Rudolph "Rudy" Bell was born on November 5, 1942 in New York City. His father came from Dalmatia (now Croatia), and his mother was born in Antwerp, Belgium. Growing up in Queens, Dr. Bell attended P.S. 117, Stephen Halsey Junior High in Forest Hills and Richmond Hill High School.

Dr. Bell went to Queens College, where he double majored in mathematics and history. After graduating in 1963, he got a job as a computer programmer at MetLife and also entered a Master's degree program at Queens College. In 1965, Dr. Bell entered the doctoral program in history at the City University of New York (CUNY), earning his Ph.D. in quantitative history in 1969.

After coming to Rutgers College as a history instructor in 1968, he became an assistant professor in 1969. Over the past fifty years, Dr. Bell has enjoyed a distinguished career as a member of the history faculty at Rutgers-New Brunswick. With Donald Roden, he co-taught the classes "Patterns in Civilization: Love" and "Patterns in Civilization: Death," nicknamed the "Love" and "Death" classes and beloved by many undergraduates. He received a teaching Fulbright in Italy in 1971-'72. Over the years, Dr. Bell has participated in the Junior Year Abroad program, directing the program in 1976-'77. From 1988 to 1993, he served as the chair of the History Department, during which time he oversaw the founding of the Rutgers Oral History Archives. Dr. Bell headed the RU American Association of University Professors (AAUP) from 2002 to 2004.