COMPANION

South African Libel Case

In 1945 Alexander sued the South African journal Manpower for defamation and won the case in 1948.

The official name of the case is:

‘Frederick Matthias Alexander, Plaintiff,

versus

Ernst Jokl, Eustace Henry Cluver, Bernard Maule Clarke, Defendants’

The case was heard February – March 1948. Judgment was given in Alexander’s favour 19 April 1948, and he was awarded £1,000 in damages. The judgment was appealed 21 April 1948, but the judgment was upheld 3 June 1949.

Background

Irene Tasker had moved to South Africa in 1935 and established a successful teaching practice. Her teaching of children was especially recognised and in 1937 some people in the Transvaal Teachers' Association were working for the incorporation of the Alexander Technique into the Educational System of the Transvaal. This may have spurred Dr Ernst Jokl (a medical specialist in physical education) to approach Irene Tasker for lessons in June 1942. However, after an initial meeting she did not want to take him on as a pupil. Consequently he had had no lessons when writing the editorial in Manpower, but based his attack upon a reading of Alexander’s books.

The Manpower article

Manpower – the South African government journal of physical education – published in March 1944 a 44-page long editorial, ‘Quackery versus Physical Education,’ which was a scathing attack on Alexander and his technique. The purported purpose of the article was to expose a ‘dangerous and irresponsible form of quackery.’ It referred to Alexander as ‘the new conscious controller,’ the Australian ‘immortal,’ ‘actor,’ and ‘gym-master’ and to his technique as ‘posture gymnastics.’ It also referred to Alexander and his ‘followers’ as the ‘head balancing cult’ and put their belief down to ‘group hystero-neurosis’—typical of a ‘new faith.’ The article claimed that ‘not a scrap of . . . objective evidence has ever been presented by Mr Alexander or his followers.’ The article attacked Alexander’s physiological explanations which it saw as flawed. The article also set out to disprove Alexander’s contention that there was a ‘physical deterioration’ by pointing to increases in life-span, general height and the eradication of contagious diseases. Finally, the article implied that Alexander was in breach of South African law when he performed ‘any act specially pertaining to the calling of a medical practitioner’ which, they argued, he had done by purporting to cure people.

The Case

Alexander asked for the article to be withdrawn but, when this was refused, he sued for defamation and damages for £5,000 in 1945. Because of the war the case was heard in 1948 (16 February – 5 March 1948) before Justice Clayden, sitting as a Judge of the Witwatersrand Local Division.

Evidence by the Defence (Jokl and the editors of Manpower)

Several physiologists testified against Alexander, among them Sir Henry Dale (1876–1968), professor of physiology and Nobel Prize winner, Sir Alfred Webb-Johnson (1880–1958), professor of surgery and pathology, Sir Edgar Douglas Adrian (1889–1977), professor of physiology and Nobel Prize winner (shared with Sir Charles Sherrington), Dr Samson Wright, professor of physiology, and Dr Paul Hamilton Wood (1907–1962), cardiologist and doctor of medicine. None of them had had any practical experience of the Technique. Their attack on the theory of the Technique was ostensibly based on their knowledge of Alexander’s books, but in fact, with one exception, none of them had read all of Alexander’s books, and all of them either misquoted, misrepresented or admitted to not understanding his books. This, in effect, limited their testimony to an evaluation of Alexander’s physiological and medical arguments. Their evidence did, however, show that the physiological explanations adopted by Alexander were those of a layman. In this connection it was also accepted by the court that Alexander could not prove the existence of a primary control by reference to Magnus’ research because this was confined to the decerebrate animal and was not relevant either to any form of conscious control, nor to the upright posture of humans. The defence also showed that the claims to cure or treat—directly or indirectly – were potentially dangerous. (Alexander uses the words ‘treat’ and ‘patient’ in MSI which were changed in the 1946 edition to ‘teach’ and ‘pupil’ respectively, although not consistently).

Evidence by the Plaintiff (Alexander)

Unlike the Defence witnesses, Alexander’s witnesses all had had lessons in the Technique and could provide glowing testimony to the efficacy of the Technique. The witnesses were:

Dr Wilfred Barlow, Dr Dorothy Drew, Norwood Coaker , P. Jack, H. H. Paine, Irene Tasker, Dr Duncan Whittaker, Dr Peter Macdonald, The Earl of Lytton, Sir Stafford Cripps, J. E. R. McDonagh, Dr Andrew Rugg-Gunn.

Judgment

The judge found that Alexander did claim to cure (quoting Sir Henry Dale: ‘. . . if a man says that his treatment will cause diseases to disappear it seems to me that to repudiate the accusation of curing is mere juggling with words’), and that ‘much of the physiological reasons put forward [by Alexander] are wrong.’ Alexander was also found to be a quack ‘in the sense that he makes ignorant pretence to medical skill,’ but this was not found to be criminal. In misrepresenting Alexander and his work, the judge found, however, that the defendants had ‘called him much more of a quack than they were entitled to do,’ adding: ‘In addition they have failed in my view to prove that the system cannot bring about the results which it does claim in the improvement of health and the prevention of disease, and again they have made matters worse by overstating the claims made for the system.’

The judge ruled in April 1948 that Alexander was entitled to damages in respect of the parts of the articles which were not true and awarded him £1,000 plus costs (instead of the £5,000 Alexander had asked for). The defendants appealed but the judgment was upheld in June 1949.[1] [2] [3]

Aftermath

Although Alexander had won, the award of £1,000 did not cover his costs, and it had caused him considerable work and stress. Some have argued it may have precipitated his stroke in December 1947. The case also also caused various endavours, which had begun in 1944 and 1945, to be sidelined. These included the discussions of creating a centre for the Alexander Technique by purchasing a new building, either in London or outside (for a residential centre), and the formation of a society for teachers.

Writings

During the case some South African newspapers reported daily on the proceedings, notably Rand Daily Mail and The Star. There were also brief summaries of the case in some London newspapers, and the South African Law Reports.

  • ‘Libel action by Mr Matthias Alexander’ was a two-part report on the case in the British Medical Journal, March and April 1948.[4]
  • Norwood Coaker, a pupil of Irene Tasker in South Africa and a lawyer, wrote a review of the case in The Commerical Law Reporter, November 1949.[5]
  • ‘Libel action by Mr Matthias Alexander’ was an announcement in the British Medical Journal that Alexander had won the appeal.[6] This was followed by a letter, ‘Libel action by Mr Matthias Alexander’, by Dr Wilfred Barlow and Dr Dorothy Morrison which set out some details of the case.[7]
  • Dr Wilfred Barlow wrote a summary of the case for The Lancet in 1950[8], containing lengthy quotes from the judgment. An edited version of this article appeared in Barlow’s More Talk of Alexander in 1978.[9]
  • ‘The Alexander Libel Action’ by Dr Mungo Douglas (re the criticism of Alexander conflating the ‘primary control’ with Magnus’ central control).[10]
  • F. P. Jones relates the case in a chapter in Freedom to Change (1976)[11], as does Michael Bloch in his biography of F. M. Alexander.[12]
  • Irene Tasker – Her Life and Work with the Alexander Technique by Regina Stratil contains a summary of the case as well more detailed information about the first meetings between Irene Tasker and Jokl.[13]

The full transcript of the case was published as a PDF by Mouritz in 2016.[14]

References

[1] Evidence taken on commission in London of Samson Wright (17 July and 30 July 1947), Edgar Adrian (10 July 1947), Sir Henry Dale (11 July 1947), Dr Paul Wood (14 July 1947), Sir Alfred Webb-Johnson (17 July and 23 July 1947).
[2] Judgment ‘Alexander versus Jokl and Others,’ Supreme Court of South Africa, given by Justice Clayden, 19 April 1948.
[3] Rand Daily Mail and The Star, articles 16–21 February, 23–26 February, 3 March 1948, and 4 June 1949.
[4] ‘Libel action by Mr Matthias Alexander’ by ‘Our Medico-Legal Correspondent’ in British Medical Journal, March 20, 1948, p. 575-577 (Part One), and British Medical Journal, 8 May 1948, pp. 909-910 (Part Two).
[5] ‘A Review of the Case of Alexander vs. Cluver, Jokl & Clarke’ by Norwood Coaker, K.C., in The Commerical Law Reporter, November 1949, pp. 650-62.
[6] ‘Libel action by Mr Matthias Alexander’ in the British Medical Journal, 10 December 1949, p. 1359.
[7] ‘Libel action by Mr Matthias Alexander’, by Dr Wilfred Barlow and Dr Dorothy Morrison in the British Medical Journal, 4 February 1950, pp. 309-10. Also in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), pp. 58–59.
[8] ‘The Alexander libel action’ by Dr Wilfred Barlow in The Lancet vol. 256, issue 6618, 1 July 1950, pp. 26-30. Also in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), pp. 61–72.
[9] ‘The South African legal action’ by Dr Wilfred Barlow in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005 [1978]), pp. 315–25.
[10] ‘The Alexander Libel Action’ by Dr Mungo Douglas in The Lancet 29 July 1950. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 127–29.
[11] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), pp. 82–93.
[12] F. M. the Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander by Michael Bloch (Little Brown, 2004), pp. 197–228.
[13] Irene Tasker – Her Life and Work with the Alexander Technique by Regina Stratil (Mouritz, 2020).
[14] South African Libel Case 1948 Vols. 1–4 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2016).
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