Lawsuits and threatened suits against doctors were one of the hazards of the medical profession in the 19th century.
Medical training in the earlier decades of that century was rudimentary at best, and many medicines and practices caused more harm than good. As well, there were far too many doctors, and they often occupied their time and supplemented their income with other business activities, to the detriment of their medical practices.
Doctors frequently squabbled among themselves, differing over medical procedures and the conducting of partnerships. Disgruntled patients on occasion hauled their doctor into court for bungled operations, misdiagnosis and procedures conducted and bungled while the doctor was reeling drunk.
Better training and improved professional standards vastly improved the practice of medicine beginning in the 1870s. Dr. Abraham Groves is the best known of the new breed of doctors, with his university training and professional approach, which strikingly differed from that of his older colleagues.
The new generation of doctors soon gained increased stature, if not income. Much of their work went unpaid in the years before medical insurance became common. But few patients after the 1890s considered suing a doctor or questioning his professional knowledge and ability.
A rare case of a local doctor suing to preserve his reputation occurred well into the 20th century.
Early in 1921 Dr. Thomas D. Meikle of Mount Forest treated Mrs. Charles Greensides for what was known at the time as “female complaints.” His patient did not improve, and soon became quite ill. Greensides called in another physician, Dr. Perry, who concluded that the patient seemed to be suffering from strychnine poisoning.
Greensides began denouncing Dr. Meikle in public, claiming the physician tried to poison his wife, and might have succeeded had he not called in Dr. Perry. His charges, which he repeated endlessly around Mount Forest, caused a sensation, and greatly annoyed and discomfitted Dr. Meikle.
The aggrieved physician consulted his lawyer, who drafted a letter to Greensides. That letter stated the doctor was contemplating a civil suit for slander, but would be content with a public apology from Greensides. He did not reply.
The doctor discussed the matter with an old friend, lawyer A.S. Clarke, who commenced a civil suit against Greensides.
The complaint filed by Dr. Meikle stated that Greensides had, “on different occasions and to different people falsely and maliciously stated that the plaintiff had given to the defendant’s wife medicine which contained too much strychnine which made her dangerously ill, and that if Dr. Perry had not been called in she would have lost her life.” He asked for $5,000 in damages.
At a preliminary hearing, Greensides testified under oath, admitting he had made the statements that provoked Dr. Miekle’s complaint.
Greensides hired lawyer J.M. Kearns, formerly of Arthur and at the time practicing in Guelph, to defend him. The case came up in a Guelph courtroom on March 24, 1921 before Justice Masten and a jury.
Though best known as a poison, used frequently to control rodents years ago, strychnine also had a medicinal use as a stimulant when used in very small doses. It was even used a century ago by athletes to enhance their performance.
Dr. Meikle, the first witness at the trial, explained the medicinal use of strychnine to the jury. He claimed it was “harmless” in the quantities he used to mix the medicine he gave to Mrs. Greensides. He had been using the formula for years, he stated, and a year previously he had given Mrs. Greensides several bottles of the same formula, which had produced beneficial results.
The next three witnesses testified about statements made to them about Dr. Meikle and his professional abilities. Next were three doctors.
Dr. Fotheringham of Toronto, a specialist, stated that he could think of no case where the quantity of strychnine in Dr. Meikle’s prescription would be injurious. Doctors Stuart and MacKinnon of Guelph concurred, and stated the medicine contained the minimum amount of strychnine that would have an effect on a patient.
Dr. Meikle’s lawyer submitted a transcript of the earlier hearing, in which Greensides admitted to the statements he had made in public to various people.
At the conclusion of Dr. Meikle’s evidence, J.M. Kearns, the lawyer for Greensides, submitted a motion for non-suit. Justice Masten rejected the request, stating there was ample evidence to support the complaint, and that the matter should go to the jury.
Both Greensides and Dr. Perry were in the court, but surprisingly, Kearns called neither one to offer evidence to support the defense case, or to challenge the evidence brought before the court by Dr. Meikle.
In addressing the jury, A.S. Clarke stated that Dr. Meikle was not seeking a huge monetary settlement, but rather sought to restore his reputation “against the wilful and malicious slander which had no foundation in fact.”
J.M .Kearns followed. His was a weak address, which did not directly challenge any of the evidence against his client. The judge summarized the case for the jury, then sent them out of the court to consider the case.
A bare half hour later the jury returned to the court. They had reached a unanimous decision in favor of Dr. Meikle. The $5,000 initially asked for by Dr. Meikle, though, was rejected by them. Their award was $25 for damages.
The final cost to Greensides was more than that after Justice Masten added court costs and the expenses sustained by Dr. Meikle. In the end he had to cough up more than $100, well over a month’s income for the average worker at that time.
The suit created something of a sensation in Mount Forest, and it was reported in newspapers across Ontario.
The decision of J.M. Kearns and his client to offer no substantial evidence, or to challenge any of the evidence and witnesses brought forward by Dr. Meikle, is an interesting one. Kearns was a capable lawyer. Perhaps he feared that his potential witnesses might harm his case under cross-examination. And Dr. Perry, probably out of respect to a colleague, did not wish to testify.
The original bottle of medicine did not seem to have survived until the trial, or if it did, no one sought to question its contents or have it analyzed. It is possible that Dr. Meikle made an error in mixing it, and that it contained dangerous levels of strychnine.
The puniness of the award is also interesting. Juries, of course, offer no hint of the process and arguments that go into their verdicts. In this case, the size of their award, $25, and the fact that they reached their decision unanimously after barely a half hour, suggests that they did not believe that Greensides’s rants against Dr. Meikle had caused him much damage in the minds of Mount Forest residents.
A list of the jurors does not seem to have survived. It would be interesting to see how many of them were from the Mount Forest area, and might have known of Dr. Meikle’s prior reputation.
This seems to have been the last case in Wellington of a doctor suing someone for statements that might affect their reputation in the community, and among patients and potential patients.
It was also a warning to people who might be inclined to denounce their doctor in public. The doctor might sue and win, and the settlement could potentially be much greater than $25.