Law, Medicine, and Early American Libel

Another interesting title in the latest Brooklyn Law School Library New Book List is Law and Medicine in Revolutionary America: Dissecting the Rush v. Cobbett Trial, 1799by Linda Myrsiades (Call #KF228.R85 M97 2012). The book focuses on the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia, which resulted in the death of 4,044 people, and the ensuing libel trial of Rush v Cobbett that pitted medicine against the press, republicanism against federalism, and privacy against the public welfare. The case was between two critical figures in late eighteenth-century America, the new nation’s most prestigious physician-patriot, Benjamin Rush, and its most popular journalist, William Cobbett, editor of Porcupine’s Gazette.

Rush, an advocate of bleeding patients, would sometimes apply the treatment to a hundred patients in a single day. Evidence showed that bloodletting coincided with higher death rates. In 1797, Englishman William Cobbett stated that Rush had “contributed to the depopulation of the earth” in the wake of the yellow fever epidemics in 1794 and 1797. Rush then sued Cobbett in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for libel for criticizing him. Cobbett, being an Englishman, had little chance of defending himself in the newly independent United States and lost the case when, on December 14, 1799, the jury ordered him to pay $5,000 compensation to Rush, at the time the largest award ever paid out in Pennsylvania.

The book brings together many primary sources including trial records, press coverage, and personal correspondence, dissecting the libel trial and contributimg to the study of medicine, law, and the humanities. Using a rare surviving transcript, the author examines the trial’s six litigating counsel whose narratives of events and roles provide a unique view of how the revolutionary generation saw itself and the legacy it wished to leave for future generations. On the one hand, the trial featured assaults against medical bleeding and its premier practitioner in the yellow fever epidemics; on the other, it castigated the licentiousness of the press in the nation’s then-capital city. The history shows the itigiousness of the new nation as well as the threat of sedition characterizing the development of political parties and the partisan press in the newly independent America nation. Chapters in the book include: Benjamin Rush and the culture of medicine — Malpractice law and Benjamin Rush — William Cobbett and the scurrilous press — Libel law and William Cobbett — The trial concluded.