Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Sir Astley Cooper: the surgeon’s surgeon

Astley Cooper, one of the most famous surgeons of his time, was born in Norfolk in 1768. He began his studies in anatomy at the age of sixteen at St. Thomas’ Hospital, attended the lectures of the great surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, and was appointed at Guy’s Hospital as demonstrator in anatomy in 1789 and joint lecturer in 1791. At age twenty-five he received an appointment as lecturer in anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, with the duty of dissecting in public the criminals executed at the Old Bailey. He also developed contacts with the body snatchers (or resurrection men) who would supply him with bodies for his experiments and dissections.

Elected surgeon to Guy’s Hospital in 1800 and hearing a lecture on the structure and function of the tympanic membrane, he researched the subject and reported that people whose tympanic membrane was damaged or destroyed did not suffer from hearing loss. He was able to restore the hearing of some patients by making a hole in the tympanic membrane, i.e. a myringotomy.

When he became a fellow of the Royal Society he gave a paper on “A Case of Aneurism of the Carotid Artery,” describing an operation that had never been done before, having experimented for several years on animals. His first patient died as the disease was too advanced and the patient “too enfeebled,” but the surgery was successful in 1809 on a patient “of strong mind and vigorous frame” in whom the disease had not advanced too far.

This feat was followed by removing a tumor of “enormous magnitude” from a patient. In 1807 he published his treatise on hernias. In 1817 he performed his famous operation of tying the abdominal aorta. In 1820 he operated on an infected sebaceous cyst on the head of King George IV, which led to his being knighted. His surgical practice became the largest any surgeon had ever had with an annual income from his hospital and private practice amounting to more than twenty-one thousand pounds per year. His patients were amongst the most rich and famous in the country and at various times included not only the King but also the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel. One of his pupils was the poet John Keats (1795-1821), who studied at Guy’s Medical School and was licensed in 1816 to practice medicine but did not spend much time doing so.

In 1822 he published a treatise on dislocations and fractures of the joints, followed by observations on fractures of the neck of the femur. He published illustrations of diseases of the breast in 1829; anatomy of the thymus in 1832; a case of femoral aneurysm for which the external iliac artery was tied; and in 1836 reported his experiments on tying the carotid and vertebral arches in a dog, who apparently survived. Anatomy of the breast was published in 1840. During his life he identified several anatomical structures which were named after him. In his lectures he told his readers that it was the surgeon’s duty to tranquilize the patient, beget cheerfulness, and impart confidence in his recovery. He died in 1841 and is remembered as a great teacher, anatomist, and surgeon.





GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Fall 2018   |  Sections  |  Surgery

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