The Bell Pettigrew Museum

Early Life and Education

James Bell Pettigrew was a comparative anatomist born on May 26th 1832 in Lanarkshire. He studied arts at the University of Glasgow in 1850 to 1855, before moving to Edinburgh where he pursued a medical education. Between 1858 and 1859, he was awarded the senior anatomy gold medal for best thesis ‘On the arrangement of the muscular fibres in the ventricles of the vertebrae heart’. He graduated MD from Edinburgh in 1861, where he also obtained a gold medal for his dissertation on ‘the ganglia and nerves of the heart and their connection with the cerebrospinal and sympathetic systems in mammalia’.


In 1862, Pettigrew was appointed assistant at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, where he remained until 1867. During his time here, he experimented largely on the subject of artificial flight, contributing a paper entitled ‘On the mechanical appliances by which flight is maintained in the animal kingdom’. He left the Hunterian Museum for Ireland where he spent two years extending his knowledge on the flight of insects, birds and bats. His research eventually allowed him to publish a book called Animal Locomotion, or, Walking, Swimming, and Flying, with a Dissertation on aeronautics, which was so influential it was translated into French in 1847 and then into German in 1879.

Work in St Andrews

In 1875, Pettigrew was appointed Chandos professor medicine and anatomy as well as dean of the medical faculty at the University of St Andrews. During his time in St Andrews, he delivered lectures on physiology in Dundee. He was elected to represent the Universities of Glasgow and St Andrews in 1877 to represent them on the General Medical Council, before representing St Andrews alone when a medical act was passed which enabled each Scottish university to nominate an individual member. Pettigrew spent the last ten years of his life working on a book called Design in Nature, which was published posthumously. His passion for investigating flight is best shown in an incident that occurred in 1903. Shortly before the Wright brothers made their first flights, Pettigrew had his own petrol engine-driven aeroplane constructed. He flew it for 60 feet down a street in St Andrews before it crashed, causing him to break his femur.


Pettigrew died at his home in St Andrews on January 30th 1908. As an act of remembrance, a museum for the botanic gardens was erected by his widow, next to the Bute medical buildings. The Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History was founded in 1912. Described by Sir David Attenborough as “packed full of treasures and wonders…”, it continues to be open to staff and students of the University of St Andrews every weekday.