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Stanford University School of Medicine

A peek at the scandalous history of anatomical illustration

Grave robbing, plagiarism and bodies of lies; this is what you uncover when you start digging into the history of anatomy.

In a story published this week, Drew Bourn, PhD, the historical curator at Lane Library’s Medical History Center, describes the fascinating (and sometimes scandalous) stories behind a few of the historical anatomy books archived in the library’s basement.

One of my favorite stories is that of the "big wig" English surgeon, William Cowper. Though Cowper was an accomplished anatomist, he is famous for being one of the most notorious plagiarizers in the history of medicine. It started when he purchased 105 copper plates of anatomical images from an out-of-print book originally published in Amsterdam. Then, in 1698, he published the images under his own name in the book, Anatomy of the Humane Bodies. Besides not crediting the original creators Gérard de Lairesse and Govard Bidloo, he overwrote Bidloo’s name on the title page, igniting a legal feud that went on for years.

You can see the name cover-up on the title page here:

This story came out in a lecture in an Art and Biology class taught by Gail Wight, an associate professor of art and art history. The Medical History Center houses scores of similarly captivating stories -- for those in the area, it is well worth a visit.

Previously: Using antique wax figures to learn about anatomy, The Bourn identity: Preserving the school's legacy
Images of William Cowper and the title pages from the National Library of Medicine

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