Front Page Titles (by Subject) 305.: DR. ELLIS'S CONVICTION MORNING CHRONICLE, 13 JUNE, 1846, P. 6 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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305.: DR. ELLIS’S CONVICTION MORNING CHRONICLE, 13 JUNE, 1846, P. 6 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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DR. ELLIS’S CONVICTION
As Mill indicates in his opening sentence, the Morning Chronicle had published on 6 June, 1846, p. 7, a report of the coroner’s inquest on 5 June into the death of Richard Dresser, an accountant, aged forty-five, after treatment by James Ellis (ca. 1802-81), a practitioner of hydrotherapy. On 9 June a verdict of manslaughter was returned against Ellis (Morning Chronicle, 10 June, p. 5), but when tried on 20 June at the Central Criminal Court he was acquitted (Morning Chronicle and The Times, both 22 June, p. 7). This unheaded leader is the second of those on injustice and cruelty written by Harriet Taylor and Mill (see No. 303). It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on a verdict of manslaughter against a hydropathic practitioner in the Morning Chronicle of 13th June 1846, very little of this was mine”
(MacMinn, p. 59).
our paper, a day or two since, contained a report of proceedings before a coroner’s jury, terminating in a verdict of manslaughter against Dr. Ellis, the superintendent of the Hydropathic establishment at Sudbroke Park, Petersham, on account of the death of a patient, a Mr. Richard Dresser, who died on Tuesday, having been under the care of Dr. Ellis since the preceding Friday.
The case, in consequence of this verdict, will necessarily undergo investigation before a criminal tribunal; but to be put upon trial, even if acquitted, is so serious an injury and grievance to an innocent person, that it is worthy of deliberate consideration, both how far medical practitioners ought to be subject to such responsibility, and whether it has been judiciously applied to a case like the present.
The jury, of twelve, we dare say, respectable petty tradesmen, but not likely to be very enlightened critics of medical skill, have by this verdict pronounced a solemn opinion on two grave and difficult medical questions. They have decided that the patient died in consequence of Dr. Ellis’s treatment, and that the error committed—assuming it to be an error—was of so culpable a kind as to constitute, in the eye of the law, a punishable offence.
They did not, of course, adopt these serious conclusions on their own knowledge, but on the faith of medical evidence. The professional witnesses in the case were two surgeons practising in partnership in the Kent-road—a circumstance not inconsistent with consummate medical skill, but which assuredly affords no guarantee of it.1 These surgeons had examined the body after death, by the desire of the family, but without the knowledge or presence, so far as appeared, of Dr. Ellis, or of any one in his behalf. We hope, however, that it is still in his power to cause a re-examination of a more public kind, if he judges it desirable. Dr. Ellis, not having examined the body, gave as his opinion that the death was occasioned by diseased liver. The surgeons, after examination, say that the liver was not diseased. They do not agree with each other on all points, one thinking the liver congested, while the other “hardly ever saw a healthier liver in his life.”2 They both say, however, that the heart and lungs were congested, that they could find no other cause of death, and that this excessive congestion must have been produced by the very mild application of tepid (for it was not even cold) water which appears to have been used. They say besides, that if the liver had been diseased, the hydropathic treatment would have been extremely inappropriate; in which Dr. Ellis concurs, since he said that if he had known the liver to be affected he would not have received the patient. The only ailment which the deceased complained of was rheumatism, or sciatica. An extraordinary circumstance is, that on the showing of the two surgeons there was nothing to account for death from so slight a cause. They were asked no questions about the patient’s previous state of health; though one of them said that he had known and attended him for years. The only fact they stated was, that the action of the heart was feeble. But a feeble action of the heart is not enough to make a man die of suffocation from being fomented with tepid water. A man whom that would kill must have been at death’s door first. Was it so unpardonable an oversight in Dr. Ellis not to suspect such a condition in a man who complained of nothing worse than rheumatic pains? It must be remembered, too, that these professional men (we mean it not as an imputation, but as a presumption, which justice requires to be taken into account) were in all human probability strongly prepossessed both against the irregular practice, and against the irregular practitioner; a sentiment, which the patient having quitted their care to place himself under that of Dr. Ellis, was nowise calculated to mollify.
It is by no means a clear case, that in a free country medical men should ever be criminally responsible for the consequences of bonâ fide treatment; or that a person of full age and reasonable understanding, who, with his eyes open, places himself under the care of a practitioner, should not do it at his own risk. It is a question on both sides of which much still remains to be said. But there are weighty reasons to be urged for the responsibility in some other cases, which cannot be applicable to this. A quack may pretend to be acquainted with the whole medical art, and competent to apply all its expedients, each in its proper place. But Dr. Ellis and his compeers profess nothing but hydropathy, practice nothing but hydropathy, do not pretend to judge of anything but hydropathy. Whoever submits himself to them does so because he believes in hydropathy. He knows what he is about, and acts not from faith in the doctor, but from faith in the treatment itself, and in its applicability to his case; and neither is hydropathy a thing of palpable fraud, the bare profession of which can be treated as an attempt to deceive. In its immense pretensions, or in those which have sometimes been made for it, we place no credence whatever; but its occasional efficacy is admitted by all, and the most scientific physicians often advise patients, in obstinate cases, to place themselves in one of these very establishments. All depends on judging rightly of the cases to which it is suited, and in that the most instructed physician may err, as well as the most ignorant.
The law of the case was fairly enough laid down by the coroner. He said that the jury had nothing to do with Dr. Ellis’s being or not being a regularly licensed practitioner; that they had only to consider if there was proof of gross negligence or incompetence.3 But if thinking that a person has a liver complaint when he has not, is negligence or ignorance, deserving the penalties of manslaughter; thinking that a lady, whose lamentable case ought never to be forgotten, had not a liver complaint, when she was dying of it, does not seem to fall far short of the same criminality. Yet that was the mistake of one of the most instructed and really ablest men in the medical profession.4
The diagnostics of liver disease are proverbially uncertain; to say nothing of the general uncertainty and almost infant state of the medical art. And shall twelve Surrey tradesmen rush in where the best and most acknowledged authorities tread unsafely? Is it for them to take upon themselves the right of punishing the practitioners of the most fallible of all useful arts for not being infallible?
October 1846 to June 1847
[1 ]The two surgeons—whatever their skill—were Charles Waterworth (d. 1864) and James Hicks (d. 1858).
[2 ]Waterworth, quoted in “The Water Cure,” The Times, 10 June, 1846, p. 6.
[3 ]For the remarks of the coroner, William John Payne (1822-84), see ibid.
[4 ]Lady Flora Elizabeth Hastings (1806-39), a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Duchess of Kent, suffering from abdominal distension, was rumoured to be pregnant. Though she was attended by Sir James Clark (1788-1870), the Queen’s physician, he, when consulted, did not rule out pregnancy, nor did he give any other cause for her marked girth. Queen Victoria ordered a medical examination, after which Sir James declared Lady Flora not pregnant; but an enlarged liver, of which she died four months later, still went undiagnosed. See “Statement in Vindication of Lady Flora Hastings,” The Times, 25 Mar., 1839, p. 5, and “The Post Mortem Examination of the Lady Flora Hastings,” ibid., 10 July, 1839, p. 6.