August 23, 2012

Cooper's ligaments

Today is the birthday of Astley Cooper (1768). Have an uplifting day!

n. supportive fibrous structures throughout the breast that partially sheathe the lobes shaping the breast; these ligaments affect the image of the glandular tissue on a mammogram
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 20th Edition

Perhaps no other extraordinary medical career has been reduced more pitifully than that of Sir Astley Paston Cooper. He was the Sergeant Surgeon to nineteenth-century royalty, was Vice President of the Royal Society, and is the unfortunate namesake of the perceived condition of a pendulous bosom perhaps resulting from inadequate undergarment support—the slang term for which is Cooper’s Droop.

Cooper was born the son of an English clergyman in 1768. He was an exemplary student of anatomy and eventually became a celebrated surgeon, professor, and lecturer. He was an indefatigable researcher and defended both the comparative anatomy lesson of a dissected elephant and the crucial role of resurrectionists (body snatchers) to provide corpses for medical training (see burke and bishop). He wrote a seminal two-volume treatise on hernias, pioneered work in vascular surgery, removed a royal cyst from the head of King George IV, and was eventually knighted and baroneted.

He was also an authority on mammary glands.

Though he died more than a century before the era of sexual revolution and brassiere tossing, Cooper would likely have warned the newly liberated ladies that the sartorial shackles they were eschewing might help postpone some inevitable sagging (though the jury is still out on whether this is due to gravity or not). Among the myriad anatomical features Cooper identified, studied, and eventually named were the fibrocollegenous septa that attach the breasts to the body. He discovered that, unlike Kegel exercises for the pelvis or sit-ups for a spare tire, there was no treatment to restore elasticity to these Cooper’s ligaments once they were stretched. He believed that even the most pristine mammary profile, if subjected to extended tension, will languish.

Cooper once said “The means by which I preserve my own health are temperance, early rising, and spunging the body every morning with cold water, a practice I have pursued for thirty years; and though I go from this heated theatre into the squares of the Hospital, in the severest winter nights, with merely silk stockings on my legs, yet I scarcely ever have a cold....”

Despite these precautions, Cooper died in 1841 in London, and a statue of him was raised in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Both in his own time and shortly after, he was further memorialized through street names, public parks, and schools, as well as through a slew of true clinical eponyms including Cooper’s fascia (covering of the spermatic cord), Cooper’s testis (testicular neuralgia), and Cooper’s hernia, among many others.

The exact date of the first usage of the term Cooper’s Droop is debatable, but it found new pop-culture life in 1978 through Michael Shem’s satirical novel House of God in which a young medical intern waxes poetic on his girlfriend’s bosom: “Oh, how I love her breasts when she dances. Cooper’s ligaments suspend the breasts. Cooper’s Droopers, if they stretch.”

Unfortunately, despite his venerable contributions to medicine, this snickering and rhyming word coupling is the way he is most widely remembered today.