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Release: Dec. 18, 2002

Hardin Library obtains rare anatomy atlas that set off legendary plagiarism feud

White-out hadn't been invented yet in the 17th century, so William Cowper used the next best thing to complete what many historians consider one of the greatest literary plagiarisms in medical history.

Cowper, a famed British surgeon and anatomist, published "The Anatomy of Humane Bodies" under his own name in London in 1698. The book, however, had already been published 13 years earlier by Godfried Bidloo in The Hague, Netherlands, as "Anatomia Human Corporis."

The UI Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, which already had a copy of Bidloo's original, recently obtained a rare first edition of Cowper's book to complete the set. Edwin Holtum, Hardin special collections librarian who oversees the Martin Rare Book Room where both volumes are kept, said the library had been looking for a first edition of Cowper's book for many years because it's so rare and because the feud it set off is a significant moment in medical and copyright history.

"The audacity of it and the blatancy of it caused quite an uproar at the time, and it's still remembered today," Holtum said. Cowper used the printing plates of every illustration from Bidloo's book right down to the title page, an elaborate engraving featuring characters from history and classical mythology. Rather than commission a new title page, Cowper used Bidloo's plate, then wrote his own name and book title on a separate sheet of paper and glued it to the page to cover Bidloo's.

"If you run your finger over the title page, you can actually feel where Cowper pasted his name over Bidloo's," said Holtum.

Bidloo's book contains 105 drawings of the human body at various stages of dissection that were used by medical students of the time to learn about the human anatomy. It also contained explanations written in Latin for each of the plates.

Cowper added nine additional plates and translated the text into English. Although copyright laws were still in their infancy in the 17th century, Holtum said that Cowper's plagiarism violated even the informal "gentlemen's agreements" of the time that kept authors from stealing each other's work.

Bidloo's response was to excoriate Cowper in public and sue him in the Royal Society, an organization of English scientists. "Bidloo was something of a hothead," Holtum said. "He referred to Cowper as a highwayman, and a criminal who wrote like a Dutch barber."

Cowper fed fuel to the feud by offering his own sarcastic defense to Bidloo's charges, a written copy of which is also shelved in the Martin Room. After hearing and deliberating the case, the Society found Cowper guilty of plagiarism, but fined him a token amount of only 1 schilling.

Holtum said that lost in the argument over the ethically troublesome origin of Cowper's book is the fact that it's an improvement over Bidloo's original. Cowper translated the book into English, making it usable by a growing number of English doctors and medical students at a time when the scientific study and practice of surgery was just beginning to advance in England. Cowper also wrote more detailed explanations of the plates and corrected numerous errors Bidloo had made in his text. That Cowper is remembered today mostly for his ethical lapse is unfortunate, Holtum believes.

"Cowper is one of the greatest anatomists of his time, and he accomplished many other things for which he should be remembered," he said.

The Hardin Library purchased the Cowper book last December for $17,660. It purchased Bidloo's book in 1971 for $760, although Holtum said it would likely sell for 20 times that amount today. Both are available for public viewing in the Martin Room. All of the books in the Martin Room are purchased through an endowment by the late benefactor, Dr. John Martin.