James Abbott Mackintosh Bell was born at St Andrews, Quebec, Canada, on 23 September 1877, the son of Andrew Bell, a civil engineer and architect, and his wife, Marianne Rosamond. The family moved to Almonte, Ontario, when James was a child, and he received his early education there. He studied at Queen's College, Kingston, graduating MA in 1899, then went to Harvard University in 1903 to study for his PhD, which he received in 1904. His field work included pioneer exploration in Arctic Canada for the Geological Survey of Canada with his uncle, Robert Bell. He also worked for several companies as a mining expert.
In 1904, while teaching at Harvard, Bell was selected to succeed Alexander McKay as geologist to the New Zealand Mines Department. On his arrival in February 1905 he negotiated his appointment as director of the Geological Survey of New Zealand, which had been in recess since 1893. At 27 Bell was the youngest director in the history of the Survey; he was also to be the most dynamic.
Within nine months of his arrival, Bell had laid out plans for the reconstitution of the Survey, employed new staff, instituted an entirely new mapping programme (topographical as well as geological), personally started the field work in two areas, and made a six weeks' familiarisation tour of geologically important areas. His six years as director produced 15 bulletins concentrating on regions of economic importance; he co-authored five, more than any member of his staff. Bell was criticised for mapping on a detailed scale (one mile to one inch) when broader coverage of the entire country was a more urgent requirement. Yet his four successors continued to map on the same scale. However, the pace of Bell's activity meant that his work lacked the depth of later surveys.
In 1901 Bell had been offered the position of geologist to Robert Falcon Scott's first Antarctic expedition. A similar offer was made for the expedition of 1910, but the New Zealand government refused to release him. His experience of working in snow and ice would have made him a candidate for the ill-fated journey to the South Pole.
Bell was considerate to his staff but maintained a class distinction, even in the field, that upset New Zealand geologists. Accounts of his Canadian career do not mention this, and it may have been adopted to assert authority over several subordinates who were older and more experienced in New Zealand geology.
On 23 September 1909, in St Paul's Cathedral Church, Wellington, Bell married Vera Margaret Beauchamp, eldest daughter of Annie and Harold Beauchamp; her father was one of New Zealand's most prominent businessmen. Vera was a sister to the writer Katherine Mansfield, and before the marriage Bell was warned against marrying the sister of someone whose behaviour was regarded as scandalous. Bell may have been the model for the man in Katherine Mansfield's story 'A dill pickle'.
Bell was a brilliant organiser who had responded well to the challenge of re-establishing the Geological Survey; but he was also young, ambitious and impatient of routine administration. He and his right-hand man, Colin Fraser, left the Survey on the same day, 12 March 1911; a few months later they entered partnership in London as mining geologists.
By the beginning of the First World War Bell was back in his native Canada. As an officer with the Canadian forces in France he was gassed and suffered from trench fever and later was seconded to the British military mission in Russia; he was fluent in several languages including Russian. Outstanding war service led to his being mentioned in dispatches and his appointment as an OBE.
In the post-war years 'Mack' Bell, as he was known to Canadian friends, made a successful career as a consultant in mineral exploration and mine development. He travelled extensively and observed keenly, mainly in remote areas. He wrote approximately 135 articles and was the author of four books, one of which, The wilds of Māoriland, recounted his New Zealand experiences. He was a director of several Canadian mining companies and built a solid reputation as a student of international affairs. In 1924 he received an honorary LLD from his old university, Queen's.
Bell was slender and a little over medium height with a handsome, decisive countenance. He was a man of rare culture and courtesy, and of strong religious belief. A brilliant conversationalist, his carefully enunciated speech made him an excellent lecturer. He became well known for his lectures on the several countries in which he had spent his career.
Bell died at Almonte, Ontario, on 31 March 1934, survived by his wife and two sons, Andrew and John. Vera Bell continued to live in Canada until her death.