"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.
Wishing all readers of this blog a very Merry Christmas. I started this website in April, because there wasn’t much about Dr Halliday Sutherland on the Internet. Of itself, this was not a bad thing, but for me the problem was that much of what had been written was by people with a political axe to grind and by those whose view of Sutherland was hostile. Frequently their research of him was shallow. I set up the site to provide a resource on his life and his work.
So far, it has given me an interesting period of researching and writing. Edwardian Eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism are fascinating and unpleasant at the same time. There has been some excellent writing on this area, most notably by Richard A. Soloway (and whom, so soon after I had found his work, I was saddened to learn had passed away in 2009). But even the best writing does not compensate for the ideology of smug know-alls who devised “scientific” solutions to the problems of humanity, which were often implemented in an inhuman way.
Some of the treasures I found: Galton’s utopia Kantsaywhere and Margaret Sanger’s A Plan for Peace. The first was dull and the second, and this is being charitable, stark-raving bonkers! I should clarify: both are lucid, but even a cursory reading gives you the impression that, if either of their visions had come to pass, they would have ended badly. Other documents of interest: the genetic inheritance diagrams, the harsh vocabulary (“human stocks”, “wastrels”), the harsher measures to be taken against the “unfit” (death by lethal gas, compulsory sterilisation), and the questionnaires of eugenic field researchers. The material, and a lot more besides, was more than a little creepy.
For reasons of balance, I should add that I also had difficulties with some of Dr Sutherland’s material as well. His 1921 book Birth-Control was like a long debating speech which outlines arguments, authorities and supporting facts assuming that the reader would be familiar with the material. That reader was not me and, as a result, I found it heavy going! On the other hand, Dr Sutherland more than adequately compensated my efforts with his excellent stories from The Arches of the Years, A Time to Keep and In My Path. The stories are still fresh, even today, and reveal Halliday as a lively story-teller in the Scottish tradition.
21st of February 2023 marks one-hundred years to the day that Stopes v. Sutherland opened in the High Court. It’s a fair way in the future and the case itself is even further in the past. Is it still relevant today? I believe that it is. Firstly because “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana) and few people, if they aware of the case at all, put it down to a Catholic doctor having problems with contraception, rather than part of the broader fight against the doctrines of Galton and Malthus.
Secondly, the case is still relevant because the ideas of Malthus and Galton are close at hand (see here).
The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote A Message to the 21st Century in which he explains how the urge to perfect the world and the people in it all too frequently fails, and how it achieves the opposite of what they set out to achieve. It is relevant to the development of eugenics and is relevant today.
Reminding people of the views of Halliday Sutherland and the things he spoke for and against is not to say “he was right” – that is for you to judge. It is to say “listen to the dissenting voice. Don’t dismiss it out of hand.” For while those who are impatient to get behind the wheel of the shiny idea to drive off to a brighter future, it is the dissenting voice that will help you preserve the very thing that future generations will actually value.
Thank-you for reading this post, and for the comments, messages of encouragement and support that you have shown during the year. If you have any comments or suggestions for the blog I would be delighted to hear them.
In the year ahead, I will post on 1st and 15th of each month.
The picture for this final post of 2014 shows a scene from Sutherland in Scotland.