"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
The birth control movement arose at the beginning of the twentieth century from Eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism. In the United States, Margaret Sanger’s birth control clinics aimed to reduce the birth rates of Jews, Catholics and African-Americans, while in Britain, Marie Stopes aimed to reduce the numbers of progeny from poor and working class people (evidence here).
The sordid reality of Germany’s eugenics program became widely known in the aftermath of the Second World War. The murder of disabled, mentally-ill, Gypsy, Jewish, and homosexual people occurred on a scale that revealed the vast ambition of the Third Reich’s racial purification program. Hitler had admired the eugenic idea that had emerged in Edwardian Britain and which had found practical application in the United States. As a result, following the Second World War, eugenics became an unsupportable cause.
Some eugenists, such as Julian Huxley, recognised the change and changed their views. Others, like Marie Stopes, did not (readers of this blog will recall that Stopes had sued Dr Sutherland’s for libel in 1923 in the so-called “Birth Control Libel Trial”).
Stopes was a life-long eugenist. She had met Sir Francis Galton as a child, had joined the Eugenics Education Society in 1912 and became a life fellow in 1921. On her death in 1958 she left the larger part of her estate to the Galton Institute (the successor to the Eugenics Education Society). Stopes advocacy of contraception and birth control followed, and were subservient to, her eugenic ideals.
On her death, the Stopes name presented an opportunity for those who wanted to recognise and to continue her work in the field of contraception, because her “brand” was synonymous with contraception and birth-control. There was, though, the issue of her role as a leader of the eugenics movement which presented a dilemma: Stopes the feminist trailblazer, advocate of sexual equality, the founder of a free birth control clinic in Holloway and offering compassionate advice on contraception to poor women got the “tick” of approval. Stopes the eugenist, lobbying the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament for the compulsory sterilization of their shiftless, drunken and unemployed husbands, did not.
Many of those who wanted to use the Stopes name and to tell her story, chose to exclude the embarrassment of eugenics from the record of her life. This served several purposes simultaneously: firstly, they could tell the admirable parts of the story to promote their cause; secondly they left out the parts that would have complicated the schema of the heroine’s life; and thirdly, they avoided the many explanations and qualifications to the narrative that eugenics would have demanded. Accordingly, until June Rose’s 1996 Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution eugenics was downplayed or simply not mentioned at all. Even to this day, the BBC’s biography of Stopes makes no mention of eugenics.
Here are some other examples of the excising of Stopes eugenic beliefs:
In their 1975 book Marie Stopes and Birth Control (Priory Press Limited) Harry Stopes-Roe (Stopes’ son) and Ian Scott gave an oblique reference to eugenics on page 16:
“…her concern with race improvement was a particularly thorny problem”
…without elucidation of how or why, or providing details of her wider political agenda. On page 64:
“Reaction to the growing success of the birth control movement [in the early 1930s] was varied. Under the headline “The Comparative Danger to the State of Moral Defectives and Mental Defectives” the Catholic Herald made a violent attack on the supporters of birth control in general and Marie Stopes in particular. It accused them of demanding “The sterilization of the unfit” which was, of course, quite untrue.
While the authors were correct in asserting that it was “quite untrue” at that point, no mention was made of Stopes’ activities in the 19-teens and 1920s. These activities included: her advocacy of compulsorily sterelization for the unfit in her recommendations to the National Birth Rate Commission and in Chapter 20 of Radiant Motherhood, her letter to the Prime Minister’s secretary, Frances Stevenson, on 30 September 1920, urging her to get Lloyd George to read these recommendations and her lobbying parliamentary candidates prior to the election in November 1922 to “curtail the C3 and increase the A1” (the terms A1 and C3 refer to the British Army’s classification of recruits at the time into their physical state. “A1” was the best and “C3” the worst, unfit for military duty). The result is to make the Catholic Herald’s assertions in the early 1930s to appear to be without basis in fact and hysterical. In turn, this would have influenced the views of the reader in 1975.
Other authors mentioned eugenics, but as an afterthought.
Ladies and Gentlemen! Tonight’s performance of “heroine changing the world” is presented on centre stage. As it ends, just as the actors are leaving the stage, the announcement is made sotto voce “by the way she was also a eugenist”. “Well,” says one audience member to another, shrugging his shoulders, “no one’s perfect, after all.” An example is Stopes’ Wikipedia entry, where eugenics is mentioned separately to family planning all the way down the page, at a depth to which those researching school projects do not dive.
Yet another is to assert that Stopes’ interest in eugenics occurred after her interest in birth control. One example is The Social Context of Eugenic Thought by Professor W.H.G. Armytage published in the Galton Institute’s March 1996 Newsletter:
Marie Stopes was a feminist and, what today would be called a sexologist. Her original purpose in espousing birth control was to give women control of their own fertility and to improve the quality of conjugal sex. When, however, in March 1921 she opened her first birth control clinic in London she was brought into contact with both the Eugenics Society and the Malthusian League as the, then, leading organisations advocating birth control.
This is just plain wrong and one would expect better from the Galton Institute’s newsletter for two reasons: Firstly, the Galton Institute, formerly the Eugenics Society, formerly the Eugenics Education Society, accepted Marie Stopes as a member in 1912. Secondly, Marie Stopes was not just any member, but the member who bequeathed a large part of her estate to the Eugenics Society. With this in mind, one would have thought that they would get it right.
In delivering the Galton Lecture in 1996, Richard A Soloway corrected Professor Armytage:
If Stopes’ general interest in birth control was a logical consequence of her romantic preoccupation with compatible sexuality within blissful marriage, her particular efforts to provide birth control for the poor had far more to do with her eugenic concerns about the impending “racial darkness” that the adoption of contraception promised to illiminate. She was a eugenicist long before she became a birth controller, joining the Eugenics Society in 1912 only five years after its founding and five years before she joined, briefly, the much older Malthusian League.
My point here is not to argue against eugenics, nor against the cause of birth control, nor to espouse the Catholic view. I am not urging readers to dislike Stopes or seeking to belittle her work. I am merely providing the historical facts, indicating the tarpaulins used to conceal Stopes’ eugenic baggage and pulling them away to reveal what lies beneath.
The misrepresentation of Stopes’ agenda is not accidental. When freed from the creepy doctrines of eugenics, Stopes metamorphoses into the compassionate crusader, “peoples hero” and all-round friend of the poor. This version is better by far, for those who wanted to use her name to promote family planning. After all, how could:
“From the point of view of the economics of the nation, it is racial madness to rifle the pockets of the thrifty and intelligent who are struggling to do their best for their own families of one and two and squander the money on low grade mental deficients, the spawn of drunkards, the puny families of women so feckless and deadened that they apathetically breed like rabbits.” [Marie Stopes writing in “John Bull”, 2nd February 1924, page 13]
…be used to market the cause of family planning? The problem has been though, that over time the story of Stopes without eugenics has calcified and today it has been largely excised from the history of her life. As the perception of Stopes has changed to a more sympathetic view, so also has the perception of Halliday Sutherland changed, but moving in the opposite direction.
As an example of this calcification, let’s take Shannon Goings’ The Ideal Marriage: Reactions to Marie Stopes Married Love, 1918-1933 (though I could have chosen this article from the Women’s Health Collection of Curtin University instead). Goings’ research of Sutherland does not appear to have gone beyond his obituary in the British Medical Journal, and what the biographers (hagiographers) of Stopes have provided. Goings representation of Sutherland and his motives (a reaction to the publication of Married Love) is wooden. Given the exclusion of eugenics from Stopes’ life, it is hardly surprising that writers who base their work on these sources do not understand the issues, Halliday Sutherland, or his motives. Sutherland becomes an easily hateable villain: a one-dimensional, dogmatic, religious zealot with a hang-up about condoms and pessaries and without a skerrick of concern for women.
Almost as an aside, Goings mentions that Sutherland “was taken quite seriously on medical matters, and was considered an expert in tuberculosis.” His expertise in tuberculosis is key to understanding his views of eugenics, and the use of birth control to implement a eugenic program. The link between his work fighting tuberculosis and eugenics is important, because it is here that his opposition to eugenics was sparked, leading to his subsequent criticism of Stopes in his book Birth Control.
Here then is the link: Sutherland was a protegé of Sir Robert Philip and played a significant role in the implementation of Philip’s “Edinburgh System” for the control and eradication of tuberculosis. Eugenists, including Stopes, believed that the cause of the disease was primarily genetic. Of course, they recognised that bacteria and environment played a role, but felt that, even if living conditions were improved, and even if medical care were provided, tuberculosis would remain because it was rooted in the heredity of the urban poor.
Stopes advocacy of contraceptives was to fulfil a dual role, both positive and negative. Positive to enable babies to be planned and wanted, and to enable the mother’s health to recover by spacing pregnancies. Negative, by reduce the high birth rate of the lower orders. This is why her free mothers clinic was set up in a poor part of London. For the worst stocks of society, she advocated compulsory sterilization by Act of Parliament. “Babies in the right places”.
Neo-Malthusians (and Stopes was a member of the Malthusian League in the 19-teens) believed that over-population had led to war, pestilence and famine. The conditions of the urban poor was a manifestation of Malthus natural law. Doctors and others could do little other that play at the margins of the problem. In summary, eugenists fretted about quality, Neo-Malthusians about quantity.
Both the Eugenists and Neo-Malthusians were perceived as a threat by doctors fighting tuberculosis, directly and indirectly. Directly, because the eugenists were influential politically, and lobbied for the cancellation of state funding of tuberculosis programs. Eugenists arguing that money spent in improving living conditions and health care was wasted because it gave succour to the weak who would have perished in previous generations. Indirectly, because they understood that the impact on the urban poor and the working classes – people they treated on a daily basis – was potentially grim.
Why grim? Eugenists agreed in their aims to improve the race, but they were a broad church and opinions varied as to what would be done, and who it would be done to. Firstly what would be done. Some advocated laws to prevent people of different genetic stocks from marrying and having children. At the other end of the spectrum, was GB Shaw among others – a tiny minority – who advocated for the lethal gassing of the unfit, though adding that this process should be painless lest it not be humane. Yet others, in the middle, such as Marie Stopes who advocated laws for the compulsory sterelization of the less desirable members of society. Her advocacy of the use of X-rays to sterelize unfit men is outlined in her a chapter entitled “A New and Irradiated Race.”
Secondly, who it would be done to. Stopes for instance frequently changed her specifications of who should be sterelized. In a suggestion to the National Birth Rate Commission (1918-20) it was “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character.” At a meeting of the Voluntary Parenthood League which she addressed on 27th October 1921, she included “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”. In her book Radiant Motherhood it was the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced.” And this was but one eugenist. When considering the views of all of those in the movement, the target included anyone who they thought was worthy of disdain from their well-to-do viewpoint.
The separation of family planning, contraception and birth control from eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism is a construct of later writers who are ashamed of the roots of the birth control movement and of Stopes involvement in Eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism. There is no doubt that Sutherland opposed artificial contraception, a position he shared with those many eugenists. When artificial contraception was in the furtherance of eugenics, he became vehemently opposed.
If you want to understand the issues and background, you need to go to sources other than the Stopes biographers, seek out the work of Richard A. Soloway and to read the original documents from the era. One such document is Sutherland’s 1917 address Consumption: Its Causes and Cure (published on this website), Karl Pearson’s 1912 Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment (the subject of my next post in two weeks) and Stopes’ book Radiant Motherhood.
If you go to these sources, you learn that tuberculosis killed 10% of the British population between 1850 and 1950. You learn that in 1912, 1 1/2 million pounds of government funds were spent fighting tuberculosis, and that Sutherland was implementing the Edinburgh system devised by Sir Robert Philip by editing and contributing to a book on tuberculosis, promoting “open air” schools, setting up an “open air” school in the bandstand in Regent’s Park, and producing Britain’s first cinema public health education film.
You learn that Karl Pearson, a Social Darwinist and the first Professor of Eugenics at University College, London ridiculed the work of doctors and, in particular, the Edinburgh System. He argued that the money was wasted because it preserved the genetically deficient and the weak. He said that the funds would be better spent by giving it to eugenists. Such an opinion was opposition to the Edinburgh system. That these views were held by Karl Pearson, the brilliant statistician, a prodigious intellect and a Fellow of the Royal Society, meant that the Edinburgh System’s opponent was possibly the worst person you could wish to have on the other side of the debate.
All in all, this was no mere academic debate over philosophical approaches to health care, but about the future of health care in Britain. Eugenists threatened to destroy the resources doctors drew on to prevent and treat and cure tuberculosis. Had the Eugenists and Neo-Malthusians won the day, the way it (and other diseases perceived as hereditary) were treated would have involved state intervention into the reproduction of the citizen, and compulsory sterelization of those with bad heredity, if not worse. Slum dwellers would have been left to succumb to the laws of nature. Not in a conspicuous way, with guards surrounding a walled ghetto, but little by little by under-resourcing health care to ensure that the weak perished and the fit survived.
As a grandson, I am very proud that Halliday Sutherland spoke out against such people. I think that speaking out against such a well-connected group was brave to the point of foolhardiness, and when he received the writ for libel from Stopes he had three young children and was likely to be wiped out by his legal bills. I think that it is shameful that his views have been distorted by the hagiographers of Stopes who covered up her eugenic agenda, and subsequently trashed his good reputation. I daresay that I would not agree with many of his views, but his motivation and arguments should be placed in the context of his times, rather than in the context of the feminist fairy tale than was constructed afterwards.
What brought this to a head for me was when, a few years ago, I was searching for information about Halliday online (little was then available). I found this comment about him on a blog:
I have just read “The Arches of the Years” discovered in my late mother’s library. I am disappointed that the author, who appeared so open-minded and without religious convictions in this book, should have become so against such a modern innovation to help women….
Again, on the Marie Stopes International site, one writer posed the question with words to the effect that “How could anyone oppose contraception for poor women?”
I should confess that I used to wonder about this myself. After all, the historical record appeared to confirm this view. What didn’t ring true, however, was that the values of my father, Halliday’s fourth son, were empathetic, kind and practical, not harsh, judgemental and doctrinaire. I had an inkling of eugenics, but never realised how central it had been to Stopes’ life and work, or that Halliday’s attack was on the larger Eugenic and Malthusian movements.
When I discovered the truth, I decided to set up this site and publish it. I will advocate on this site that Halliday Sutherland was a good and honourable man, who fought tuberculosis in the slums of London and Edinburgh and who spoke up to improve the terrible conditions of the urban poor. My assertions will be supported by credible evidence.
In modern Britain, a place where universal health care is a given, Sutherland’s speaking up may not appear to be a big deal. The trouble with history is that we know what happened, and to us our present situation seems embedded in the past as the inevitable direction that history would take. When Halliday Sutherland began practicing as a doctor in the early years of the Twentieth Century, universal health care was by no means inevitable. Eugenists scorned the work of doctors as promoting “racial decay” because they sustained the unfit, who in earlier eras would have died without progeny.
For those who would argue that Sutherland’s opposition to contraceptives was motivated in part by his Catholicism, I would say that I agree. For those who would argue that Sutherland’s opposition to contraceptives was motivated by his Catholicism alone – a view promoted by Stopes’ hagiographers – I would say that I disagree and would urge them to read the evidence that will be provided on this website. I will explain the link between Sutherland’s fight against tuberculosis, his conflict with Eugenists and Malthusians, and the Stopes v. Sutherland trial.
The 21st of February 2023 will mark one hundred years since Stopes v. Sutherland opened in the High Court. It is my aim that the recollection of the trial will be much better informed than has previously been the case. This site will provide information from credible sources and original publications.
If, as a result of reading this site, you side with Sutherland more than you side with Stopes, well and good. If you side with Stopes more than you support Sutherland, well and good too. All I would ask is that if you loathe Dr Halliday Sutherland, please do it based on his life, his work and his attitudes, not based on the simplistic caricature created by Stopes’ propagandists.
Visit the site, enjoy the blog, and spread the word!
Richard A Soloway from Marie Stopes and The English Birth Control Movement being the proceedings of a Conference organised by the Galton Institute, London, 1996. Robert A Peel editor. Published by The Galton Institute