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.

Polite letters


Whilst at school, I was a member of an Amnesty International group. Back then, the focus of A.I. was on “prisoners of conscience”—people persecuted, imprisoned and worse for their political or religious views. Prisoners were allocated to local groups (such as mine) and, at our weekly meetings, we would discuss their plight. Then, when we had done enough talking, it was time to act:

We wrote a polite letter.

It was addressed to an authority. For instance, for one prisoner under the grip of communist totalitarianism (this was during the Cold War), we wrote to the minister of state.

Why had prisoner such-and-such been detained without charge, illegally under such-and-such a law? Why hasn’t he been able to see his lawyer? Why has he been denied medicine? Why hadn’t he received the additional blanket he requested to cope with the particularly cold winter weather?

And so on.

We never received a reply and, a few weeks later, we would send another letter. It appeared that our letters were inconsequential which was, at times, demoralising. Sensing this, the teacher who convened our group assured us that our efforts did make a difference.

“Never underestimate the power of polite, well informed, persistent letters,” he said.

I set up this website in 2014 because there was little information about Dr Halliday Sutherland online. What information there was, was frequently wrong.

I wrote to the authors and publishers of this information (through e-mail or online comments):

The doctor’s name was not ‘Halide Southland’ but Halliday SutherlandDr Sutherland did not lose the case. He won at first instance in the High Court, lost on appeal, and won in the House of LordsContrary to the impression given by the title of the book ‘The Trial of Marie Stopes’, it was Sutherland, not Stopes, who was put on trial.

And so on.

The correspondence is recorded in the HGS Watch section of this website. It appears that it has had little noticeable impact, but my teacher’s words helped me to disregard appearances.

The people to whom we appealed with our “Amnesty” letters must have known the laws or, if they didn’t, should have and would certainly have had advisers who did.

Our statements were factually correct, but who cared? Laws count for nothing when authority chose to ignore them and we weren’t dealing with the enforcement of law, but of power. The statutes in which the laws are written are turned into mere paper artifacts, evidence of nothing more than paper and printing ink.

Those in power applied the “set pieces”, such as:

  • ignoring the letter;
  • attributing ulterior ideological motives or a hidden agenda to the writer; or
  • finding unfathomable complexities in the situation that mitigated the correct application of the law.

So what was the point of writing?

The point was that ultimately authority relies on consent. Even the most powerful authority needs the consent of their collaborators, and consent requires credibility. For this reason, brutual and illegal acts were necessarily carried out, unobserved, in the dark places of the state. Our letters reminded the authorities that despite the locked doors, bars, walls, barbed-wire, searches and threats, despite all those things, word had got out.

From time to time one reads articles which downplay Marie Stopes’ support for eugenics. For instance, a recent article (also published here) described her support for eugenics as “alleged” and “supposed”. The evidence that Stopes was a supporter of eugenics was unequivocal, so I supplied some facts. Here is my comment from The Independent:

Stopes’ support for eugenics was not “alleged” or “supposed”. It is a fact, evidenced by her logo for the Mothers’ Clinic (“Joyous and deliberate motherhood – A sure light in our racial darkness”), an advertisement for the C.B.C. (“to furnish security from conception to those who are racially diseased”), her statement to the High Court in 1923 (I aim to achieve “reduction of the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale”) and the brand names of her cervical caps (“Prorace” and “Racial”).

Stopes didn’t mention eugenics in “Married Love”, but she did in “Wise Parenthood” (6th, 7th, 9th editions), “Radiant Motherhood” (Chapter 20 in which she argued for legislation to compulsorily sterilise “the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased”), and “Contraception” (see, for instance, Chapter 7 “Sterilization”).

Stopes’ opponent in the 1923 libel trial, Dr Halliday Sutherland was a doctor who specialised in tuberculosis (a disease of poverty, which affected the poor around three times more than wealthier people). He found the efforts to cure this infectious disease was hindered by eugenicists who said it was a disease of heredity, and whose solution was to breed out the “racially diseased”. That’s why Sutherland opposed the eugenicists on medical, scientific, ethical and moral grounds, long before he became a Roman Catholic.

As a “maverick eugenicist”, Stopes provided leadership to people such as Sir James Barr, ex-President of the B.M.A. and Vice-President of the C.B.C. who said: “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” (Br Med Journal v.2(3012); 1918 Sep 21). At the time, the supply of tuberculous milk to British cities killed around 10,000 children annually.

I am all for recognising the many achievements of Dr Marie Stopes, but it does not justify downplaying her support for and indeed, leadership of, the eugenics movement.

Sometimes I do get the impression that my comments are unwelcome. For instance, there was the time a content creator thanked me for my “unsolicited” comment.

Unsolicited? Here’s a screen-shot of the words, in bold, that followed their article:

Leave a reply

A perfect eugenic race is an end. Contraception, compulsory sterilisation, and other methods are means. In Birth Control (1922) Dr. Sutherland spoke out against both the ends and the means. When the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial is presented as “Catholics against contraceptives” it addresses the means but ignores the ends.

In 1911, Sutherland formed the view that TB was less about heredity and more about infection and living conditions, while mainstream eugenists regarded tuberculous people as “racially diseased”. Sutherland was thus drawn to oppose eugenics. Initially this was on scientific medical grounds, and later it was on ethical and moral grounds.

In 1917 Sutherland spoke out against eugenists as being a major obstacle to the treatment and prevention of tuberculosis. At a time when 10,000 children died annually from the supply of tuberculous milk to British cities, a leading eugenist described the disease as “a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit”.

In Birth Control, Sutherland opposed the eugenic ends of Stopes Mothers’ Clinic. He argued that if children were denied the poor as a privilege  of the rich, Britain would become a slave state. Given the famous and influential names who advocated eugenics as “the future”, opposing eugenics publicly took courage.

My interest in this issue is that Dr Sutherland was my grandfather. When I began to look into his life, the main source of information was in biographies and articles about Marie Stopes. As my knowledge increased, I realised that he had been misrepresented. When I read appalling calumnies about him that had not been answered, I set up this website to to set the record straight. The historical record has been enriched by presenting papers and documents from Dr Sutherland’s personal papers on this site for the first time.

Being a grandson/curator is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I am motivated to research issues that no one else has but, on the other, the relationship creates a perception of bias. With regard to the latter, I cite the evidence for the assertions of fact that I make on the site.

The “Roman Catholic doctor” meme, started by Stopes herself in the first edition of Birth Control News is now long past its “use-by” date. Yes, Dr Sutherland was a Roman Catholic and, I would argue, was a better man for it, but they ignore the fact that his opposition to eugenics started long before he became a Catholic.

Each year hundreds, possibly thousands, of undergraduate students write essays about Marie Stopes and birth control as part of their courses. They should have access to the facts about Dr Sutherland, tuberculosis, heredity, the unfit, the racially diseased, compulsory sterilisation and eutelegenesis. If nothing else, it would reveal history in its messy complexity. If you are reading this article as part of research, I would suggest that you start with the infographic here (you will find the links to historical evidence in the accompanying ‘fact check’ file).

I would urge historians and others to present Dr Sutherland accurately and without ideological bias because, if you don’t, I will…

…I will continue to write polite letters.

For while these appear to be laughably genteel and ineffective, as I learned from the old Amnesty International campaigns, they really do make a difference.

Mark Sutherland, Curator, hallidaysutherland.com

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This entry was posted on 1 May 2018 by in Eugenics, HGS Watch, Stopes v Sutherland, Tuberculosis.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

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