"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.
Biographies of Marie Stopes deal with Halliday Sutherland in remarkably similar ways. They tell you three essential facts: They tell you that he was a “Roman Catholic doctor”; that he heard Professor Anne McIlroy speak at the Medico-Legal Society on 7th July 1921, when she described the pessary as “the most harmful method of which I have experience”; and that he wrote a book Birth Control in which he attacked the work of Marie Stopes in her Mother’s Clinic in Holloway.
Of the three essentials, the first— “Roman Catholic doctor”—is always stated. There is a fourth essential, which is that little or no other information about Sutherland is provided. In this article I speculate as to why this is the case.
Firstly, “Roman Catholic doctor” is always stated because it is true. Halliday Sutherland was baptised a Presbyterian, and became a Roman Catholic in 1919 at the Farm Street Church in Mayfair (pictured above). He qualified as a doctor in 1906.
Secondly, because it is how Marie Stopes described him in the first edition of Birth Control News. In a review of Sutherland’s book Birth Control, she wrote:
Dr Sutherland’s book will impose only on those who are more ignorant than he is. It is nicely calculated to encourage the biased in their prejudice, for now when speaking against birth control they can say: A Doctor says so. They will probably forget that he is a Roman Catholic Doctor…The omissions from the book are quite as remarkable as its lies.
For a historian researching Stopes’ libel action against Sutherland in 1923, this passage is a waypoint on a journey, a passage to be read in the original or by referring to secondary sources.
Even people who are unfamiliar with the Roman church “know”, as they might colloquially put it, that “Catholics like large families and don’t like contraceptives”. Once the biographer or historian had provided sufficient motive for Sutherland to act, the story has credibility, meaning that there is no need to mention the “scientific” doctrine that underlay all of Stopes’ work: eugenics.
Stopes’ Mother’s Clinic in 1921 was set up to realise her plan for class-based negative eugenics. As Stopes herself said, she wanted to achieve a:
“…reduction in the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale” [The Trial of Marie Stopes edited by Muriel Box, Page 76].
Fourthly, the description “Roman Catholic Doctor” is used because the words “Roman Catholic” would have had a negative subtext for Dr. Sutherland at the time of the trial. Since the English Reformation, Catholics had been a small minority in Britain, who were often regarded with suspicion as foreign-controlled enemies of the State. Sometimes this was deserved (as in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes almost succeeded in blowing up the House of Lords), and sometimes not (as in the 1678 “Popish Plot”, in which Titus Oates’ fictitious allegations of Catholic conspiracy led to the execution of 22 innocent men).
Even in our times, echoes of these suspicions continue. For instance the conversion of prominent Britons to the Catholic faith is newsworthy. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair converted to Catholicism, it led to this article in the Guardian, which said:
Almost certainly because of Mr Blair’s sensitivity about the place of Catholicism in British public – and particularly its constitutional – life. The only positions specifically barred to Catholics are marriage to the sovereign or heir to the throne, or becoming sovereign themselves, a legacy of the Act of Settlement that followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the deposition of the last Catholic monarch, James II; there has never been a Catholic prime minister.
In the last 40 years Catholics have entered many senior positions in British public life, generally without comment except among the wilder fringes of Protestant Calvinism…
But the motives of Catholic politicians have traditionally been regarded with suspicion by non-Catholics, both here and in the US, based on the allegation that they take their orders from the Vatican rather than the electorate.
“Roman Catholic Doctor” tapped into an anti-Catholic psyche and instantly provide Dr. Sutherland’s background, motives and beliefs. Doing this in merely three words is the work of a P.R. master.
Fifthly, “Roman Catholic Doctor” allows the biographer of Stopes to create an opponent who, to borrow an analogy from boxing, will reliably hit the canvas in the third round and lose the fight.
“Roman Catholic doctor” forms his views are formed in conjunction with a group of exclusively male priests, each of whom has taken a vow of celibacy, will never marry, and who are presented as opposing ways to alleviate suffering in this world based on their theories about the next world.
Stopes’ work helping poor women is juxtaposed with the cloistered and remote straw man. She is concerned with solving an urgent pressing problem; he is concerned with preventing a solution.
Stopes becomes a lone brave pioneer, an underdog against what would be dubbed “big religion,” solving problems in this world motivated by her care for her poorer sisters, while he opposes her in this world real world based on his beliefs about the next. She is interested in the poor and working class; he is interested in pleasing his god.
Thump! The straw man reliably falls, 1…2…3…he fails to get up…8…9…and…10…Clang! The bell rings and Stopes triumphs.
For all the use of the “Roman Catholic doctor” label over the last 90 years or so, it does have an achilles heel: it excludes significant aspects of the story, and so it is essentially untrue.
Far from being cloistered and remote, Sutherland worked in the slums of London to cure tuberculosis. He achieved a great deal: editing and contributing to a book written by international experts, producing Britain’s first public-health cinema film, opening a school in Regent’s Park bandstand, in addition to his work as the Medical Director of the St. Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption.
He was a pioneer, working among the urban poor to cure a disease which killed and disabled around 220,000 people annually at that time. It was while he was in the slums of London that eugenic scientists, cloistered in their academies and societies, ruled that a person’s genes were at least ten times more powerful than the environment in determining the characteristics of a person.
Eugenists decided that forty years of reforms—education acts, sanitation measures, factory legislation and slum clearances—had not markedly improved the quality of the average Briton. The Boer and First World Wars had revealed large numbers of men in the urban population who were unfit for military service and they concluded that the solution was not social reform, but to enforce the improvement of British “racial stocks”. This would be best achieved by preventing the “unfit” from reproducing.
It was at this juncture that Stopes provided her insight: contraceptives could be used to restrict the breeding of the lower orders of society, and compulsory sterilization to enforce it.
It was her eugenic creed that Stopes followed when she opened her clinic in 1921. In 1924, a year before opening the Whitfield Street clinic (still in operation today through Marie Stopes International), she wrote:
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.
Wealthy Edwardian snobs do not evoke respect or sympathy in our times (examples can be seen in the films “War Horse” and “Titanic”). This provides a strong incentive for biographers to downplay these aspects of her character and work.
Downplay, by suggesting that she wasn’t really a eugenist but used it as a ploy to get her birth control clinics accepted in a male-dominated world, or that she became a eugenist after she had opened her birth control clinic, or that her pronouncements were not so bad because she was civil to the women who attended her clinic, or that she wasn’t a very good or consistent eugenist, or that, while it may seem shocking to us today, many people had those eugenic beliefs back then.
On this last point, it is true that many did have eugenic beliefs. Others, including Dr. Halliday Sutherland, Roman Catholic doctor, did not.
Sutherland was appalled by the theories of eugenics and the grave implications for those at the bottom of the social ladder in Edwardian Britain. Believing that they were on the threshold of curing and preventing tuberculosis, he found that eugenists blocked his way. They wanted to replace social reforms with programs for the controlled breeding of humans. They spoke with the authority of a new science, built on Darwin’s proud edifice and they had political and social strength to match. They seemed unstoppable.
And that is one of the reasons why Sutherland, raised a Scots Presbyterian, in theory an agnostic but in practice an atheist, turned to the institution that opposed eugenics: the Roman Catholic Church. It is also why he spoke out against eugenics and eugenists.
Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose. Faber and Faber Limited 1993.
After 30 years as a closet Catholic, Blair finally puts faith before politics Guardian online article dated 22 June 2007. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2007/jun/22/uk.religion1 viewed 26 February 2016.
A recent article in The Spectator reports that “eugenics is back”. This caused me to wonder if advocates of Edwardian class-based eugenics would be supported today. This article in The Guardian suggests that not only would they not be, but that there would be vehement opposition as well.
It’s my belief that many of the people who would oppose class-based eugenics today also despise Dr. Sutherland for having taken that position in his lifetime. That they can hold two contradictory positions simultaneously, without perceiving the conflict owes much to the “Roman Catholic doctor” label. It acts as a partition to ensure that a person will not perceive the conflict, and the continued propagation of this label will ensure that it continues in the future.
11 June 2016. For a recent classic in the “Roman Catholic doctor” genre, see this article at Atlas Obscura.
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