Dr Halliday Sutherland

Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.

The steady evil

Object Society.png

With these words, Dr Marie Stopes explained why she set up the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress in 1921 to support her Holloway Mothers’ Clinic. The activities of the Society included positive and negative eugenic measures.

Positive included spacing babies so that the mother’s health could recover between confinements. Negative included campaigning for legislation to compulsory sterilize the so-called “unfit”.

Stopes’ statement was made in the High Court on 22nd February 1923, the second day of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial. Note that:

  • She was under oath in the High Court when she said these words.
  • She made the statement while being examined by her own counsel, Mr Patrick Hastings, K.C. so it wasn’t as if her words were twisted by a lawyer during a hostile cross-examination.
  • In 1922 she had lobbied the Prime Minister for the compulsory sterilization of those she considered inferior.
  • While Stopes was a scientist, the words she used to describe those she considered inferior was unscientific. It was the nasty language of the rabble-rouser, likely to whip up a visceral hatred of the poor.

Dr Halliday Sutherland spoke out against Stopes’ class-based negative eugenics. Other articles on this site explain how:

  • He was at the forefront of the fight to eradicate and cure tuberculosis in 1911.
  • Tuberculosis killed 70,000 and disabled 150,000 annually at that time. When the disease struck the breadwinner, whole families would be thrown into destitution.
  • Tuberculosis affected the poor three times more than the rich. Social differences reinforced class prejudices about the “unfit” (reflecting the Social-Darwinist idea of “the survival of the fittest”).
  • Sutherland identified that tuberculosis was primarily caused by infection, not heredity. Eugenists continued to believe it was a hereditary condition.
  • While Sutherland (and others) were trying to prevent and cure tuberculosis, powerful eugenists said these efforts were a waste of time. The eugenist’s cure was to let nature take its course and to breed out the tuberculous.
  • Some eugenists described tuberculosis as a “friend of the race” because it killed off the so-called “unfit” before they could reproduce. The ex-President of the B.M.A. said that the disappearance of the disease would be a “national calamity”.
  • When Sutherland began to oppose eugenics, he was a Presbyterian in name and an agnostic or atheist by belief. He became a Catholic in 1919, most likely because of the Church’s consistent opposition to eugenics.
  • In Sutherland’s book Birth Control, he argued that if the poor were denied children as the privilege of the rich, it would lead to a slave state—a society in which the poor had no role, other than as workers.

Of five biographies of Dr Marie Stopes—by Aylmer Maude, Keith Bryant, Ruth Hall, June Rose, and Marian Clare Debenham—not one has correctly stated the reason for Sutherland’s attack on her work, nor made the link between Sutherland’s work fighting tuberculosis, which led to his opposition to eugenics, which led to his opposition to Stopes’ eugenic agenda. Not one.

When Sutherland spoke out, Stopes sued him for libel. He faced financial ruin until Catholics and other Christians raised money to pay his legal fees.

For all the ink printed about Stopes losing the case but gaining great publicity for her cause, one point is consistently overlooked: the Jury found that Sutherland’s defamatory statements—including that Stopes was “exposing the poor to experiment”—were true in substance and in fact.

95 years have passed since the case in the High Court, and it is time that the true story was more widely known.

Mark Sutherland, Curator, hallidaysutherland.com

Full quote and source

“The object of the Society is, if possible, to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C.3 end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale. Statistics show that every year the birth rate from the worst end of our community is increasing in proportion to the birth rate at the better end, and it was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked upon this work.”

Source: “The Trial of Marie Stopes [sic]”, Femina Books, 1967, p. 76.

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This entry was posted on 1 March 2018 by in Consumption, Marie Stopes biography.

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Centenary of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial

February 21st, 2023
4.4 years to go.