The ruling, by a federal appeals court in Washington in 1972, declared that before a patient provided informed consent to surgery or other proposed treatment, a doctor must disclose the risks, benefits and alternatives that a reasonable person would consider relevant.
Previously, the onus of soliciting that information had rested with the patient, and any description of risks was provided at the doctor’s discretion. A doctor had been considered negligent only when treatment was administered against the patient’s wishes.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the opinion is the cornerstone of the law of informed consent” to medical treatment, “not only in the United States, but in other English-speaking countries, too,” said Prof. Alan Meisel, who teaches law and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
The historical importance of his case was unbeknown to Mr. Canterbury and his family until about a decade ago, when Professor Meisel, who was researching the ruling, explained to them how it had benefited an untold number of subsequent patients.
For Mr. Canterbury, of course, it was, as Professor Meisel said, “the most Pyrrhic of victories.”
Jerry Watson Canterbury was born March 12, 1939, in Cyclone, W.Va., a hardscrabble hamlet in coal country near the Kentucky border. His father, Ott, was killed in a mining accident when Jerry was 9. He was raised by his widowed mother, the former Martha Morgan.
Like his two older brothers, Mr. Canterbury escaped Cyclone after graduating from high school, choosing not to risk a dangerous and perhaps fleeting job in the failing coal mines.
Rejected at a steel mill in Canton, he responded to an F.B.I. recruitment mailing, took a Greyhound bus 350 miles to Washington and was hired to work nights in the personnel records department as a clerk and messenger in January 1958.