Halliday Sutherland

"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.

Nature’s ‘Lethal Chamber’


Britain’s industrial revolution shifted a large number of people from the countryside to the cities. Bad living conditions, overcrowded housing and poor sanitation ensured that many people were in a wretched condition.

The great and the good discussed what to do. Some set up charities for the poor or sought to alleviate particular problems. Others agitated for political change and social reforms. Mainstream eugenists believed that the defective genes inherited by the wretched classes were the fundamental cause of their misery.

Eugenists presented their solutions in a number of different ways. Some outlined the problem and lead their listeners or readers to create their own solutions. Others advocated laws to prevent the unfit from passing on their diseased genes, such as through the prevention of marriage and through compulsory sterilisation. And yet others advocated the killing of the weak.

In Heredity and Human Progress, published in 1900, Dr W. Duncan McKim wrote:

“The surest, the simplest, the kindest, and most humane means for preventing reproduction among those we deem unworthy of this high privilege, is a gentle, painless death; and this should be administered not as a punishment, but as an expression of enlightened pity for the victims—too defective by nature to find true happiness in life—and as a duty toward the community and toward our own offspring.”

McKim listed the categories of people to whom this would apply and the method that would be used to kill them:

“The roll then, of those whom our plan would eliminate, consists of the following classes of individuals coming under the absolute control of the State:—idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, habitual drunkards and insane criminals, the large number of murderers, nocturnal house-breakers, such criminals whatever their offence as might through their constitutional organization appear very dangerous, and finally, criminals who might be adjudged incorrigible.  Each individual of these classes would undergo thorough examination, and only by due process of law would his life be taken from him.

“The painless extinction of these lives would present no practical difficulty—in carbonic acid gas we have an agent which would instantaneously fulfil the need.”

In his 1901 Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought, H.G. Wells  wrote of the men whose ideals would make killing a worthwhile activity:

The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully, and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence. To make life convenient for the breeding of such people will seem to them not the most virtuous and amiable thing in the world, as it is held to be now, but an exceedingly abominable proceeding. Procreation is an avoidable thing for sane persons of even the most furious passions, and the men of the New Republic will hold that the procreation of children who, by the circumstances of their parentage, must be diseased bodily or mentally—I do not think it will be difficult for the medical science of the coming time to define such circumstances—is absolutely the most loathsome of all conceivable sins. They will hold, I anticipate, that a certain portion of the population—the small minority, for example, afflicted with indisputably transmissible diseases, with transmissible mental disorders, with such hideous incurable habits of mind as the craving for intoxication—exists only on sufferance, out of pity and patience, and on the understanding that they do not propagate; and I do not foresee any reason to suppose that they will hesitate to kill when that sufferance is abused. And I imagine also the plea and proof that a grave criminal is also insane will be regarded by them not as a reason for mercy, but as an added reason for death. I do not see how they can think otherwise on the principles they will profess.

The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish, either, in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess. They will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while; like Abraham, they will have the faith to kill, and they will have no superstitions about death. They will naturally regard the modest suicide of incurably melancholy, or diseased or helpless persons as a high and courageous act of duty rather than a crime. And since they will regard, as indeed all men raised above a brutish level do regard, a very long term of imprisonment as infinitely worse than death, as being, indeed, death with a living misery added to its natural terror, they will, I conceive, where the whole tenor of a man’s actions, and not simply some incidental or impulsive action, seems to prove him unfitted for free life in the world, consider him carefully, and condemn him, and remove him from being. All such killing will be done with an opiate, for death is too grave a thing to be made painful or dreadful, and used as a deterrent from crime. If deterrent punishments are used at all in the code of the future, the deterrent will neither be death, nor mutilation of the body, nor mutilation of the life by imprisonment, nor any horrible things like that, but good scientifically caused pain, that will leave nothing but a memory. Yet even the memory of overwhelming pain is a sort of mutilation of the soul. The idea that only those who are fit to live freely in an orderly world-state should be permitted to live, is entirely against the use of deterrent punishments at all. Against outrageous conduct to children or women, perhaps, or for very cowardly or brutal assaults of any sort, the men of the future may consider pain a salutary remedy, at least during the ages of transition while the brute is still at large. But since most acts of this sort done under conditions that neither torture nor exasperate, point to an essential vileness in the perpetrator, I am inclined to think that even in these cases the men of the coming time will be far less disposed to torture than to kill. They will have another aspect to consider. The conscious infliction of pain for the sake of the pain is against the better nature of man, and it is unsafe and demoralizing for any one to undertake this duty. To kill under the seemly conditions science will afford is a far less offensive thing. The rulers of the future will grudge making good people into jailers, warders, punishment-dealers, nurses, and attendants on the bad. People who cannot live happily and freely in the world without spoiling the lives of others are better out of it. That is a current sentiment even to-day, but the men of the New Republic will have the courage of their opinions.

In Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-14, G.R. Searle wrote of:

“…the Mayor of Plymouth, [who] on his own initiative, publicly advocated that, if three doctors decided that the hopelessly unfit and feeble-minded stood no possible chance of recovery they should be painlessly put to death.”

G.B. Shaw’s speech to the Eugenics Education Society on 4th March 1910 was reported in the Daily Express, who quoted him as saying:

“We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill.  We should have to get rid of all ideas about capital punishment …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.”

According to Jonathan Glover of The Guardian:

“In 1915, Virginia Woolf described a walk on which she met ‘a long line of imbeciles’. She wrote that ‘everyone in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin & and an imbecile grin, or a wild, suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.'”

On reading this, you might have thought: “What horrid people! What terrible ideas! Thank God that it never came to pass in Britain.”

And if you did, think again, because you are not entirely correct.

Now, I am not saying that a lethal chamber was used in Britain to kill the unfit. What I am saying is that there were diseases which were lethal to their victims, and that there were those who believed that the societal benefits arising from their deaths outweighed the misery to the individual victims and their families.

At one extreme, you have a disease for which there is no cure, and no way to prevent it. At the other, the disease is entirely preventable and, if someone is infected, it is easily cured. The journey between these two points can be a slow and haphazard process, but at some stage the baton of responsibility is passed from the amorality of nature to the morality of man.

Tuberculosis was one such disease. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, it killed 70,000 people and disabled 150,000 in Britain each year. At that time, doctors began building on Koch’s 1882 discovery of the tubercle bacillus as the agent causing the disease in all its forms, and in Britain specialists began in earnest to implement the Edinburgh System for its prevention and cure.

In Darwinism and Race Progress, published in 1895, Dr. John Berry Haycraft wrote:

“It is a hard saying, but none the less a true one, that the bacillus tuberculosus [sic] is a friend of the race, for it attacks no healthy man or woman, but only the feeble.”

Yet old habits, or views anyway, died hard. Sir James Barr echoed them when he delivered the President’s address at the eightieth meeting of the British Medical Association in July 1912:

“If we could only abolish the tubercle bacillus in these islands we would get rid of tuberculous disease, but we should at the same time raise up a race peculiarly susceptible to this infection—a race of hothouse plants which would not flourish in any other environment. We would thus increase at an even greater rate than we are doing at present, nervous instability, the numbers of insane and feeble-minded. Nature, on the other hand, weeds out those who have not got the innate power of recovery from disease, and by means of the tubercle bacillus and other pathogenic organisms she frequently does this before the reproductive age, so that a check is put on the multiplication of idiots and the feeble-minded. Nature’s methods are thus of advantage to the race rather than to the individual.”

Time moved on, but Barr’s views did not. In September 1918, he said that the cure of tuberculosis would be a national calamity.

“Dr. D. W. Hunter, whose name I deeply regretted to see in a recent casualty list, said: ‘The death-rate among idiots is about ten times that of the normal population at the same age. Further, of deaths of idiots about 80 per cent. are due to tuberculosis. Now an idiot has not even the resisting power necessary to die of phthisis; he dies of acute tuberculosis, death taking place in from three to six weeks from the onset of the illness. Surely here there is some inherited lowering of the soil. There are some 150,000 (estimated) of these defectives in England and Wales, and for every defective there are from six to a dozen of his relatives only a shade better than himself. Practically the same holds for insanity, yet we are asked to believe that a man cannot inherit a soil which will remain during his lifetime permanently below the average in resisting power. Until we have some restriction in the marriage of undesirables the elimination of the tubercle bacillus is not worth aiming at. It forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit. This world is not a hothouse; a race which owed its survival to the fact that the tubercle bacillus had ceased to exist would, on the whole, be a race hardly worth surviving. Personally, I am of opinion—and I think such opinion will be shared by most medical men who have been behind the scenes and have not allowed their sentiments to blind them—that if to-morrow the tubercle bacillus were non-existent, it would be nothing short of a national calamity. We are not yet ready for its disappearance.'”

Dr. Sutherland had spent much of his professional career specialising in tuberculosis, and thought that its elimination was worth aiming at. In September 1917, he spoke out about:

“Tubercule bacilli in the milk of tuberculous cattle [that] cause half the cases where this disease attacks the bones, glands and joints of children. Tuberculous milk kills 10,000 children every year and creates an amount of child sickness, suffering and sorrow so widespread as to be incomprehensible to a finite mind, and no more natural than if their food had been poisoned with arsenic.  Yet in London to-day, one out of every eleven churns of milk arriving at our railway termini contains this death-dealing virus.  Under these deplorable conditions it is well to know that tuberculous milk is harmless after being heated to 160 Fahrenheit for half an hour, that these forms of the disease in children, when diagnosed in time, are very amenable to tuberculin treatment, and that intervention is becoming less and less necessary.

“To deal next with the danger, fortunately less, of infection from tuberculous meat, the Government authorities responsible appear to be indifferent to the magnitude of the evil.”

Had he had been “blinded by sentiment”, or had he merely been right?  That there were influential people, at the very heart of the British medical establishment, who regarded tuberculous deaths as a necessary evil can hardly have helped his cause.

Sutherland had had public disagreements with both Hunter and Barr. For instance, when Sutherland’s article The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis was published in the British Medical Journal on 23rd November 1912, Dr Hunter wrote to the Journal to undermine his arguments.

It was Barr who testified against Sutherland on the first day of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial. By that stage he was Vice-President of Stopes’ Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. The reason for his support was given in a letter to Stopes on 26th May 1921:

“You and your husband have inaugurated a great movement which I hope will eventually get rid of our C3 population and exterminate poverty. The only way to raise an A1 population is to breed them.”

Raising an A1 population…getting rid of the C3 population…exterminating poverty. And all this while using nature’s own ‘lethal chamber’—tuberculosis.

Next post: 1st March 2017, “The Perfect Eugenic State”.

7 comments on “Nature’s ‘Lethal Chamber’

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This entry was posted on 1 February 2017 by in Eugenics, Lethal chamber, Sir James Barr, Virginia Woolf.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

Centenary of the Court of Appeal's judgment7 July 2023
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