Ann C. Shalleck


In July 1889, Mary O'Brien, a young, Irish, immigrant woman traveling to Boston in steerage on the "Catalonia," a ship of the Cunard Steamship Company, was given, against her will, a smallpox vaccine by Dr. I.T.M. Giffen, the ship's doctor. The vaccine left her body covered with sores and blisters. Two years later, in O'Brien v. Cunard Steamship Co.,' the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in an opinion written by Judge Knowlton held that the trial court had ruled correctly that Mary O'Brien's claims for battery and negligence could not even go to the jury. The appellate court agreed with the trial court that, as a matter of law, she had consented to the vaccination. Dismissing all evidence of her desire not to be vaccinated, disregarding her statement to the doctor that she had been vaccinated already, and refusing to evaluate from her perspective the threatening and coercive nature of the circumstances under which she received the vaccine, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded, as had the Superior Court in Boston, that there was "no evidence" of lack of consent. The court also held, as a matter of law, that a steamship line is not liable for the negligence of a doctor employed by the company.

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