Bell's palsy is the eponym for idiopathic peripheral facial paralysis. It is named after Sir Charles Bell (1774–1842), who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, discovered the function of the facial nerve and attracted the attention of the medical world to facial paralysis. Our knowledge of this condition before Bell's landmark publications is very limited and is based on just a few documents. In 1804 and 1805, Evert Jan Thomassen à Thuessink (1762–1832) published what appears to be the first known extensive study on idiopathic peripheral facial paralysis. His description of this condition was quite accurate. He located several other early descriptions and concluded from this literature that, previously, the condition had usually been confused with other afflictions (such as ‘spasmus cynicus’, central facial paralysis and trigeminal neuralgia). According to Thomassen à Thuessink, idiopathic peripheral facial paralysis and trigeminal neuralgia were related, being different expressions of the same condition. Thomassen à Thuessink believed that idiopathic peripheral facial paralysis was caused by ‘rheumatism’ or exposure to cold. Many aetiological theories have since been proposed. Despite this, the cold hypothesis persists even today.