried in the Old Burying Ground adjacent to his home. The headstone records that he was a scholar, historian, and author and the epitaph on his gravestone is a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi which reads as follows, "The good man is the friend of all living things".

Portrait of Winthrop Pickard Bell.

May only be reproduced with the permission of the Mount Allison University Archives.

Personal interests

Like most of us Dr. Bell's interests were not limited to his main area of work or study, history and philosophy in his case. He had a keen mind and was attracted by a great many things. One of the chief loves of his life was music, and he ultimately bequeathed much of his estate to Mount Allison University for its furtherance.

"Good music has been for me one of the worthiest and most alloyed enrichments of life. I know nothing I would sooner do for my native part of Canada than further the cultivation of excellent music there. It seems suitable to combine with this a memorial to my parents and a bequest to my alma mater; the more so, as the Music Department there is probably less likely than most others to attract endowment donations." [1]

Winthrop Bell had grown up in a household where his mother and father would often perform together. His mother would accompany her husband's violin playing on the piano. Though Dr. Bell was not known to play a musical instrument he was able to read and understand music. He may have studied music while interned at Ruhleben where concerts under the direction of Sir Ernest MacMillan were a regular element of prison camp life.

He also developed a curiosity for photography. He started taking photographs circa 1898 with a box camera "the use of which was at that time consuming all my pocket money.” [2] This interest continued throughout his life and his collection of photographs (prints and negatives) is very impressive in its extent, quality, and subject matter. His principal focus was on scenes of Nova Scotia between 1920 and 1954. This unique collection pays homage to his keen eye and the beauty of his native province.

Bell's interest in architecture was also well defined. During his trips to Europe he visited many of the great cathedrals and communities where architecture was a main feature of their charm. He collected postcards which illustrate buildings and which presently form a significant part of his fonds. His early notebooks include sketches and drawings of houses and architectural designs as well. Ultimately, this interest was put to good use in the construction of his home 'Drumnaha' in Chester, Nova Scotia. He oversaw the finer details of the construction of the house and recorded the carpenters' progress in his diaries and photographs.

Another of his interests was the study of flora and fauna. His property was always well groomed and the plants, shrubs, and trees were kept in check with regular maintenance. He corresponded with scientists and researchers to determine how to fend off invading insects and helped with the collection of seeds for Dr. Reginald Ruggles Gates who was conducting research on Oenothera (primroses).

Animals were also a natural part of his life and he was particularly fond of the Airedale breed of dogs. He also loved birds and chipmunks. From various accounts, he would wait silently and patiently for them to alight in his hand, and the fonds includes a number of pictures of him and his wife hand-feeding small creatures. This pastime was a great joy as his health waned in his later years.


[1] Mount Allison University Archives, A Historical Review of the Bell Funds / Good, Jeff (1998) p. 91, 9942.

[2] Mount Allison University Archives, Winthrop Pickard Bell fonds, 8550/9/2, Item no. 10.