William Cowper was born in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, in Petersfield. Little is known of his youth until the year 1682, when he was apprenticed to William Bignal, a surgeon in London. in 1691, he was admitted to the Company of Barber-Surgeons in London, where he began to practice surgery. in 1694, Cowper published his first major work on anatomy, Myotomoia Reformata, or a New Administration of the Muscles, whereby he built off of and criticized the work of past anatomists in their observations on the musculature of the body. In 1696, Cowper was elected a member of the Royal Society in London. Just two years later, he published the Anatomy of Humane Bodies, which featured 105 copperplate engravings designed by Gerard de Lairesse and 9 additional copperplate engravings designed by Henry Cook. Over the next several years, Cowper contributed numerous works to Philosophical Transactions, a journal managed by the Royal society, within which he described what is now commonly called the Cowper's gland. In 1709, at just 43 years of age, William Cowper died as a result of health complications.
William Cowper is most well remembered for his observation of the Cowper's gland, as well as his involvement in a copyright scandal with Govard Bidloo that would heavily influence early modern copyright law and anatomical development in the eighteenth century.