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The Case of the Hairy Hand

Photo of Mark PettitGenerations of law students have studied the case for its lessons on how to measure the financial damages due in a breach of contract suit. But few students have learned about the dispute in quite the way Professor Mark Pettit teaches it.

Thanks in part to the movie “The Paper Chase,” even first-year law students know about the case of the hairy hand. In 1922, a small-town New Hampshire doctor named Edward McGee promised teenager George Hawkins a skin-grafting operation that would make the young man’s burned hand “100 percent perfect.” Unfortunately, the skin McGee used to repair the appendage came from George’s chest, so in addition to having even less function than it did before the operation, the hand developed an “unsightly growth” that the patient had to endure throughout his life.

Generations of law students have studied the case for its lessons on how to measure the financial damages due in a breach of contract suit. But few students have learned about the dispute in quite the way Mark Pettit teaches it.

Pettit, a J.D. and a professor of law at BU LAW since 1977, introduces the case with a little show-and-tell — a rubber hand, covered with hair, supplemented by a poem that reads in part:

When the doctor unravelled the tape
He revealed the hand of an ape.
“Tough luck, kid,” he said,
From the side of the bed,
While the nurses looked on all agape.

“I promised him naught,” said McGee.
“He misunderstood, don’t you see?
There’s no contract,” he said,
“’tis a tort suit instead,
And in tort there is no guarantee.”

“In the early 1980s,” says Pettit, “the first year I taught contract law, a student just handed a poem to me one day after class. I read it aloud and the other students found it funny and very creative. I got a couple more poems from having read the first one — maybe four or five a year after that, sometimes sung to the tune of a popular song.”
A case involving Robert Reed, who played Mike on “The Brady Bunch,” for example, was featured in a lengthy rendition of the show’s theme song. “Just this morning I sang one to the tune of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It,’” Pettit adds, launching into a hilarious and rather melodic demonstration.

In addition to acting as a mnemonic study guide, Pettit’s unorthodox approach — every year he uses all the songs and poems submitted by his current class as well as a dozen or so “greatest hits” collected through the years — has kept his students’ minds from wandering. “I get a lot of mileage out of it because of the tone of the class,” he says. “I demand very careful preparation, call on students at random, and ask them tough questions in front of their peers. It can be pretty deadly. This is a way for me to look silly, and they can’t get too nervous if I’ve just made a fool of myself singing a Britney Spears song. It kind of breaks the tension.”

- Elizabeth Gehrman