2021 August The Anatomy of Humane Bodies

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William Cowper’s The Anatomy of Humane Bodies (Oxford, 1698).

 

Image 1: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), frontispiece portrait of Cowper. Painted by John Closterman (1656-1713) and engraved by John Smith (1654-1727).[1]

 

The youngest son of an ‘undistinguished family’, William Cowper was born 1666 in Petersfield, a village in the south of England and died in 1709 of congenital heart failure at the age of 43.[2] Following a particularly in-depth education in Latin, Cowper became apprenticed to London surgeon William Bignall at sixteen years of age. Spending nine rather than the required seven years, he completed his apprenticeship under John Fletcher in 1691. Cowper published his detailed and much acclaimed work on human musculature, Myotomia Reformata, in 1694 and just four years later, in 1698 he published The Anatomy of Humane Bodies. This anatomical atlas, which was one of the few at the time written in English rather than Latin, remained ‘the premier English anatomical atlas of the first half of the eighteenth century’.[3] Cowper was also mentor to William Cheselden (1688-1752), who himself later taught John Hunter (1728-1793), often referred to as the founder of modern surgery, and in many ways Cowper was a forerunner to the Hunterian school of surgery.[4]

 

Cowper made several notable discoveries in his lifetime, including the existence of capillaries in mammals, though he is perhaps most often remembered today for his namesake, Cowper’s Gland.[5] The bulbourethral gland was first noted by Jean Méry (1645-1722) in 1684, and prior even to Méry, a collection of tables by anatomist Hieronymus Fabricius of Acquapendente (1533–1619) from 1600 shows the first recorded images of these glands.[6] However, Cowper was the first to describe their function and form in detail in in his 1699 article in the Philosophical Transactions, ‘An Account of Two Glands and Their Excretetory Ducts Lately Discover’d in Humane Bodies’, hence the popular term, Cowper’s Gland.[7]

 

Secondary to the medical eponym, Cowper remains infamous as a medical plagiarist for his work, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies. As Sanders quips, Cowper ‘achieved lasting fame for describing the bulbourethral glands and lasting infamy for pirating plates for his anatomical atlas, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies’.[8] These allegations of plagiarism and the lasting notoriety it earned him, were not, as will be shown, merited.

 

Image 2: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), Title page.

 

The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, or, to give it its full title, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, with Figures Drawn after the Life by Some of the Best Masters in Europe, and Curiously ENGRAVEN in One Hundred and Fourteen Copper-Plates: Illustrated with LARGE Explications, Containing Many New ANATOMICAL Discoveries and Chirurgical Observations: To Which Is Added an Introduction Explaining the Animal Oeconomy, was published by Samuel Smith (1658-1707) and Benjamin Walford (fl.1679-1710), of the Royal Society.[9] Smith and Walford acquired the copper plates used in Govard Bidoo’s (1649-1713) Anatomia Humani Corporis, an atlas published in Amsterdam, 1685 in Latin.[10]

 

The 105 copper plates were illustrated by Gérard de Lairesse (1641-1711) and engraved by Abraham van Booteling (1640-1690) and brothers Pieter Van Gunst (1659-1724) and Philip Van Gunst (1685 fl.- 1732)[11]. Cowper included nine additional illustrations in the appendix, drawn by Henry Cook (1642-1700) and engraved by Michael Vandergucht (1660-1725).[12] Not only did Cowper use the same images illustrated by de Lairesse, he also used the same title page, with his own information printed then pasted over the original nameplate of Bidloo. This is clearly visible in the copy held by the University of Windsor which was suffered minor damage, such that the original text of Bidloo is visible.[13] Indeed, this can be seen, though not so drastically, in the Edward Worth Library’s copy as well, where a small line around the text of the front piece indicates where Cowper’s name and title was pasted over Bidloo’s. The use of these same copperplates in Cowper’s The Anatomy of Humane Bodies became a major source of conflict as Bidloo alleged that Cowper had plagiarized his work.[14]

 

However, Cowper’s The Anatomy of Humane Bodies is not only notable for the scandal surrounding it, but also for the detailed descriptions it provided for generations of surgeons alongside the exceptional illustrations of Gérard de Lairesse, despite some anatomical inaccuracies among the illustrations. Employing a classical French style, Dutch artist Gérard de Lairesse (1641-1711), was one of the best-known painters of his time. Notably, a portrait of the then 25 year old de Lairesse was painted by none other than Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Though it is not possible to confirm, experts have suggested that this portrait supports the theory that de Lairesse suffered from congenital syphilis. If true, this disease would be a likely cause of de Lairesse’s blindness at 49 years of age.[15]

 

Image 3: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), Table 70.

 

Table 70 is a prime example of the way de Lairesse depicted not only the anatomy of cadavers but also the dissection process, something which was rather unusual at the time. Likewise, in Table 63, the process of dissection is clearly shown with the body laid out on the table in the midst of the procedure. (Viewer discretion advised as the image on Table 63 on page 214 contains graphic material.).

 

The misconception that Cowper failed entirely to mention Bidloo or otherwise mentioned him only once, is widespread and long held among critiques of Cowper’s work. The Augustus C. Long Medical Health Sciences Library of Columbia University Irving Medical Center features, for example, a blog post wherein it is claimed that ‘Cowper purchased extra copies of the illustrations from Bidloo’s publisher, composed his own English text, and published it under his own name with no mention of Bidloo’.[16] Rather than a criticism of the body which published this accidental falsehood, this is intended to illustrate just how extensive the misconceptions around Cowper’s alleged plagiarism run. Indeed, Johnson, writing for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2004, also fell into this assumption, as he incorrectly stated that Cowper had ‘rewritten the text in English and brought out his own edition without the least mention of Bidloo or de Lairesse’.[17]

 

Image 4: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), To the Reader, full page.

 

Cowper’s first mention of Bidloo appears in the ‘To the Reader’ section. Following an overview of the areas covered within his text, Cowper states that,

‘these Figures were Drawn after the Life, by the Masterly Painter G. de Lairess, and Engrav’d by no less a Hand, and Represent the Parts of Humane Bodies far beyond any Exstant; and were some time since Publish’d by Dr. Bidloo, now Professor of Anatomy in the University of Leyden.[18]

Utilizing the key term searchable text of Cowper provided by Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 67 mentions of ‘Bidloo’ are identifiable within Cowper’s text, though for the most part, Cowper’s mentions of Bidloo consist of small critiques or amendments to Bidloo’s original labeling of the illustrations. Using this tool or by perusing one of the numerous digitized copies of Cowper’s work available online, any reader may easily verify that Cowper does indeed mention both Bidloo and Lairesse, as shown in the image above.

 

Image 5: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), Table 12, figure 4 text.

 

Intending to highlight what they viewed as the hypocrisy of Cowper, Buckman and Futrell observe that Cowper, in his earlier work, Myotomia Reformata, ‘harangued bravely against the old traditions of plagiarism and fantasy and on behalf of the new, more certain experimental science’.[19] Indeed, Cowper wrote:

‘The greatest part of books now extant are mere copies or extracts and useless rhapsodies. Originals are few and rare: mankind finding it much easier to transcribe and steal than to invent and improve…One great mistake has much obstructed the advancement of true knowledge and that is a great opinion the senses are gross and ignoble and that abstracted contemplations are the perfections of human nature. And so it comes to pass that man is fed and pleased with chimeras and shows instead of the true physical examination of sense and experiment, by enquiry and observation’.[20]

These were, Buckman and Futrell argue, ‘bold and radical notions to be advocated by a lowly surgeon- all this physiology and philosophy’.[21] Buckman and Futrell interpret Cowper’s disavowal of the abundance of unoriginal work put forth in the medical field as hypocritical, given the later publication of The Anatomy of the Humane Body, for which Cowper was accused of plagiarism. However, having reviewed the evidence of plagiarism, or rather the lack of evidence, Cowper’s attitude toward plagiarism in the medical field may more usefully be judged as an indication that Cowper did not intend to plagiarize Bidloo’s work.

 

Further, the allegation that Cowper stole the copperplates used originally to illustrate Bidloo’s work has not been proven, albeit neither has the contention of several reputable sources that Cowper did in fact purchase the copperplates used in Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corpus from Bidloo’s publishers.[22] Interestingly, both some of the strongest condemnation of Cowper’s alleged plagiarism and the strongest defense of it come from the same source, Morton’s Medical Bibleography, 5th Edition. Here Norman states that Cowper’s The Anatomy of Humane Bodies remains ‘one of the most extraordinary plagiarisms in the entire history of medicine’, while also stating that Cowper purchased the copperplates used for the anatomical images first used by Bidloo from Bidloo’s own publishers.[23] This begs the question, if Cowper, or indeed Cowper’s publishers as other accounts claim, purchased the copperplates from Bidloo’s publishers, where then is this ‘most extraordinary plagiarism’?

 

Perhaps this legacy of notorious plagiarism is rooted not in the alleged plagiarism itself, but rather a result of the campaign Bidloo himself ran against Cowper? While Bidloo was not successful in having Cowper dismissed from the Royal Society during Cowper’s lifetime, perhaps his efforts came to fruition later, with this notoriety which has indeed stood the test of time, at least thus far.

 

Notably, Cowper enumerated precisely what his own contributions to the original plates were: he states that he added ‘above Seven-hundred References, all which are Letter’d with a Pen in the several Figures’.[24] In what could easily be read as a professional criticism, Cowper further states that ‘The Parts which in many Places had their Nomenclature barely annex’d, are here Copiously Describ’d’, where, as Cowper points out, Bidloo provided only sparse identification of the anatomical images done by de Lairess, Cowper himself provides the reader with extensive detail.[25]

 

Given that many, if not most, of Cowper’s remarks, direct and indirect, on Bidloo’s work follow in the same critical vein, it is perhaps not surprising that Bidloo objected to Cowper’s The Anatomy of Human Bodies. For example, with reference to figure 4 of the twelfth table, Cowper writes that,

‘A B C, The Musculus Buccinator free’d from its Origin at the Procossus Coronae of the Lower Jaw, (nearer N) and left at its Insertion at the Angle of the Lips: Here we may observe, that in this Figure (as in the Life) the Fibres of this Muscle run according to its Length, contrary to the Description Bidloo, and others give of it; through this Muscle passes the Ductus Salivalis of the Parotid Gland into the Mouth’.[26]

No doubt these corrections did little to endear Cowper’s work to Bidloo.

 

However, as discussed above, Cowper clearly states what his own contributions were to the text and credits de Lairess as well as Bidloo, though somewhat snidely in the latter case. This is not a case of plagiarism, and it never was.

 

It is evident from his writing that Cowper was highly critical of what he saw as substandard practitioners in the area of surgery, not just of Bidloo. Indeed, in Cowper’s Introduction to Animal Oeconomy in The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, wherein he advocated for surgical practices based upon anatomical knowledge, stated that:

‘I cannot but deplore the Profound and Universal Ignorance which prevails, so I would candidly recommend it to most of the Surgeons in this vast and populous City, to apply themselves with more Industry than they have hitherto done, to so Useful a Part of their Art’.[27]

 

Image 6: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), Table 12.

 

This section on ‘animal oeconomy’ is particularly noteworthy. Cowper advocated for medical practice and surgery based on understanding the working of the body. Cowper argued:

‘Without a due knowledge of the animal mechanism, I doubt not all our attempts to explain the multiform appearance of animal bodies will be vain and ineffectual, and our ideas of the causes of diseases and their symptoms as extravagant and absurd as those of the Chinese and Indians. Nay, I am afraid the whole art of physick will be little better than empirical’.[28]

 

Image 7: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), Table 44.

 

Cowper’s desire to improve surgical practice based upon anatomical knowledge is apparent throughout his text as he makes note of common surgical errors or anatomical misconceptions. With reference to the urethra, seen in Table 44, Cowper describes the means through which surgeons may inadvertently cause damage during their procedures:

‘This Part of the Urethra is liable to be Wounded, and sometimes Perforated by too hastily Introducing the Conductor into the Bladder, after an Incision is made in the Perinaeum in Cutting for the Stone; whereby the Operator afterwards thrusts his Forceps between the Bladder of Urine and Rectum. This Inadvertency I am perswaded is very often Practis’d among the Pretenders to Lythotomy, and freuently proves fatal to the Patient. One would think it was hardly possible a Man in his Senses, and but tollerably acquainted with Anatomy, could commit such Errors; yet of this I have met with more than one Instance, when being call’d to Dissect the Deceased, in whom such Operators have been so Unfortunate as to leave the Stone still in the Bladder’.[29]

 

Image 8: William Cowper, The Anatomy of Human Bodies (Oxford, 1698), Table 30.

 

Table 30 shows the upper body of a woman with her hands bound behind her back with string, so as to show off the musculature and spine displayed by the dissection. Notably, the copy of the first edition of the University of Windsor, Canada, contains notes in faded red ink on this page, which corresponds with additional letters marked in red ink on Table 30.[30] These letters, it was suggested, indicate points upon which Cowper wished to include additional references to those marked originally in Bidloo’s text. However, the copy of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies held by the Edward Worth Library shows no trace of hand written or printed notes in red ink. Thus, these red ink notes continue to remain an ongoing mystery.

 

Text: Ms Sarah Horder, MA in Public History and Cultural Heritage, TCD.

 

Sources:

Buckman, Robert F., and William Futrell. ‘William Cowper’, Surgery 99, no. 5 (May 1, 1986), 582–90.

Cowper, William. The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, with Figures Drawn after the Life by Some of the Best Masters in Europe, and Curiously ENGRAVEN in One Hundred and Fourteen Copper-Plates: Illustrated with LARGE Explications, Containing Many New ANATOMICAL Discoveries and Chirurgical Observations: To Which Is Added an Introduction Explaining the Animal Oeconomy (Oxford: Printed at the Theater for Sam. Smith and Benj. Walford, 1698).

Guest, Rachel V, Dániel Margócsy, and Stephen J Wigmore. ‘Govert Bidloo’s Liver: Human Symmetry Reflected’, The Lancet 383, no. 9918 (February 22, 2014), 688–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(14)60248-8.

Johnson, H. A. ‘Gerard De Lairesse: Genius among The Treponemes’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 97, no. 6 (June 1, 2004), 301–3. https://doi.org/10.1258/jrsm.97.6.301.

Kutia, S. A., G. A. Moroz, T. P. Sataeva, N. G. Nikolaeva, and N. Yu Printseva . ‘The History of Discovery of Bulbourethral Glands’, Urologiia 3 (August 2016), 108–11.

Norman, Jeremy M., Feilding H. Garrison , and Leslie T. Morton, eds. ‘William Cowper ‘, History of Medicine and the Life Sciences . Accessed August 2, 2021. https://www.historyofmedicine.com/author/d/william-cowper.

Novak, Stephen. “Cowper’s 1737 ‘Anatomy of Humane Bodies’ Digitized’, Primary Sources Library Archives. Columbia University Irving Medical Center, September 23, 2016. https://blogs.cuit.columbia.edu/hslarch/cowpers-1737-anatomy-of-humane-bodies-digitized/?unapproved=10460&moderation-hash=6984af8638494e3647e11e6e649a1651#comment-10460.

Owens, Brian. ‘William Cowper’s Anatomy of Humane Bodies ‘, Leddy Library Rare Books and Special Collections. University of Windsor, October 2009. https://leddy.uwindsor.ca/archives/rare-books/william-cowpers-anatomy-humane-bodies#note1.

‘Portrait of Gerard De Lairesse 1665–67’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/459082.

‘Philipp van Gunst,’ The British Museum, n.d.

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG184552.

Sanders, Mark A. ‘William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials’, The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, 282B, no. 1 (2005), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.1002/ar.b.20046.

‘William Cowper, the Anatomist’, The British Medical Journal, January 15 (1898), 160–61.

 

Footnotes

[1] Mark A. Sanders, ‘William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials,’ The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, 282B, no. 1 (2005), 6.

[2] Robert F. Buckman and William Futrell, “William Cowper ,” Surgery 99, no. 5 (May 1, 1986), 583.

[3] Mark A. Sanders, ‘William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials,’ The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, 282B, no. 1 (2005), 6.

[4] Mark A. Sanders, ‘William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials,’ The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, 282B, no. 1 (2005):, 5.

[5] Robert F. Buckman and William Futrell, ‘William Cowper ,’ Surgery, 99, no. 5 (May 1, 1986),  583.

[6] S. A. Kutia et al., ‘The History of Discovery of Bulbourethral Glands,’ Urologiia, 3 (August 2016):, 108.

[7] Ibid., 108.

[8] Mark A. Sanders, ‘William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials,’ The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, 282B, no. 1 (2005), 5.

[9] Rachel V. Guest, Dániel Margócsy, and Stephen J Wigmore, ‘Govert Bidloo’s Liver: Human Symmetry Reflected,’ The Lancet, 383, no. 9918 (February 22, 2014), 688.

[10]Ibid., 688-689.

[11] ‘Philipp van Gunst,’ The British Museum, n.d. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG184552.

[12] Mark A. Sanders, ‘William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials,’ The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, 282B, no. 1 (2005), 6.

[13] Brian Owens, ‘William Cowper’s Anatomy of Humane Bodies,’ Leddy Library Rare Books and Special Collections (University of Windsor, October 2009).

[14] Ibid., 688-689.

[15] H. A Johnson, ‘Gerard De Lairesse: Genius among The Treponemes,’ Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 97, no. 6 (June 1, 2004), 302.

[16] Stephen Novak, ‘Cowper’s 1737 ‘Anatomy of Humane Bodies’ Digitized,’ Primary Sources Library Archives (Columbia University Irving Medical Center, September 23, 2016).

[17] H. A Johnson, ‘Gerard De Lairesse: Genius among The Treponemes,”’Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 97, no. 6 (June 1, 2004), 301.

[18] William Cowper, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, with Figures Drawn after the Life by Some of the Best Masters in Europe, and Curiously ENGRAVEN in One Hundred and Fourteen Copper-Plates: Illustrated with LARGE Explications, Containing Many New ANATOMICAL Discoveries and Chirurgical Observations: To Which Is Added an Introduction Explaining the Animal Oeconomy (Oxford: Printed at the Theater for Sam. Smith and Benj. Walford, 1698), To The Reader.

[19] Robert F. Buckman and William Futrell, ‘William Cowper ,’ Surgery, 99, no. 5 (May 1, 1986), 584.

[20] William Cowper cited in Robert F. Buckman and William Futrell, ‘William Cowper,’ Surgery, 99, no. 5 (May 1, 1986), 584-585.

[21] Robert F. Buckman and William Futrell, ‘William Cowper,’ Surgery, 99, no. 5 (May 1, 1986), 585.

[22] Robert F. Buckman and William Futrell, ‘William Cowper,’ Surgery 99, no. 5 (May 1, 1986), 582-590; Jeremy M. Norman, Feilding H. Garrison, and Leslie T. Morton, eds., ‘William Cowper,’ History of Medicine and the Life Sciences; Mark A. Sanders, ‘William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials,’ The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, 282B, no. 1 (2005), 5-12.

[23] Jeremy M. Norman, Feilding H. Garrison, and Leslie T. Morton, eds., ‘William Cowper,’ History of Medicine and the Life Sciences.

[24] William Cowper, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, with Figures Drawn after the Life by Some of the Best Masters in Europe, and Curiously ENGRAVEN in One Hundred and Fourteen Copper-Plates: Illustrated with LARGE Explications, Containing Many New ANATOMICAL Discoveries and Chirurgical Observations: To Which Is Added an Introduction Explaining the Animal Oeconomy (Oxford: Printed at the Theater for Sam. Smith and Benj. Walford, 1698), To The Reader.

[25] Ibid., To The Reader.

[26] Ibid., Table 12.

[27] Ibid.,  Table 12.

[28] Ibid., Table 12.

[29] Ibid., Table 44.

[30] Brian Owens, ‘William Cowper’s Anatomy of Humane Bodies,’ Leddy Library Rare Books and Special Collections (University of Windsor, October 2009).

 

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