The curious case of Alice Beatty: medical provisions and the ethics of patient care

Whilst trawling through the archives of the West London Hospital a few years ago I stumbled upon a collection of miscellaneous documents. They recounted the trials and tribulations of a nurse who dragged an eminent doctor through the law courts and the court of public opinion. Sadly, these fragmented documents become increasingly incoherent as you delve further into the folio. There is simply not enough material to build up an extended historical narrative. However, this strange collection of letters, newspaper clippings, and Friendly Society pamphlets does offer a fascinating glimpse into the often strained relationships between doctors and their patients. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I enjoyed piecing together the curious case of Alice Beatty.

In August 1892, Alice Beatty, superintendent of nurses at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Dublin, came to London suffering ‘ovarian disease’. She was engaged to be married and was ‘anxious, before being married, to be cured’. She procured admission to St Thomas’ Hospital for, as she later claimed, a single ovariectomy. The hospital’s senior obstetric physician, Charles Cullingworth, performed the operation.

Charles Cullingworth

Beatty ‘subsequently brought an action in August of 1895 against him claiming damages for injury for performing the operation wrongfully without her consent because in the course of the operation … Cullingworth removed both ovaries instead of only one … according to her instructions’. Cullingworth denied Beatty’s claim that any such arrangement had been made. He insisted that both ovaries were so diseased as to endanger the patient’s life and that ‘he only did what was absolutely necessary to save her life’.

In 1895, Joseph Bell of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary published the fourth edition of his Notes on Surgery for Nurses in which he critically alluded to the case:

Another nurse raises an action against a most distinguished surgeon, because in operating upon her without fee or reward, he had, so she fancied, removed more of her precious person than she had expected he meant to remove. Truly a strange action to be raised by an ungrateful patient unless a lunatic. How much worse a nurse against a doctor.

Beatty then brought a libel case against the London and Edinburgh publishers, as well as Bell himself. She was offered fifty guineas and costs, which she accepted.

However, in November of the following year Beatty attempted to gain admission to the West London Hospital (WLH) and requested to the placed under the care of Leonard Bidwell. She claimed that he was already acquainted with her case because he had assisted Cullingworth at the original operation. Bidwell refused to treat Beatty, fearing that ‘she would find some pretext for involving him also in costly and vexatious litigation’. Beatty then complained to the Board of Management of the WLH who eventually decided not to admit her as a patient.

In March 1900 Henry Cann, Secretary of the Trade, Friendly, Temperance and other Societies Delegates’ Committee, wrote to the WLH on Beatty’s behalf, requesting that it reconsider the decision to exclude her from medical care. At the same time a pamphlet was published entitled, ‘The Workers v. West London Hospital: An appeal to the inhabitants of West London’, in which the WLH’s decision to withhold treatment was presented as a threat to the integrity of working-class healthcare provisions. The pamphlet called upon its working-class readers ‘to demand that the rights of the public shall be safeguarded from the arrogant use of authority exercised by the Hospital Committee’. Two months later Cann wrote a letter to the Echo. ‘It is scandalous’, Cann argued, ‘that Miss Beatty should be refused … medical treatment when ill’. Cann went on to call readers to attend public meetings at which they demanded ‘municipal or popular control of all hospitals’ as the only viable solution to the ‘hospital question’.

The matter became so controversial that the WLH Committee was obliged to explain the situation to the Hospital’s Patron, the Prince of Wales. It escalated even further and became a subject of interest in the medical and popular press. What began as a case of alleged medical malpractice quickly assumed multiple wider implications for the nature of patient care, the role of patients as subjects in medical education, the quality and reliability of healthcare offered through clubs and friendly societies, and the duty of hospitals to offer medical care to sick persons. It also drew attention to the overwhelming volume of patients that presented themselves to outpatient departments every year.

It is very difficult to gauge any sense of Beatty’s own voice in these documents. One of the few glimpses we have is in a letter she wrote to The Daily News in August 1902

The question now is, am I, a nurse and a woman whose best years of life and health have been devoted to the relief of suffering in others, and whose health broke down in the service, to be debarred from all medical relief because forsooth, I claim a right over my own body? If so, will not steps have to be taken, in the interest of the people, to place hospitals under some other control, where petty spite cannot be carried to this extent?

From one perspective, Beatty was a tiresome nuisance to the medical staff of at least two major London Hospitals. From another perspective, she was the target of institutional persecution – a woman whose character and professional reputation as a nursing sister were attacked by the medical establishment because she challenged the authority of an esteemed practitioner. Beatty represented different things to different people. On the one hand, she was a victim of overbearing medical authority. On the other hand, she represented some of the many dangers posed to doctors whose medical practice was coming under increasing public scrutiny.


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