Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cowper, William (1666-1709)

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Date of death 1710 in the ODNB.

COWPER, WILLIAM (1666–1709), surgeon, was the youngest son of Richard Cowper of Petersfield in Sussex, where he was born in 1666. His name is sometimes spelt phonetically Cooper. From the evidence upon the trial of Spencer Cowper [q. v.], where he was called as a witness, it appears that he was not related to the chancellor's family. He was apprenticed to William Bignall, a London surgeon, on 22 March 1682, continued his apprenticeship under another surgeon, John Fletcher, was admitted a barber-surgeon on 9 March 1691, and began practice in London. In 1694 he published ‘Myotomia Reformata; or, a New Administration of the Muscles of the Humane Bodies, wherein the true uses of the muscles are explained, the errors of former anatomists concerning them confuted, and several muscles not hitherto taken notice of described: to which are subjoined a graphical description of the bones and other anatomical observations,’ London. To his copy of this work the author made manuscript additions and corrections, and prepared a short historical preface and a long introduction on muscular mechanics. Thirteen years after his death a new edition, with these additions, was published, at the charge of Dr. Mead, and edited by Dr. Jurin, Dr. Pemberton, and Mr. Joseph Tanner, a surgeon, with the altered title ‘Myotomia Reformata; or, an Anatomical Treatise on the Muscles of the Human Body,’ London, 1724. In 1696 Cowper was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1698 published at Oxford ‘The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, with figures drawn after the life by some of the best masters in Europe, and curiously engraven in 114 copperplates. Illustrated with large explications containing many new anatomical discoveries and chirurgical observations. To which is added an introduction explaining the animal economy.’ A second edition was published at Leyden in 1637. This work gave rise to a controversy with Dr. Bidloo, a Dutch professor, as to Cowper's use of plates taken from a book of Bidloo's on anatomy. Bidloo began by attacking Cowper in ‘Gulielmus Cowper, criminis literarii citatus coram tribunali nobiliss. ampliss. societatis Britanno [sic] regiæ per Godefridum Bidloo,’ Leyden, 1700 Dr. Hutton, physician to William III, had told Bidloo that Cowper was about to translate and plagiarise his work, whereupon Bidloo wrote an abrupt letter to Cowper in Latin, which received no answer; other letters to Cowper and to and from Dr. Hutton followed, and finally Bidloo accused Smith and Walford, the publishers, and Cowper himself of fraud in publishing the plates and of issuing a mere pirated compilation from Bidloo's anatomy. After several months Cowper wrote to Bidloo denying Bidloo's sole right to the plates, and repudiating the charge of borrowing a text which was, he said, erroneous, and which he had made his own by endless corrections and amplifications, nothing resembling Bidloo being left but a common basis of universally accepted anatomy. The whole correspondence is printed in Bidloo's tract with much abusive language, and a minute criticism of Cowper as an anatomist. Cowper is called a highwayman in English, lest the Latin term should not be clear enough, and is said to be a miserable anatomist who writes like a Dutch barber. In 1701 Cowper replied in ‘Eucharistia in qua dotes plurimæ et singulares Godefridi Bidloo M.D. et in illustrissima Leydarum Academia anatomiæ professoris celeberrimi, peritia anatomica, probitas, ingenium, elegantiæ latinitatis, lepores, candor, humanitas, ingenuitas, solertia, verecundia, humilitas, urbanitas, &c., celebrantur et ejusdem citationi humillime respondetur.’ These figures, says Cowper, were drawn by Gerard de Luirens for Swammerdam, and Cowper's publisher had purchased impressions of them. Entirely fresh descriptions had been added, and the book was a new one and no piracy. Very little evidence is produced of these statements. The controversy has all the acerbity of its contemporary dispute on the epistles of Phalaris, and Cowper's title seems to have been suggested by parts of the index of Boyle against Bentley. An impartial perusal shows that Bidloo unjustly depreciates Cowper's work and has no ground for charging him with plagiarism as far as the descriptive anatomy is concerned. The origin of the work seems, however, to have been a request to Cowper from the English publishers to write letterpress to the Dutch plates, and though the plates may have been prepared for Swammerdam, it remains clear that some invasion of the rights of Bidloo and his Dutch publishers in the plates took place, and that Cowper connived at this invasion. The book shows an amount of learning acquired by dissection and of original observation beyond all plagiarism, and it took its place as the best English anatomy which had appeared. In 1702 Cowper published ‘Glandularum quarundam nuper detectarum ductuumque earum excretionum descriptio cum figuris.’ A pair of racemose glands, which are themselves situated beneath the anterior end of the membranous part of the urethra in the male, and whose ducts open into the bulbous part of the urethra, are described, and are to this day known by anatomists as Cowper's glands. There are some remarks by Cowper in Drake's ‘Anthropologia’ (London, 1717, i. 138), and he published several papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ of which the most interesting are: (No. 208) experiments with Colbatch's styptic, in which he shows the dangerous and ineffectual nature of the nostrum, and incidentally points out the differences between the vascular system of youth and that of age; (222) on the effects of a renal calculus lasting eight years in the kidney of a woman; (252) a case of union of a divided heel tendon in a carpenter after Cowper had united the edges by sutures; (285) on cases of empyema; (286) on the structure of the pulmonary vein; (310) anatomical and chirurgical observations (in this important paper he describes how he had demonstrated the junction of arterial and venous capillaries in a cat and in a dog); (299) in this paper he exactly describes degenerative disease of the aortic valves, and had clearly observed the pulse which accompanies such disease, a discovery often erroneously attributed to Corrigan in 1829, more justly claimed for Vieussens in 1715, but certainly first made by Cowper.

Cowper had a considerable surgical practice, and these papers prove that his attainments in pathology and comparative anatomy were as respectable as his knowledge of human anatomy and practical surgery.

In 1708 he suffered from difficulty of breathing, and during the winter became dropsical. He gave up work (Mead's Preface) and retired to his native place, where he died on 8 March 1709, and is buried in the parish church.

[Works; Manuscript Apprentice Register and Freemen's Register of Barbers' Company.]

N. M.