"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.
September 4th 2017, in one month’s time, will mark the centenary of Dr. Halliday Sutherland’s speech Consumption: Its Cause and Cure.
Today, the story of British eugenics is largely forgotten. Sometimes, when the eugenic views of a famous person are uncovered, he or she is often excused with: “Well, yes, (s)he was a eugenist, but then again, they all were back then.”
The speech is evidence that not only were they not all eugenists back then, but that Dr Sutherland opposed it, as did G.K. Chesterton (who called it “one of the most ancient follies of the earth”), Hilaire Belloc and the Reverend Archibald Fleming, who chaired the assembly of the Young Men’s Christian Association on that Tuesday, 4th September 1917.
An excerpt from the speech reads:
The demure typeface does not conceal Dr Sutherland’s anger at finding that the cure of tuberculosis was blocked by “self-styled eugenists” who did not think that preventing the disease was, in itself, a good thing.
Five years earlier, Sutherland had written in the British Medical Journal that the causes of tuberculosis were primarily infective, not genetic. Yet the out-of-date views not only persisted, but were held by those in powerful positions.
Sutherland didn’t name who the “self-styled eugenists” were, but one may have been the eminent physician, Sir James Barr. As President of the British Medical Association, Barr told the 1912 annual conference:
“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 this 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.”
In a 1918 speech, he expressed this opinion:
“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.”
Another was the Professor of Eugenics at London University, Karl Pearson, who on April 28, 1910, complained that British social reforms had not led to a discernible improvement in the quality of its people:
“If we look back on the more than fifty years during the betterment of nurture has been our chief policy, can we honestly assert that the nation has grown – relatively to other nations – in its number of able men of all types, in its power of action, in its self-control, in its enterprise and its originality? Yet I do not think there is any single nation which since 1840 has so continuously and successfully worked at improving environment as our own country. Might we not on the basis of such doubts legitimately demand that the problem of nurture and nature should receive closer attention; that we should not for another fifty years confine our attention to nurture?”
Pearson believed that social reforms had alleviated the previously harsh conditions and were “detrimental to racial efficiency” by giving succour to so-called “unfit”.
“…in a primitive society a harsh environment undoubtedly checks the survival of all forms of physical and mental defect. Further, in civilised society all legislation which provides nurture for the feebler at the cost of the socially fitter must be detrimental to racial efficiency UNLESS (i) it is accompanied by some check to the reproduction of the unfit, or (ii) we can show that nurture rather than nature dominates the production of the mentally or physically desirable members of our community.”
Pearson’s studies in eugenics had led him to conclude that the influence of heredity was between five and ten times more influential on people than their environment:
“Now I will not dogmatically assert that environment matters not at all; phases of it may be discovered which produce more effect than any we have yet been able to deal with. But I think it is safe to say that the influence of environment is not one-fifth of heredity, and quite possibly not one-tenth of it. There is no real comparison between nature and nurture; it is essentially the man who makes his environment; and not the environment that makes the man. The race will progress fastest where consciously or unconsciously success in life, power to reproduce its kind, lies within native worth. Hard environment may be the salvation of a race, easy environment its destruction. If you will think this point out in detail, I believe you will see the explanation of many great historical movements. Barbarism has too often triumphed over civilisation, because a hard environment had maintained, an easy environment suspended, the force of natural selection – the power of the nature factor.”
He concluded that while improving “nurture” or the environmental factors such as sanitation and living conditions had improving life, it had not not led to an improvement of British racial stocks. Pearson believed that no improvement would be made until reforms harnessed “the power of the nature factor”. In a 1912 speech, Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment, Pearson spelled out how this power might be applied to prevent tuberculosis:
“Eugenists have something better to propose. No one can study the pedigrees of pathological states, insanity, mental defect, albinism, &c., collected by our laboratory, without being struck by the large proportion of tuberculous members – occasionally the tuberculous man is a brilliant member of our race – but the bulk of the tuberculous belong to stocks which we want ab initio to discourage. Everything which tends to check the multiplication of the unfit, to emphasize that the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy, will pro tanto aid Nature’s method of reducing the phthisical death-rate. That is what the Eugenist proclaims as the “better thing to do”…”
Eugenics was then a fashionable belief held by fashionable people including Leonard Darwin (the Naturalist’s son), Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Pearson, George Bernard Shaw, Dr Marie Stopes and H.G. Wells.
Dr Sutherland became an outspoken critic of eugenics and the things that eugenists proposed: controlled breeding of humans, compulsory sterilisation of the poor, and even the lethal chamber. He held these views at great personal cost and was drawn into a long and bitter legal dispute which took him to the brink of financial ruin.
Given the disastrous impact that eugenics had in the last century, do take a moment to remember those who bravely opposed race-science in Britain 100 years ago. Please show your appreciation by clicking “share” and “like” and promoting this story on social media to encourage your friends to do the same.
This Centenary Event is part of a Centenary Campaign. To commemorate Consumption: Its Cause and Cure , the blog posts will be more frequent. Each one will deal with an aspect of the speech and will provide commentary and background.