Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.
The idea of an “elevator pitch” is to briefly encapsulate a story into the bare essentials. Here’s a summary of trial of Dr Halliday Sutherland in the High Court in 1923:
Dr Sutherland’s fight against a deadly disease led him to speak out publicly against negative eugenics and into a ferocious battle against eugenists. When he was sued for libel, he came close to financial ruin but, against the odds, he won.
In 1910, Consumption found easy victims in the crowded slums of Britain’s industrial cities. “Consumption” described what it what happened when you got it: you wasted away, literally consumed by the disease. You coughed incessantly, reeked a foul corporeal smell, and then you died. Today we call it tuberculosis or TB, when it affects the lungs.
50,000 people were killed by consumption, 20,000 from other forms of TB, and 150,000 disabled in Britain each year. 10,000 children were killed by tuberculous milk (unecessarily, given that pasteurisation could have prevented it). When TB struck the breadwinner, whole families would be thrown into destitution and it caused over 10% of the poverty in England and Wales.
In 1910, Sutherland joined the effort to prevent and cure this plague. He became the Medical Officer for the St Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption. He made Britain’s first public health education film and he opened a school for tuberculous children in a bandstand in Regent’s Park. He believed that the TB could be prevented and, if caught early enough, cured.
His hopes were dashed and he found the path to a cure was blocked. Not by resources, nor by medical knowledge, but by adherents of the then fashionable psuedo-science of eugenics.
Eugenists worried about hereditary quality of Britain’s “racial stocks”. That TB afflicted the poor three times more than the better off was, to them, evidence of inferior breeding. From their viewpoint, TB was not a disease so much as the cure. One doctor described it as “a friend of the race” and it was praised it was a rough but efficient way to eliminate so-called “undesirables” before they could reproduce.
In 1918, the ex-President of the British Medical Association, Sir James Barr, said: “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.”
Sutherland spoke out publicly against eugenics, calling them “race-breeders with the souls of cattle breeders”. He said that forbidding children to the poor as a privilege of the rich would lead to a British slave state, in which the poor had no role other than as workers. When he criticised Marie Stopes, who dispensed “PRORACE” contraceptives in a poor part of London to those who wanted them, while lobbying for the compulsory sterilisation of those who did not, she sued him for libel.
Sutherland faced a double jeopardy: judgement against him in the High Court and, win or lose, financial ruin from his legal fees. Prominent eugenists, including Sir James Barr, lined up in the High Court to testify against him. He won the initial trial, lost on appeal, and triumphed in the House of Lords.
Today, Sutherland is disparaged as a religious zealot who opposed women having access to birth-control. This false narrative suits those who are embarrassed by the eugenic motivations of their heroines and heroes.
Eugenists are sometimes excused with “they were all eugenists back then”. Sutherland’s battle is evidence that, actually no, they weren’t. His courage in opposing eugenics should be remembered today.
Mark Sutherland, Curator, hallidaysutherland.com