Dr. Halliday Sutherland

"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is 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

Positive eugenics?

Chesterton Eugenics
Some correspondents read the word “negative eugenics” in a recent infographic in the sense of “reprehensible”. Why specify “negative,” they asked, when surely all eugenic measures are reprehensible? Did “negative” imply that there was such a thing as “positive” eugenics?

A good question, and one which is clarified in this article. The short points are:

  • definitions matter; and
  • “negative” and “positive” are used in the sense of prohibition and promotion, not “bad” and “good”.

Definitions matter

The longer answer is that it depends on the definition you use. Francis Galton, inventor of the word “eugenics” described it as:

“the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally”[1]

According to this definition, when studies showed that the physical and mental qualities of newborns was improved by close attention of, and breast-feeding from, the natural mother, then paid maternity leave for working women and the encouragement of breast-feeding become “eugenic” measures.

For this reason, the starting point for a discussion, debate (or even an infographic) on eugenics should be to define what it actually meant by the word. Failure to define it allows supporters of eugenics to conceal its true nature.

Twisting words? If it is, it isn’t a new issue. As G.K. Chesterton put it:

“I know that [eugenics] means very different things to different people; but that is only because evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. I know it is praised with high professions of idealism and benevolence; with silver-tongued rhetoric about purer motherhood and a happier posterity.” [2]

“Negative” and “positive” eugenics

Daniel Kevles defined the “at times overlapping approaches” of positive and negative eugenics in In the Name of Eugenics as follows:

“‘positive eugenics,’ which aimed to foster more prolific breeding among the socially meritorious, and ‘negative eugenics’ which intended to encourage the socially disadvantaged to breed less—or, better yet, not at all.” [3] [page 85]

In the early days of my research of Sutherland’s battle with Stopes, there was little information available so I drew on the biographies and hagiographies of Stopes. Generally speaking, these did three things:

  • Firstly, they emphasised the positive eugenic measures at the Mothers’ Clinic: the promotion of the health of mother and child by spacing babies, and the promotion of what we would today call “family planning”. I believe that their aim was to specify measures which, for want of a better term, the “contemporary reader” would find unremarkable and uncontroversial.
  • Secondly, they said that the sole reason Sutherland opposed Stopes was because he was a Catholic convert, and because the church prohibited contraceptives. I believe they did this to make him look like an unreasonoable zealot.
  • Thirdly they did not mention the negative eugenic purpose of the clinic, nor of Stopes’ campaign for the compulsory sterilization of the so-called “unfit” (though the words she used to describe them was vituperative and designed to whip up contempt for poor and working class people). I believe they did this because the “contemporary reader” would be appalled and would wonder why a woman who behaved in this way would be celebrated as a heroine.

This BBC History history of Marie Stopes is an example of the genre. The narrative was aimed, I believe, to show that Sutherland’s criticism of Stopes was unreasonable, unfounded and that the Catholic Church was a medieval institution standing in the way of way of “progress”. This narrative influences people’s perceptions of the Church’s moral authority when dealing with these issues today.

My use of the word “negative” was to signal exactly the type of eugenics which Sutherland spoke out against and to overcome the accumulated misinformation that has been produced since he successfully defended Stopes’ libel action in 1923-4.

“Mainline” and “reform” eugenics

Two other terms were used to describe eugenic schools of thought, namely “mainline” and “reform”. These relate to the relative influence that nature (genetics) and nurture (environment and upbringing) have on a person.

Mainline eugenists have been described as “breeding is all”: nature plays a far larger part than nurture.

The epitome of this school was Karl Pearson, Professor of Eugenics at London University, who said:

“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.” [emphasis added] [4]

Another was Sir James Barr, who put it this way in September 1918 speech:

“Do not waste all your money on degenerates; they are prolific enough without any encouragement.”

In contrast, reform eugenists were in favour of social reforms but, according to Daniel Kevles [3]:

“What differentiated reform eugenists from the standard reformers of the day was their conviction that biology counted—that not only did nurture figure in the shaping of man but so, significantly, did nature.” [page 173]

Kevles continued:

“The reformers recognized, however, that hardly anything was known about precisely what role heredity played in the achievement, or lack of it, of the bulk of the population. Inadequate housing, medical care, education, and opportunity could just as easily has heredity account for the dissolution and physical and mental disease among lower-income groups. Until basic environmental conditions were equalized among all socio-economic strata, reform eugenists held, no one had any right to say that one stratum differed from another solely by the force of heredity.” [page 173]

I hope this clears up the use of the term “negative eugenics”. Please contact me if you have any questions using the contact page.

Mark Sutherland, Curator, hallidaysutherland.com


[1] Francis Galton, “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope and Aims”, Nature, 70 (1904), 82.

[2] G.K. Chesterton “Eugenics and Other Evils” Cassell and Company, Limited, London, New York, Melbourne and Toronto, 1922 edition. You can access a copy of Chesterton’s book by clicking here. A great read!

[3] Daniel J. Kevles, “In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity” Harvard University Press, 1985. The page numbers shown in my article are for the 2004 paperback edition.

[4] Nature and Nurture: The Problem of the Future A Presidential Address delivered by Karl Pearson, F.R.S. at the Annual General Meeting of the Social and Political Education League April 28, 1910.

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This entry was posted on 28 January 2018 by in Uncategorized.

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Centenary of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial

February 21st, 2023
5 years to go.