Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.
The curator of this site, Mark Sutherland, tells how it came about:
“I never met Halliday Sutherland. He died six months before I was born. Growing up, I became increasingly aware of his life and his books.
“When I heard about the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial (the so-called “Birth Control Libel Trial”) of 1923, I wondered why he opposed the free birth-control clinic set up by Marie Stopes. After all, his description of it as a ‘monstrous campaign’ and an ‘experiment’ seemed, on the face of it, to be a bit harsh for something which is relatively uncontroversial today. All of the literature available to me at that time suggested that, as a Catholic doctor, he was seeking to impose the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on birth-control in Britain.
“But as I read more widely, I learned that this interpretation was completely false. For me, a turning point was when I learned about eugenics, a pseudo-science popular among the Edwardian elite, which developed from Darwinism and Social Darwinism (‘the survival of the fittest’). Eugenists—you can call them eugenicists as well—advocated the selective breeding of humans. They believed in subordinating an individual’s choice of partner and decision to have children to the state. In this way the ‘best’ humans would be produced and even, some hoped, the perfection of the British ‘race’. As one might have expected, the ‘best’ humans were those who were most much like themselves: intelligent, middle class, industrious, prosperous.
“In the early 1900s, eugenics appeared to be the solution to an acute problem that threatened the demise of Britain and its Empire. The cities were crowded with poor specimens, poor in a monetary, physical and mental sense. Britain’s birth rate had been falling since the 1880s and worse, from the eugenist’s viewpoint, the lower classes were producing many more children than their social betters. Britain already struggling against competition from rising nations, such as the newly unified Germany and the United States, and eugenists wondered how it would fare when it was populated by the genetically inferior. ‘What then?’ they asked. Eugenics aimed to solve the problem it saw as ‘national degeneration’ and even ‘race-suicide’.
“Stopes was a eugenist long before she was a birth-controller, and she believed that the differential birth rate could be solved by the provision of contraceptives to the poor. These activities were part of her broader eugenic agenda, evidenced by the “Pro Race” brand stamped on the cervical caps she dispensed, and the location of the clinic in a poor part of London, to make it easily accessible to the lower classes and urban poor.
“I learned that eugenists opposed the measures implemented by reformers and doctors to improve the lot of the poor, such as the improvement of living conditions or providing health-care. Such things, they believed, interfered with natural selection in a bad way. By giving succour to the weak, social welfare perpetuated the genes of people who in previous eras would have died before reproducing. To a eugenist, the better solution was to cease reform efforts and let nature do its work through the flip side to ‘the survival of the fittest’.
“Halliday Sutherland opposed eugenics on moral grounds. He believed that people should marry who they wanted and have children without permission from the state. He supported the improvement of social conditions. He was alarmed at the breadth of the eugenic agenda, which even included a tiny minority advocating the use of a ‘lethal chamber’ to cull the unfit. In a lecture to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910, George Bernard Shaw envisaged that:
‘A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.’
“In fairness to the eugenists, these were the views of a tiny minority, and were not endorsed by the Eugenics Education Society. But they do convey the disquiet that was felt by those who opposed eugenics.
“Sutherland’s opposition was not merely theoretical; He disliked eugenics for practical reasons as well. As a doctor who treated the tuberculous sick in the slums of London, he was well aware of the impact that this theory would have on his patients, had it prevailed. And, at that time, it looked like it would, given its widespread support among the political, intellectual and literary elites of Edwardian Britain. In 1912, the Professor of Eugenics at London University—a Fellow of the Royal Society no less—gave a lecture on tuberculosis in which he observed that money spent on medical care for the urban poor was misplaced. After all, he said, the people being treated were the people you wanted to breed out of the race in the first place. It was far better, he said, to give that money to the eugenists.
“Stopes own eugenic agenda had ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects. The positive were aimed at improving the health of the mother and the baby and her clinic did help the poor women who went there. The negative aspects were aimed at preventing poor and working class people from producing what she regarded as their inferior children. It could be said that the positive aspects operated within the walls of the clinic, while the negative aspects applied outside. The existence of the clinic, Stopes’ writings, her lobbying of politicians and campaigning for legislation to enable the compulsory sterilization of ‘unfit’ men all served her negative eugenic aims.
“Sutherland was worried about the threat of eugenics to the urban poor, he opposed to the ready availability of contraceptives (as did many of Stopes’ eugenic colleagues) on the grounds of the impact on public morality, and he felt that contraceptives were likely to cause the birth rate to fall even further. For all of these reasons, he criticised Stopes’ birth-control clinic. Yet these aspects are forgotten. Most of the histories written that mention his name are biographies of Stopes, and I have yet to read about Sutherland’s work among the urban poor in one. I understand that it’s common for biographers to ignore or soften the darker parts of their subject’s life, and Stopes’ biographers were no exception. They downplayed eugenics, or don’t even mention it at all. In my opinion, they did this because they were enthused by Stopes’ achievement, because her class-based eugenics would make her a less sympathetic character to readers, and because it would make readers more sympathetic to her opponent, Sutherland. The result is that Sutherland is consistently poorly researched. The extent of his characterisation is that he was labelled a Roman Catholic doctor and it is left at that. He thus becomes a cardboard cutout villain in the ‘religious zealot’ genre.
“That’s when I realised that the story needed to be told from Halliday Sutherland’s viewpoint, not in a biased way, but by presenting facts which are supported by credible historical evidence. After all, if a family member doesn’t know the truth, who does? A website was the best way to do this and hallidaysutherland.com was born in 2014.
“Through fortnightly posts of stories from Dr Sutherland’s books and historical essays, you will learn the story of a doctor who dedicated his life to eradicating a terrible disease that killed and disabled 220,000 people in Britain each year. It’s the story of a man so appalled by what eugenics promised for the poor and the weak that he spoke out publicly against it. In doing so, he was opposing what was then regarded as the pinnacle of scientific knowledge by celebrated politicians, intellectuals, philosophers and writers of his era. He faced ridicule for doing so and, when he received the writ for libel from Stopes, financial ruin if he lost.
“I want to make it clear that this site isn’t to say “Stopes was wrong and Sutherland was right”. It’s to make people think. If you think that Stopes’ legacy is a good thing then, of course, give her due recognition for making it happen. But then reflect on whether you agree with the parts of her plan that you probably weren’t told about: The compulsory sterilization of people because their poverty was deemed as evidence of their defective genes; Preventing a couple from marrying because the children might inherit their mother’s short-sightedness; Or limiting the resources available to doctors to treat the poor because it was giving succour to the sort of person who should be bred out of the race. Without the opposition of Halliday Sutherland and others like him, these parts of her agenda, and of the wider eugenic movement, could well have come about in Britain—as it did in the United States, Germany and other countries.
“I realise that, because I am a grandson of Halliday Sutherland, people might expect that I have a bias to Sutherland. That’s fair enough and it’s also why I give sources and evidence for my assertions.
“My aim is that when Dr Sutherland is remembered, it is with knowledge of who he was, not informed by the distorted caricature of those who opposed him and their successors. The 21st of February 2023 will mark the centenary of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial. I aim to make the information on this site widely available so that the case will be accurately reported, unlike a lot of the guff that we have seen in the past.
“People have said to me: ‘Given these events happened almost 100 years ago, how are they relevant today?’ My answer is that, like the Edwardians were then, we are now on the cusp of a new era of biological science which will present opportunities and ethical challenges. Scientific knowledge, of itself, is neither right nor wrong: it’s how you got the knowledge and what you do with it that counts. Where there are ethical concerns, then these need to be debated. While I will leave that debate to others, I subscribe to the old saw that if we forget the past we are condemned to repeat it, and that’s where this site comes in. If an opponent of eugenics in an earlier era is marginalised by being portrayed as a religious zealot, it makes him appear unreasonable. Remembered this way, it makes it easier to dismiss the valid ethical concerns of our times.
In our times we can see the progress that contraceptives brought or, if you oppose such things, you can at least acknowledge that the world did not end. Both viewpoints, uninformed by the debates of the time, and unaware of a eugenic future that did not happen (or, to the extent that it did, can be restricted to the Nazis), wonder what all the fuss was about. This becomes a mental shortcut is formed: ‘If contraceptives had not faced such fierce resistance then progress would have been achieved earlier’. Opposition from similar quarters in our times are undermined in this way.
“But all of that said, the site it isn’t all about history and the dismal science of eugenics (and it is dismal). It is about Halliday Sutherland, one of the best storytellers of the inter-war years, telling his story in his words.
“Please support this blog by following it for fortnightly updates, or by clicking the ‘like’ button on Facebook.”
© Mark Sutherland 2015
Next post: 15th March 2015.