Cooper, Sir Astley


Residence of. The Old Vicarage, Church Plain. The childhood home of the famous surgeon.

Astley Cooper was born at Brooke near Norwich in 1768 and came to live in the vicarage at Great Yarmouth, at the age of 13 years, when his father was appointed to be the vicar of the parish. 


Cooper was a very active, fun-loving youngster. One day he climbed up scaffolding in the church, slipped and was prevented from falling as his legs got caught around the poles. On another occasion, he climbed the church steeple with two pillows and then released the feathers within them, which blew over the Market Place. The townspeople thought it was a sign of impending pestilence.


After being apprenticed to Francis Turner, the local apothecary and surgeon, he went to Guy’s Hospital, London in 1784, where his uncle, William Cooper, was the senior surgeon. Cooper was not interested in books and studying. He continued to play the fool, until his tutor gave him an arm to dissect.


This started his lifelong interest in anatomy and he paid body-snatchers to exhume recently buried bodies, so that he and his students could dissect them to learn anatomy. He became a lecturer in anatomy at both St. Thomas’ and Guy’s Hospitals. On the retirement of his uncle, Cooper was appointed one of the surgeons at Guy’s Hospital.

Cooper wrote about the anatomy of herniae, he discovered ligaments in the breast, which are named after him, and he performed operations to tie off aneurysms (which are dilated arteries) in the neck, legs and abdomen. This was before the days of anaesthetics and antibiotics and amazingly some of these patients survived.


He was one of the most successful surgeons of his day, earning £21,000 a year. He received a baronetcy for draining an infected cyst on the scalp of King George IV.


He was the President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1827 and again in I836, after it had been renamed the Royal College of Surgeons of England. During that time he examined James Paget in his surgery examinations.


Cooper died in 1841, at the age of 72 years, and was buried beneath the Chapel of Guy’s Hospital in London.


Statue of Cooper in St Paul's Cathedral, London

The old vicarage