William Cowper and Govard Bidloo

The creative process is a lonely passage. Whatever is achieved from a creative point of view is the work of a single person and an individual mind. Invention is not a group effort. In the arts, in music, in philosophy, or in mathematics, there are but a handful of fruitful collaborations. Once the individual act of creation has taken place and a path has been cleared, others can build and extend it. Rivalry is an inherent part of the creative process and has produced many noble achievements. If the means applied however are less honorable, competition is often the cause of conflict and controversy. In medical history, a notorious case is the ugly conflict between Bidloo and Cowper. In 1685, anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in Amsterdam, using 105 plates drawn by Gerard de Lairesse which were engraved by Abraham Blooteling. A Dutch version was printed in 1690, entitled Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams.

A year later, anatomist William Cowper was admitted to the Barber-Surgeon’s Company and began practicing in London that same year. In 1694, he published the first edition of his Myotomia reformata. This octavo volume is illustrated with ten plates of anatomy after his own drawings of subjects which he felt had previously not been properly illustrated. In addition, there is an appendix describing the anatomy of the penis and the mechanism of erection. Two years later, Cowper was elected a member of the Royal Society.

Sales of Bidloo’s book in the meantime went poorly, which forced his publishers to sell 300 copies of the unbound plates to William Cowper. The latter proceeded to write a new English text to accompany the plates. The text was partly based upon original research. He also commissioned nine plates drawn by Henry Cook and engraved by Antwerp-born artist Michiel van der Gucht, among which were front and back views of the entire musculature. The book was then published under Cowper’s name without mention of Bidloo or Lairesse. The original engraved title-page was amended with a piece of paper which reads: The Anatomy of the Humane Bodies. It covered the Dutch title. A number of vitriolic exchanges took place between Bidloo and Cowper. The latter falsely claimed that the plates had been commissioned by Jan Swammerdam whose widow had sold them to Bidloo. Some critics have called Cowper’s Anatomy one of the more blatant acts of plagiarism in medical publishing. The dispute did not harm his reputation. Cowper was held in great esteem by his contemporaries. A skilled surgeon, he was noted for his knowledge of comparative anatomy, for his use of wax injections in anatomical preparations, and for his anatomical illustrations.

Conceiving and writing a book is a singular process, but its publication a matter of collaboration. Historically speaking, some of the most outstanding books have been the result of a cooperative effort. A shining example of such collaboration is the enlarged second edition of Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, or A New Administration of the Muscles. The book was published in London in 1724, and is considered one of the best anatomical atlases of the eighteenth century. Responsible for the publication were Richard Mead and Henry Pemberton, two men whose medical education had taken place at Leiden University. Both had encountered the inspirational figure of Herman Boerhaave.

On 18 April 1693, London-born physician Richard Mead registered at the University of Leiden to study medicine. It is likely that he arrived there several months earlier because he became a close acquaintance of Archibald Pitcairne, who had settled in Leiden as Professor of Medicine in the spring of 1692 and left abruptly in the summer of 1693. Mead lived in Pitcairne’s house for a time, along with Herman Boerhaave, then also a student. Previously, he had studied classics at the University of Utrecht with Johann Georg Graevius, a noted scholar of classical culture, whose Thesaurus antiquitatum Romanorum helped form Mead’s taste for collecting antiquities. Mead left Leiden early in 1695 without taking a degree, and went on a tour of Italy before returning to London in 1696 to set up a medical practice in Stepney. He made a spectacular career and was elected to the Royal Society in 1703. Mead was a major collector of both books and art. He had a separate room built at the foot of the garden of his house on Great Ormond Street which housed his library and collections. The room also served as a meeting place for physicians, natural philosophers, and men of letters.

Henry Pemberton arrived in Leiden in August 1714. There he joined many other English students who had crossed the Channel to study medicine under Boerhaave. Having spent time in Paris and London, he returned to Leiden in 1719 as the guest of Boerhaave, and graduated M.D. on 27 December of that year. Once settled in London, his poor health withheld him from practising, and he spent much of his time as an author on medical and general subjects. His interest in physics brought him in close contact with Isaac Newton. In May 1728 he was appointed Gresham Professor of Physics. Pemberton was invited by Newton to superintend the third edition of the Principia which appeared in 1726.

Mead and Pemberton joined forces to prepare the second edition of Cowper’s Myotomia reformata. Cowper had worked until his death (1710) on an expanded edition of his study. The book was published posthumously under Mead’s supervision and sponsorship. This substantially enlarged version (sixty-six plates) appeared in 1724 with an introduction by Pemberton who explained muscular motion in Newtonian terms. Thomas Hearne, a Bodleian librarian at the time, called it the most beautiful book ever printed in England. The use of ornamental initial letters with anatomical motifs adds an artistic flourish to the presentation of the book. They are worthy successors to those of Vesalius’s Fabrica of 1543.