Plagiarist from the Past

William Cowper is infamous for being one of the biggest medical plagiarists of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1698 Cowper published the book The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, becoming famous above and beyond the imaginable. Even though the attention was negative, any fame at all is good, right?

A short 13 years earlier, Govard Bidloo published his book Anatomia Humani Corporis using 105 beautiful plates drawn by Gerard de Lairesse and engraved by Abraham Blooteling. When Bidloo’s book did not create much attention or sales, he decided to sell 300 copies of his engravings to Cowper’s publishers. Cowper’s publishers asked him if he would translate Bidloo’s text from Dutch to English, while using the same information and engravings but with “…many of them showing a great deal of original research and fresh new insights.” When the book was published, Cowper added nine new engravings because “…he believed Bidloo’s work failed to properly express or cover relevant information,” while replacing Bidloo’s name and original title with his own. Cowper did not credit Bidloo on the title pages, but rather strategically placed Bidloo’s name in his introduction. Even though Cowper clearly plagiarized Bidloo’s work, plagiarism laws were not as strict as they are now. Many people plagiarized others’ work without giving credit, but Cowper’s had been significant because it clearly undermined Bidloo’s work and criticized the original author. Before the publishing of his disputed book, Cowper was elected in 1696 into the Royal Society as one of the first surgeons in the reputable group. Bidloo petitioned the Royal Society to repeal Cowper’s membership because of his act of plagiarism, but since Cowper legally purchased the plates from the publisher, there were no retributions.

Cowper was a credible anatomist despite his critics, performing research on significant medical topics and finding the bulbourethral glands. He also mentored and housed the young surgeon William Cheselden. Mark A. Sanders states: “Cheselden became the most skilled English surgeon of the first half of the 18th century,” giving Cowper some credibility in his medical abilities.

The Anatomy of Humane Bodies is located on the 5th floor of the Dolph Briscoe Library in the P.I. Nixon Library, along with Govard Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corporis. Come compare the two texts for yourself and see plagiarism of the 18th century at its finest. Contact Mellisa DeThorne at or call 210-567-2470 if you have any questions about this blog, or would like to view the special collections.

Forever Historic,

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern

Photographs and Information Courtesy of:

National Library of Medicine, Historical Anatomies on the Web:

University of Windsor, Leddy Library:!OpenForm

William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials by Mark A. Sanders