Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cooper, Astley Paston

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COOPER, Sir ASTLEY PASTON (1768–1841), surgeon, was fourth son of the Rev. Samuel Cooper, D.D., curate of Great Yarmouth, and rector of Morley and Yelverton, Norfolk (B.A. of Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1760, M.A. 1763, D.D. 1777), author of a poem called ‘The Task,’ published soon after Cowper's famous ‘Task,’ upon which Dr. Parr made the epigram:

To Cowper's Task see Cooper's Task succeed;
That was a Task to write, but this to read.

Samuel Cooper published a large number of sermons, wrote comments on Priestley's letters to Burke on civil and ecclesiastical government (1791), and died at Great Yarmouth on 7 Jan. 1800, aged 61 (Gent. Mag. 1800, i. 89, 177).

Mrs. Cooper, a Miss Bransby, wrote story-books for children and novels of the epistolary kind. Their eldest son, Bransby, was M.P. for Gloucester for twelve years, from 1818 to 1830.

Cooper was born on 23 Aug. 1768, at Brooke Hall, about seven miles from Norwich. He was a lively scapegrace youth, and learnt little, being educated at home. His grandfather, Samuel Cooper, was a surgeon of good repute at Norwich, and his uncle, William Cooper, surgeon to Guy's Hospital. He was apprenticed in 1784 to his uncle, but soon transferred to Henry Cline [q. v.], surgeon to St. Thomas's, who exercised very great influence over him. He spent one winter (1787–8) at the Edinburgh Medical School, under Gregory, Cullen, Black, and Fyfe. Both before and after his return to London he attended John Hunter's lectures. He was appointed demonstrator of anatomy at St. Thomas's in 1789, being only twenty-one years old. Two years later Cline made him joint lecturer with himself in anatomy and surgery. In December 1791 he married Miss Anne Cock, who brought him a considerable fortune. The summer of 1792 was spent in Paris, security being obtained through friends of Cline, whose democratic principles Cooper warmly espoused.

On his return from Paris, Cooper devoted himself largely to study and teaching, and succeeded in developing the subject of surgery into a separate course of lectures from anatomy. At first too theoretical to please, he soon found that his strength lay in discussing his own cases, with all the illustration that he could supply from memory of other cases. He thus became a most interesting practical lecturer, and meddled little with theory. In 1793 he was selected to lecture on anatomy at the College of Surgeons, which office he held till 1796 with great success. In 1797 he removed from Jeffreys Square to 12 St. Mary Axe, formerly Mr. Cline's house.

In 1800 Cooper was appointed surgeon to Guy's on the resignation of his uncle, but not before he had abjured his democratic principles. From this time forward, while he gave much of his time to the hospital and medical school, his private practice rapidly increased until it became perhaps the largest any surgeon has ever had. In 1802 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, being awarded the Copleian medal for his papers on the ‘Membrana Tympani of the Ear.’ He continued an indefatigable dissector, rising very early. All kinds of specimens of morbid anatomy which could illustrate surgery were brought to him, and he was also resolute in making post-mortem examinations wherever possible. He was often in contact with the resurrectionists of the period, and many interesting anecdotes of this part of his career are given in his ‘Life.’ He himself stated before a committee of the House of Commons: ‘There is no person, let his situation in life be what it may, whom, if I were disposed to dissect, I could not obtain. The law only enhances the price, and does not prevent the exhumation.’

In 1805 Cooper took an important part in founding the Medico-Chirurgical Society, being its first treasurer. Its early volumes of ‘Transactions’ contain several papers by him. He now published his important work on ‘Hernia,’ part 1 in 1804, part 2 in 1807, the illustrations to which were so expensive that Cooper was a loser of a thousand pounds when every copy had been sold. In 1806 he left St. Mary Axe for New Broad Street, spending here the nine most remunerative years of his life. In one year his income was 21,000l. His largest fee, a thousand guineas, was tossed to him by Hyatt, a rich West Indian planter, in his nightcap, after a successful operation for stone.

In 1813 Cooper was appointed professor of comparative anatomy by the Royal College of Surgeons, and lectured during 1814 and 1815. In the latter year he moved to New Street, Spring Gardens, and in the following May performed his celebrated operation of tying the aorta for aneurysm. In 1820, having for some years attended Lord Liverpool, he was called in to George IV, and afterwards

        1. performed a small operation upon him. This was followed by the bestowal of a baronetcy.

It was not till 1822 that Cooper became an examiner at the College of Surgeons, publishing in the same year his valuable work on ‘Dislocations and Fractures of the Joints.’ In January 1825 he resigned his lectureship at St. Thomas's; but finding that he was to be succeeded by Mr. South as anatomical lecturer, contrary to his understanding that his nephew, Bransby Cooper, was to be appointed, he induced Mr. Harrison, the treasurer of Guy's, to found a separate medical school at Guy's, with Aston Key and Bransby Cooper as lecturers on surgery and anatomy respectively. St. Thomas's claimed the valuable specimens Cooper had deposited there to illustrate his lectures, and the latter vigorously set about making a new collection. His energy and name, although he now became consulting surgeon to Guy's, and seldom lectured, started the new school successfully.

In 1827 Cooper was president of the College of Surgeons. In 1828 he was appointed surgeon to the king. He had for some years spent much time at his estate at Gadesbridge, near Hemel Hempstead. From 1825 he took his home farm into his own hands, and one of his experiments was buying lame or ill-fed horses in Smithfield cheaply and feeding and doctoring them himself, often turning them into much better animals. Lady Cooper's death in 1827 was a heavy blow to him, and he resolved to retire altogether from practice. By the end of the year, however, he returned to his profession, and in July 1828 married Miss C. Jones. The publication of further important works occupied him, and in 1836 he was a second time president of the College of Surgeons. He died on 12 Feb. 1841, in his seventy-third year, in Conduit Street, where he had practised latterly, and was buried, by his express desire, beneath the chapel of Guy's Hospital. He left no family, his only daughter having died in infancy. The baronetcy fell to his nephew, Astley, by special remainder.

A statue of Cooper, by Baily, was erected, chiefly by members of the medical profession, in St. Paul's Cathedral, near the southern entrance. An admirable portrait of him by Sir Thomas Lawrence exists. His name is commemorated by the triennial prize of three hundred pounds, which he established for the best original essay on a professional subject, to be adjudged by the physicians and surgeons of Guy's, who may not themselves compete.

No surgeon before or since has filled so large a space in the public eye as Cooper. He appears to have had a singularly shrewd knowledge of himself, as evidenced by the following quotations from an estimate he left, written in the third person (Life, ii. 474–6). ‘Sir Astley Cooper was a good anatomist, but never was a good operator where delicacy was required.’ Here, no doubt, Cooper does himself injustice. ‘Quickness of perception was his forte, for he saw the nature of disease in an instant, and often gave offence by pouncing at once upon his opinion … He had an excellent and useful memory. In judgment he was very inferior to Mr. Cline in all the affairs of life … His principle in practice was never to suffer any who consulted him to quit him without giving them satisfaction on the nature and proper treatment of their case.’ His success was due to markedly pleasing manners, a good memory, innumerable dissections and post-mortem examinations, and a remarkable power of inspiring confidence in patients and students. His connection with the resurrectionists and the marvellous operations attributed to him combined to fascinate the public mind to an extraordinary degree. A great portion of his practice was really medical, and in this department his treatment was very simple. ‘Give me,’ he would say, ‘opium, tartarised antimony, sulphate of magnesia, calomel, and bark, and I would ask for little else.’ He had a genuine, even an overweening, love for his profession. ‘When a man is too old to study, he is too old to be an examiner,’ was one of his expressions; ‘and if I laid my head upon my pillow at night without having dissected something in the day, I should think I had lost that day.’ He cannot be classed among men of genius or even of truly scientific attainments; his works are not classics, but they are more than respectable. They are defective especially from their almost entire omission to refer to the works of others. The ‘Quarterly Review’ (lxxi. 560) terms him ‘a shrewd, intelligent man, of robust vigorous faculties, sharp set on the world and its interests.’

Mr. Travers, who became Cooper's articled pupil in 1800, says at that time he had the handsomest, most intelligent and finely formed countenance he ever saw. He wore his hair powdered, with a queue; his hair was dark, and he always had a glow of colour in his cheeks. He was remarkably upright, and moved with grace, vigour, and elasticity. His voice was clear and silvery, his manner cheerily conversational, without attempt at oratory. He spoke with a rather broad Norfolk twang, often enlivened with a short ‘Ha! ha!’ and, when he said anything which he thought droll, would give a very peculiar short snort and rub his nose with the back of his hand (South, Memorials, p. 33). He suffered from hernia early in life, but was able to keep himself perfectly free from derangement by his own method of treatment.

His life by his nephew is a most tedious performance, but includes much interesting matter, including anecdotes of Lord Liverpool and George IV.

The following is a list of Cooper's most important writings: 1. ‘Observations on the effects that take place from the Destruction of the Membrana Tympani of the Ear,’ two papers, ‘Phil. Trans.’ 1800, 1801. 2. ‘Anatomy and Surgical Treatment of Hernia,’ two parts, folio, 1804, 1807; 2nd ed. 1827. 3. ‘Surgical Essays, by A. Cooper and B. Travers,’ two parts (all published), 8vo, 1818, 1819. 4. ‘On Dislocations and Fractures of the Joints,’ 4to, 1822. 5. ‘Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Surgery, with additions by F. Tyrrell,’ 8vo, 3 vols. 1824–7; 8th ed. 12mo, 1835. 6. ‘Illustrations of Diseases of the Breast,’ part i. 4to, 1829 (no more published). 7. ‘Structure and Diseases of the Testis,’ 8vo, 1830. 8. ‘The Anatomy of the Thymus Gland,’ 4to, 1832. 9. ‘The Anatomy of the Breast,’ 4to, 1840; besides numerous articles in the ‘Medico-Chirurgical Transactions’ and medical journals, and surgical lectures published by the ‘Lancet’ in 1824–6 (see the full bibliography in Dechambre's Dict. Encyc. des Sciences Médicales, vol. xx. Paris, 1877).

[B.B. Cooper's Life, 2 vols. Lond. 1843; Quarterly Review, lxxi. 528–60; Feltoe's Memorials of J. F. South; Bettany's Eminent Doctors, i. 202–26.]

G. T. B.