A New York City medical doctor, Bell was concerned with safety, for instance advocating for seatbelts in taxis and better training for paramedics. Perhaps his most urgent cause: limiting the hours that medical residents and interns had to work. At the time, it was common for such still-in-training doctors to work 36-hour shifts, catching naps when they could (and they were often too busy to get much sleep); they typically worked 95 hours per week, and often had no senior doctors supervising them. “How is it possible for anyone to be functional working a 95-hour week?” Bell demanded. “A bus driver can’t do it. A pilot cannot do it. So why should a neophyte doctor do it?”
Things came to a head when two overworked and unsupervised residents were held responsible for the death of 18-year-old Libby Zion in 1984. She happened to be the daughter of lawyer-writer Sidney Zion, who sued the doctors and the hospital. The state health commissioner appointed Dr. Bell to head a panel to suggest reforms. His panel recommended better supervision for interns and residents, a limit of 80-hour weeks, and a limit of 24 hours on call. The recommendations were adopted in 1987 by the New York Health Department, and then by the national Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education — but were still resisted or even ignored by many hospitals, citing staff shortages. Even Bronx Municipal Hospital Center fired Bell; he went on to teach medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr. Bell died at home on October 4, from kidney failure. He was 86.