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.

Burying Galton to Save Eugenics

One month ago, there was a furore over eugenics in the British press. For all the protestations that eugenics had no place in modern Britain, it now appears that the purpose of the exercise was to bury Sir Francis Galton (the founder of modern eugenics) so that eugenics itself could be saved.

One month ago, British newspapers reported the resignation of Andrew Sabisky from an advisory role with the British government on the grounds of his views on eugenics and race. According to an article in The Guardian, Sabisky had written: “One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies, creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty…” On another occasion he had: “… argued that benefit claimants ‘tend to be less conscientious and agreeable’ and should be encouraged to have fewer children than people in work with more ‘pro-social personalities’”.

The story was the latest in a number of controversies concerning eugenics in recent years: in 2019, students at University College London (UCL) objected to their buildings being named after prominent eugenists (such as Sir Francis Galton, the founder of modern eugenics, who established the Galton Eugenics Professorship there in 1911 and the first professor of eugenics, Karl Pearson), which led to an Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL. In 2018, educationalist and journalist Toby Young was forced to resign from a government educational body, in part because of his advocacy of “progressive eugenics” in a 2015 article, and newspapers reported that secret conferences on eugenics had been hosted at UCL.

On 28th February, the Inquiry Into the History of Eugenics at UCL reported and its recommendations, which include the renaming of places which commemorate Galton and his protege, Professor Karl Pearson and these are now being considered by UCL.

No doubt there will be similar controversies in the future, but for all the apparent condemnation of Sabisky’s views and of eugenics, the commentary in the media I read was as interesting for what it left out as for what it included.

The definition of “Eugenics”.

Few writers, if any, included a definition of eugenics and, when they did, it was at odds with the definition of Sir Francis Galton who said it was:

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

Francis Galton, Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope and Aims, Nature, 70 (1904), 82.

My aim here is not to be unnecessarily pedantic, so much as to point out that loose definitions enabled commentators writers to emulate Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

By tailoring their definitions, commentators were able to exclude practices of which they approved from the opprobrium of the label “Eugenics”. Of course, definitions matter because, as Chesterton so eloquently put it, eugenics:

“… means very different things to different people; but that it only because evil 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… I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that it because evil wins through the strength of its splendid dupes; and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin. Of these who are deceived I shall speak of course as we all do of such instruments; judging them by the good they think they are doing and not by the evil which they really do. But Eugenics itself does exist for those who have sense enough to see that ideas exist; and Eugenics itself, in large quantities or small, coming quickly or slowly, urged from good motives or bad, applied to a thousand people or applied to three, Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.”

Eugenics and Other Evils by G.K. Chesterton.

The impact of eugenics in Britain was understated.

Many commentators referred to the atrocities of Germany under the National Socialists, such as the T4 program in which “disabled Germans of all ages were rounded up and quietly gassed.”[1] This gave the impression was given that British eugenics was a comparatively theoretical affair. Sadly, this was not the case.

One advantage that British eugenists had over their later German counterparts was that their lethal agent was legal: tuberculosis (TB), a disease of poverty that killed the poor around three times more than the better-off. At the beginning of the 20th century, TB killed 70,000 Britons each year and disabled a further 150,000. These deaths included 10,000 children who died from drinking tuberculous milk which, had they been in the United States, would have been rendered harmless through pasteurisation. A Royal Commission’s recommendation that milk be tested was ignored.

Is it fair to blame deaths from TB on eugenists? When TB could be neither prevented nor cured, no. When, on the other hand, TB could be prevented and cured, it became one of the “agencies under social control”.

When leading specialists told the public that TB was “curable in its earlier stage” and preventable in 1911, eugenists maintained that it was primarily a disease of heredity. For instance, in a 1912 lecture at the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics at UCL, Professor Karl Pearson observed that:

“… 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 death-rate.”

Another example was the views of the President of the British Medical Association, Sir James Barr. In 1912, he praised nature as the agent that:

“… weeds out those who have not got the innate power of recovery from disease, and by means of the 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.”

In 1918 he said:

“… the elimination of the tubercle bacillus is not worth aiming at [because] it forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit,” and added that the disappearance of the disease “would be nothing short of a national calamity.”

While not all doctors shared these views, the fact they had taken root at the top of the medical establishment would not have made the eradication of TB as high a priority as it should have been.

British eugenics after 1945.

Commentators barely touched on this issue, giving the impression that it ceased in 1945. Headlines reporting Eugenics was “rearing its ugly head again” or “was making a comeback” conveyed the wrong impression. Eugenics never went away.

As I explained in my book Exterminating Poverty, after the war, the Eugenics Society continued its work and, from 1960, decided to do this secretly. In case this sounds like a conspiracy theory, I should point out that my source is the The Eugenics Review, the in-house journal of the Eugenics Society (See the September 1968 edition, pages 142-161: “Activities of the Eugenics Society” by A.S. Parkes).

After the Second World War, membership of the Eugenics Society fell by 40%, and recruitment programs had failed to address the decline. Dr C.P. Blacker (honorary secretary of the Society) recommended:

“That the Society should pursue eugenic ends by less obvious means, that is by a policy of crypto-eugenics, which was apparently proving successful with the US Eugenics Society.”

Activities of the Eugenics Society by A.S. Parkes, Eugenics Review. September 1968. Pages 142-161.

In February 1960, the Council of the Eugenics Society decided that:

“The Society’s activities in crypto-eugenics should be pursued vigorously, and specifically that the Society should increase its monetary support of the FPA [Family Planning Association] and the IPPF [International Planned Parenthood Federation]… ”

Activities of the Eugenics Society by A.S. Parkes, Eugenics Review. September 1968. Pages 142-161.

At around the same time, they decided to change the name of the society to one that was less evocative, such as The Galton Society.

Subsequently, in 1968, publication of the Eugenics Review ceased and was replaced by the Journal of Biosocial Science. In 1975, Dr Marie Stopes’ eugenic birth control clinic — which Dr Stopes had bequeathed to the Eugenics Society on her death in 1958 — was sold. In 1989, the Eugenics Society changed its name to the Galton Institute.

The sale of Dr Stopes’ clinic provides a case-study of how crypto-eugenics enabled the Eugenics Society to achieve its goals. The purchaser of Dr Stopes’ clinic was Dr Tim Black who with his wife, Jean Black, and business partner, Phil Harvey, founded Marie Stopes International (MSI). Prior to that, Black had accepted a fellowship of the Ford Foundation to study population dynamics at the University of North Carolina. Prior to that, he had been a district health officer in Sepik, New Guinea. MSI’s website described the life-changing event that led him to become a birth-controller:

“In the late 1960s, Tim Black was working as a district health officer in the Sepik district of New Guinea, and it was around that time that he began to reassess his focus on trying to cure or save lives as a matter of course. After saving the life of a three-month old girl, he was shocked that her widowed mother — who already had five children and no steady income — didn’t want her to survive.

“‘My shock was absolute. My immediate reaction was one of utter indignation. The gulf separating my life experience and that of this poor woman was complete. She had wanted the baby to die — not live — during the operation.

“‘I suddenly realised that I had presented her, not only with her baby, but with another mouth to feed, another dependent human being to whom she could offer nothing: no father, no education, no future.

“‘It was at that point that I began to realise that preventing a birth could be as important as saving a life.’”

See: https://www.mariestopes.org/about-us/our-history/

Black’s story is reminiscent of the radically sympathetic man in Havelock Ellis’s 1912 book The Task of Social Hygiene:

“The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an alms-house for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.”

The Task of Social Hygiene (1912). Havelock Ellis. Page 401.

Today MSI provides contraception, sterilisation and abortion in 37 countries across the world. In 2018, they received donations of £158 million and facilitated 4.8 million abortions.[2]

Eugenics is not making a comeback. It never went away in the first place.

Burying Galton to save Eugenics.

So far, the media commentary I read gave an impression that it was exposing British class-based eugenics, albeit superficially. I later came to believe that what I was witnessing was the burial of Sir Francis Galton so that his eugenic idea could be saved. Three things convinced me of this:

Firstly, articles consistently referred to eugenics as a “pseudo-science” and even as a “non-science”. While they presumably did this to preserve the integrity of modern science, no one defined “pseudo-science” or indicated how a scientist might recognise that his work was pseudo-scientific. As Dr Anthony Horvath wrote in his preface to the English translation of Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life):

“Naturally the people at the time did not regard it as pseudo at all. Whether or not present day attitudes on what we regard as ‘scientific’ will be labelled as ‘pseudo-scientific’ in fifty years remains to be seen. Fish do not know they are wet.”

It is an important point, because Galton and his colleagues considered themselves to be good people motivated by good intentions.

Secondly, articles frequently referred to Galton’s racism which, by taking him out of the context of his times, made him an unsympathetic figure to the modern reader. While I can understand the condemnation of scientific racism of eugenics, the writers who did this did not explain how more modern forms of scientific discrimination — such as the campaign against children with Downs Syndrome — was morally different.

Thirdly, I read an article by UCL geneticist Adam Rutherford, in which he referred to eugenics’ “toxic past, the genocides of the twentieth century, and the hope it had been confined to a historic midden,” and later to Sabisky’s “musings on race, IQ research, forced contraception of the poor, and embryo selection for desirable traits.”

“That,” Rutherford informed us, “by any other name, is eugenics.”

When he later cited Sabisky’s suggestion “in a 2016 interview that modern eugenics might work via selection of embryos during IVF for traits such as intelligence” he condemned it not on the grounds that it was eugenics, but that it was “both historically and scientifically illiterate.”

Rutherford wrote: “We do use embryo selection for serious diseases already, but these tend to be ones for which the biology is straightforward and well understood, such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease…”

Sabisky’s views were criticised for overstating the case for embryo selection for intelligence. Rutherford wrote: “Geneticists argue about whether embryo selection for intelligence would ‘work’ because genetics is really hard and genomes wickedly complex.” This of course begged the question that if embryo selection for intelligence were understood, would it be morally acceptable to do it? The question was not answered in the article.

Given the attention that UCL has given to exposing their eugenic past, it was interesting to note that their geneticists will continue with what is, by any other name eugenics, without any concern whatsoever, because it is in the name of science.


Finally, while virtually all of the commentators I read listed the proponents of eugenics at length, none of its opponents were mentioned. They appeared to know very little about the people who opposed the idea for which they professed so much disdain. So who were the people who opposed eugenics?

Historian G.R. Searle gave the answer in the conclusion to Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-14:

“… the fiercest opposition to eugenics has come, not from the Labour/Socialist camp, but from Roman Catholics and from a certain kind of individualist liberal”.

Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-14. G.R. Searle.

None of the articles mentioned the opposition to eugenics provided by G.K. Chesterton, Cardinal Bourne, Dr Halliday Sutherland and those that backed him in the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial of 1923, the League of National Life, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (which condemned birth control and sterilization) and Catholics today who are making a stand against eugenics and other evils… not one word. While I don’t profess to know why this was the case, I do know that eugenists want to be rid of Galton and the moral opposition of Catholics.

While UCL considers re-naming the places named after Galton and Pearson, the eugenic science that they would admire the most continues to march towards the Brave New World. Galton has been buried to save eugenics.

Recommended reading:

Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens or Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life.

Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) by G.K. Chesterton.

Exterminating Poverty: The incredible true story of the eugenic plan to get rid of the poor, and the Scottish doctor who fought against it by Mark H Sutherland (inconjunction with Neil Sutherland).


The author would like to acknowledge Brendan O’Neill’s 2010 article Burying Malthus to Save Malthusianism at Spiked Online as the basis for the title and some of the ideas in this article.


[1] Quoted from Dr Anthony Horvath’s preface to the English translation of Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. Its measure and form. (1920) by Jurist and Law Professor Karl Binding, PhD. University of Leipzig and Doctor and Medical Professor Alfred Hoche, M.D. University of Freiburg. Translated by Dr Christina Modak.

[2] “Providing access to safe abortion and post-abortion care is at the core of our mission. In 2018, MSI provided more than 4.8 million services to women and girls who turned to us for safe abortion and post-abortion care services.” Source: https://mariestopes.org/media/3567/financial-statement-and-annual-report-2018.pdf viewed on 7 November 2019. Pages 14 and 50.

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2 comments on “Burying Galton to Save Eugenics

  1. Dermot Grenham
    16 March 2020

    Good article. I am an alumni of UCL so share some of the shame of having links to the likes of Galton.

  2. Pingback: Burying Eugenics to Save Marie Stopes | Halliday Sutherland

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This entry was posted on 15 March 2020 by in "Exterminating Poverty" Book, Eugenics.

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