Book Notice

By Cassie Watson; posted 1 August 2016.

Kim Price, Medical Negligence in Victorian Britain: The Crisis of Care under the English Poor Law, c.1834-1900 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), xii + 235 pp. 7 figs. 9 tabs. £65 (hbk), ISBN 978-1-4411-2546-0

Historians of law, crime and justice may not have come across this book, which provides an account which unites the history of medicine and law via a detailed study of medical negligence claims made under the New Poor Law. Today a matter for tort law, in the Victorian period negligence was subject to contract law – and that put workhouse medical officers at a decided disadvantage.

The core argument is that medical provision under the Victorian poor law was subject to systemic weaknesses (especially low pay and lack of staff) and this translated into rising instances of medical negligence. This situation was exacerbated during the crusade against outdoor relief in the 1870s and 1880s, when more vulnerable patients were admitted (in essence, forced) into over-crowded and understaffed workhouse infirmaries. Rather than tackle the underlying problems of staff and pay, the administrative powers – local boards of guardians and the Local Government Board – found fault with individual MOs, who could easily be charged with neglect of the duties that their contracts specified. These contracts did vary but the LGB stipulated several basic duties for all MOs; these were more administrative than clinical.

This is the story of healthcare provision, which involves not just medicine but economics and law. As such, it offers lessons for the present as well as the past.

Reviews have been published in: Economic History Review, 69.1 (Feb. 2016): 369-370; History: Reviews of New Books, 44.5 (Sept. 2016): 141-142; Social History of Medicine, 29.2 (May 2016): 417-418. My review for the Journal of Legal History should be available by the end of 2016.

An affordable paperback is published this month.