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Decisions of the Nineteenth Century Tasmanian Superior Courts

R. v. Valentine [1843]

laudanum, medical practitioner, criminal defendant, manslaughter, medical negligence

Supreme Court of Van Diemen's Land

Pedder C.J., 7 January 1843

Source: Cornwall Chronicle, 14 January 1843 [1] 

            Before His Honor, Sir J. L. Pedder, Chief Justice, and a jury of twelve

            William Valentine - surgeon of Campbell Town, was indicted for causing the death of Theophilus Swifte, by administering a large quantity of deadly poison, called laudanum.

            Robert Aiken, aged fourteen, sworn - I knew Mr Theophilus Swifte; he is now dead; he kept a school at Campbell Town on the 20th November last; I was one of his scholars; I recollect the Sunday morning I was sent to Dr. Valentine's, in November, for a light dose of medicine; Dr. Valentine kept a shop for the sale of medicine. I saw Dr. Valentine, and told him that Mr. Swifte wanted a light dose of medicine, not a dose that would kill a horse. Mr. Swifte had desired me to say so to Dr. Valentine; it was said in a jocular manner by Mr. Swifte; it was understood so by Dr. Valentine; Dr. Valentine went in; I saw him at the door of his house; he remained about two or three minutes, and brought out something in a bottle, wrapped in paper, but I could not tell what it was; it was liquid; Dr. Valentine said, "That's a dose that won't kill an ass." He said it in a jocular way; I delivered the bottle to Mr. Swifte; I went straight home with it; I carried it in my hand, and it was never out of my sight till I delivered it to Mr. Swifte; it took me about four minutes going back with the medicine; I delivered it to Mr. Swifte immediately on my return. Mr. Swifte was going into the house; I don't know what became of the bottle; Mr. Swifte took it into the house with him; it was about nine o'clock in the morning; he had not breakfasted; I did not see him afterwards that day. I mentioned to Mr. Swifte what Dr. Valentine said; Mr. Swifte laughed; no person put anything into the bottle; Mr. Swifte and Dr. Valentine were friends.

            Cross-examined. - I saw Dr. Valentine at Mr. Swifte's house that day; it was about half-past five - after Mr. Swifte was dead; Mr. Swifte was fond of pleasantry.

            William Hay sworn - I knew the late Mr. Swifte; I was an assistant at his school; I recollect seeing him on the 20th November at the breakfast-table; I heard him complain of being ill previously; Mr. Swifte, Mr. Lawrence, and Masters W. and E. Lawrence were at the breakfast table. Mr. Swifte said he had taken a dose of medicine; and remarked that it had a peculiar taste - bitter, and different from any he had received before; he took a cup of coffee, and about half a chop; he then said he felt as though he had taken brandy (alluding to the medicine); he said, shortly after, that he thought he was going to faint; he gave us to understand that it was not unusual to faint, and there was no cause for alarm; I observed he looked very pale; I stopped for a few minutes, and I then observed his countenance change; when I saw his countenance livid I asked him what I could do for him; I received no answer; I alarmed the servants, and got water and applied it to his temples; Mrs. Swifte having been sent for came in, and I retired. I then sent immediately for Dr. Valentine; he came immediately. In less than five minutes, I consider that every expedition was used; I was sent for into the room; Dr. Valentine was there; Mr. Swifte was in a reclining position, on an easy chair, apparently senseless; Dr. Valentine was arranging a stomach-pump; the pump was used upon Mr. Swifte; the contents of the stomach were drawn off as expeditiously as possible; Dr. Valentine observed - after the stomach had been partially emptied, and he applied his nose to the portion removed - that he had inadvertently given Mr. Swifte laudanum, instead of a black draught; that observation was directed to me; stimulants were then applied; the first thing done was to introduce a small quantity of brandy, and a portion of sulphuric ether by the stomach pump; smelling salts were then applied to the nose; cold water was incessantly dashed in Mr. Swifte's face in small quantities; Mr. Swifte's hands were rubbed continually, and warm water applied to his feet; I observed the respiration of Mr. Swifte was interrupted and difficult; warm flannels were applied to the chest; Mr. Swift could not use his legs at all, and was placed on a mattrass on the floor; the bellows was applied to the nostril; this seemed to be efficacious; the respiration seemed more easy, and less interrupted; strong hopes was then entertained of his living; this lasted about half an hour, when the respiration became more interrupted. Some more ether was then introduced into the stomach; the lancet was used, and Mr. Swifte was bled in the right arm; he died about half-past five on Sunday, the 20th November. Dr. Valentine came about ten, and was with Mr. Swifte until he died, administering to him. It was about half an hour from the time Mr. Swifte complained of the bitterness of the draught until Dr. Valentine came; it was a few minutes past ten when Mr. Swifte complained of the draught; Dr. Valentine appeared cool and collected all the time; I never left the room until death occurred; Dr. Valentine appeared very distressed after Mr. Swifte died, but was quite cool before; Mr. Swifte's servant was in the room also; no other medical man was present; there were none in the neighbourhood; I sent the boy for Dr. Valentine; I did not tell him to bring the stomach-pump. Dr. Valentine told me he suspected when the boy went over that he had made a mistake, and he had brought the stomach-pump. He said also, that he went into the surgery, and discovered his mistake, got the stomach-pump, and brought it with him. Dr. Valentine said he found the bottle containing laudanum on the surgery table.

            By the Court. - That is Dr. Valentine at the bar; I have known Dr. Valentine nearly two years; he has been living at Campbell Town during that period, and was a surgeon there; he prescribed medicines; I have known him practice during the period I have spoken of; I believe he is only a surgeon; I saw Mr. Swifte on the morning of the 20th November, about a quarter of an hour before I went into the parlour; Mr. Swifte was then walking in the school-room; I had not seen the boy Aiken before that morning.

            Cross-examined - I know of my own knowledge that Mr. Swifte was subject to fainting; Mr. Swifte told me that morning he was rather unwell; the contents of the stomach was removed by the servants; I did not see it; they were not directed by Dr. Valentine to remove it. Dr. V. was very attentive to Mr. Swifte; the stomach was emptied in less than ten minutes; Dr. Valentine and Mr. Swifte were upon intimate terms; Dr. Valentine has borne the highest character for humanity during the time he has been in Campbell Town.

            By the Court. - Mr. Swifte complained about the draught as he entered the room previous to breakfast.

            John Steward King sworn. - I am a physician - a doctor of medicine; I reside at Perth; I was called in to examine the remains of Mr. Swifte; I examined his body on the 22nd November; I did not observe any external marks on the body to cause death - there were none. I opened the body and examined the stomach; there were no unhealthy appearances; the contents of the stomach were partly of solid and partly of fluid - of a mixed nature. I observed the contents of the stomach had a peculiar smell of a spiritous nature; I could not detect the slightest smell of laudanum. I was present at the examination of last witness; the smell of laudanum would not remain in the stomach after the remedies as described were applied; there are occasionally marks or appearances in the stomach, but it is not usual; I examined the chest; the lungs were healthy, but there was a slight engagement of blood; I attribute that to the laudanum that had been swallowed; had I not known that laudanum had been taken, I should have attributed it to epilepsy; it might have arisen from various causes; had he died in a fainting fit, such appearances would be found. From the appearance of the body I could not account for the death of Mr. Swifte; it would not be extra-ordinary for no appearance of laudanum to be seen after the stomach-pump had been applied. I consider the treatment Dr. Valentine pursued was highly judicious and proper - the best means that could possible be adopted. A black draught resembles laudanum very closely, but do not resemble each other in smell; laudanum smells peculiarly strong; I might not detect laudanum by the smell pouring it from one bottle into another; I am myself a compounder of medicine; it is a general practice to have poisons labelled; laudanum would have a more sudden effect upon an empty stomach than a full one.

            Cross-examined. - A bottle containing laudanum would be labelled Tinture Opii, it is a medicine of very general use; it is not an ingredient of a black drawn. If I had no knowledge of Mr. Swifte having taken laudanum I could not tell the cause of his death; I might have been lead to attribute the cause of his death to be from a fainting fit, had I not known of the laudanum.

            By the Court. - The remedies applied would not altogether have been proper if some poisonous article had not been taken.

            Robert Aiken recalled - The Dr. Valentine I was speaking of, is the gentleman at the bar.

            Rev. Mr. J. Bedford examined. - I knew the deceased, Theophilus Swifte; I also know Dr. Valentine; I am intimately acquainted with him; I knew him prior to the 20th November last; I have been in his surgery; the bottles are all labelled; I have observed the bottle in which laudanum is kept; I had observed it on the 20th November; the bottle was on a shelf; behind a counter; this was on the evening of the 20th November; there were several bottles near it; it was labelled "Tincture of Opium"; there was a bottle containing black draught next to the one with laudanum, not labelled black draught; I knew from Dr. Valentine it contained black draught. It was labelled "Mixture Catharter;" the bottles were similar in size and colour. The quantity of laudanum was rather less than the black draught.

            By the Court. - I was frequently in the surgery; the bottles have occasionally stood together; the laudanum and black draught had been kept in bottles unlike until a short time previous; there was a difference in the stoppers - very trifling.

            Cross-examined. - I have known Dr. Valentine three years, since he arrived at Campbell Town; he has borne the best possible character during that period; Dr. Valentine has always family prayer in his house in the morning and evening.

            By the Jury. - The bottles had not always been together.

            Mr. Macdowell then addressed the jury for the defence in a speech of considerable force, and proceeded to call the following witnesses.

            Marius Fairbank. - I remember the morning of the day when Mr. Swifte died; I was living with Dr. Valentine then; it was on a Sunday morning; I recollect young Mr. Aikin coming to my master's house; my master was reading prayers to the family at the time; Dr. Valentine left off prayers and went to the door on Master Aikin's arrival; Dr. Valentine was away about two minutes and then returned to the room again; I did not see where he went to.

            By the Court. - I saw Mr. Aikin come to the house; I opened the door to him.

            Rev. W. Bedford Sen. Sworn. - I am senior, chaplain of this island; I have known Mr. Valentine ever since his arrival; he has borne a character for humanity and kindness as good as a man can bear.

            Mr. Henry Keach sworn. - I am the father in law of the late Mr. Swifte; I reside at Campbell Town; I have known Dr. Valentine ever since he has been in the district about three years; he was on every intimate terms with Mr. Swifte; I have always heard the best of characters of Dr. Valentine, and believe him to be a very good humane man.

            Mr. Andrew Gatenby sworn. - I reside in the district of Campbell Town and have known Dr. Valentine very since he came to reside there; he has always borne a character for humanity and kindness as good as man can possibly bear.

            Captain Adam Riddle sworn. - Dr. Valentine came to the colony as surgeon of the ship with me; I have known him up to this period. He has always borne the highest character for humanity and kindness, and general attention.

            Mr. Learmonth. - I reside near Ross; I have known Dr. Valentine two years and a half; he has attended my family during that time; I have always regarded him as a superior character for humanity and gentlemanly attention.

            Mr. P. Smith sworn. - I reside at Perth; I have known Dr. Valentine a little more than two years; his character was remarkably good for humanity and kindness.

            Mr. Benjamin Horne sworn. - I reside at Chiswick; I have known Dr. Valentine between two and three years; he has always borne the very best character for humanity and kindness; I have employed him professionally.

            The jury expressed themselves satisfied with the witnesses called in character, a number more being in attendance.

            The Attorney-General then rose to reply; and addressed the jury on the law of the case, quoting several cases and authorities in support of his argument.

            Verdict - Guilty; but strongly recommended to the mercy of the Court. Sentenced to pay a fine to the Queen of £25.


[1]            According to AOTSC 41/5, Valentine was charged with manslaughter and fined £15.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University and the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania