Thursday, August 01, 2013

History Corner: medical negligence in 1920s Deptford

In the 1920s a New Cross doctor was involved in a tragedy that led to his prosecution for manslaughter. Dr Percy Bateman lived at 423 New Cross Road and in July 1924 he was called in by a midwife to assist in a difficult childbirth. The mother, Mary Ann Harding, 'was the wife of a builder's labourer, and lived in Deptford in two rooms at the top of four flights of stairs. She was about 33 years of age, she had had four children before, their ages ranging from 13 to 4' (BMJ, 7 Feburary 1925).

The baby died and the mother, Mary Ann Harding, became very ill. Over the next week she continued to deteriorate and was visited twice daily by Bateman, who refused the request of Mary's husband and the midwife to admit her to hospital. When she finally was admitted she was found to be unfit for an operation and she died on the 30th July. It was discovered in the post-mortem that the doctor had mistakenly removed most of her uterus along with the placenta during the childbirth.

A jury found him guilty of manslaughter and he was sentenced to six months imprisonment in December 1924, but the Lord Chief Justice (Lord Hewart) quashed the conviction on appeal in February 1925 and he was released. The prosecution argued in the appeal that 'What impressed the jury was the callous neglect he showed. He did not call in another doctor, he took the uterus home with him, he concealed the facts of the matter from everybody who might be in a position to give help or advice' (BMJ 14 February 1925). But Bateman was largely backed by the medical profession who were concerned about the implications of doctors being jailed for negligence.

The appeal judgement in Rex v Bateman 1925 is still quoted today as it helped establish the definition of manslaughter in cases like this. The  Court ruled that simply causing the death of somebody was not enough to prove manslaughter, rather it was necessary to show that the accused 'showed such disregard for the life and safety of others as to amount to a crime against the State and conduct deserving punishment'.

Bateman died at his home in New Cross in 1936.

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