"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.
My letter to the Daily Telegraph was published at the end of last month. It read:
SIR – Given that University College London is to remove the names of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson from lecture theatres (report, June 20) because of their views on eugenics, it is surprising that it continues to celebrate the name of Dr Marie Stopes.
Galton and Pearson provided the theoretical basis for eugenics, but it was Stopes who applied eugenic breeding practically in Britain by opening the Mothers’ Clinic in Holloway in 1921.
As Sir James Barr (the vice president of the clinic and former ex-president of the British Medical Association) put it: “You and your husband have inaugurated a great movement which I hope will eventually get rid of our C3 population and exterminate poverty. The only way to raise an A1 population is to breed them.”
Stopes’s eugenic intent was reflected in the clinic’s slogan: “Joyous and Deliberate Motherhood, a Sure Light in our Racial Darkness.” It figured in the tenets of her Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, and even in the branding of her contraceptive devices – the “Pro-Race” and later, “Racial” cervical caps. On her death in 1958, she left her clinic in Whitfield Street to the Eugenics Society.
While Stopes’s contemporary disciples spin her work as giving women “reproductive choice”, in the case of those she deemed “parasites” who should face compulsory sterilisation, the choice would have been made by the state.
At this point the published letter ended, edited owing to space constraints (which, I should add, the Telegraph had discussed with me). The unedited letter continued:
At a time in which statues are torn down and names are removed from British history, I would like to suggest that those who fought against eugenics be commemorated in their place. One is Halliday Sutherland, doctor, bestselling author, Stopes’ nemesis in their 1923 High Court libel battle and, full disclosure, my grandfather.
Dr Sutherland’s opposition to Stopes has been represented simplistically as “Catholics against contraceptives”, a false meme started by Stopes that persists to this day. History records that Sutherland opposed eugenics from 1911 onwards, a time at which he was a Presbyterian agnostic (and possibly even an atheist) and long before his conversion to Catholicism in 1919. Sutherland was a leader in the fight against Tuberculosis, a disease of poverty that killed 70,000 and disabled 150,000 (mainly poor and working class) Britons each year. A major obstacle to the battle against TB came from influential eugenicists, including Barr and Pearson, who argued that TB was caused by the inferior breeding of its victims and that the “cure” was to let nature take its course. In other words, let the tuberculous die before they could reproduce, and the taint would die out with them. Indeed, in a 1918 speech Barr argued that the elimination of TB would be “nothing short of a national calamity” because “it forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit.”
In the age of Covid-19 and the efforts to “flatten the curve” to preserve the lives of rich and poor alike, these attitudes are shocking to us. It is to Dr Sutherland’s credit that he found the attitudes shocking in an age in which eugenics was popularly held by influential people in his society. A blue plaque is long overdue and, who knows, perhaps even a lecture theatre at UCL.
The unedited letter makes it clear that I was calling for the advocates of eugenics to be treated consistently and for the opponents of eugenics to be remembered, not making a call for Galton or Pearson or Stopes to be “cancelled”.