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.

“Yes” to accurate history (2/3)

Essays and articles about British eugenicists are often based on the assumption that eugenic principles were not put into practice in Britain.[1] As a result, the degree to which British eugenicists are condemned for their views relies upon their proximity to the eugenic crimes that took place in Germany later in the Twentieth Century. The closer the eugenicist is perceived to be to the Nazis, the more likely they are to be “cancelled”.

In terms of the diagram above, the eugenicist at “a” is more likely to be “cancelled” than the one at “d”. On this basis it means that, at time of writing this article, Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson have been cancelled, Sir Ronald Fisher is threatened, but Dr Marie Stopes, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells are not. In the case of these last four, I think it helps that they have a cadre of contemporary admirers to use the excuse “well, everyone had eugenic views back then didn’t they”, and the belief that their eugenic views were merely ideas, not actions.

The problem with the “proximity” measure is that the assumption on which it is based is false, for not only were eugenic principles put into practice in Britain, but there were British victims of eugenics.

For instance, it was Sir James Barr who, as president of the British Medical Association in 1912, compared Britain to a garden in which the weeds should not be allowed to flourish.

“If we could only abolish the tubercle bacillus in these islands we would get rid of tuberculous disease, but we should at the same time raise up a race peculiarly susceptible to this infection – a race of hothouse plants which would not flourish in any other environment. We would thus increase at an even greater rate than we are doing at present, nervous instability, the numbers of insane and feeble-minded. Nature, on the other hand, 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. Nature’s methods are thus of advantage to the race rather than to the individual.”

In 1918, he said that the elimination of TB would be “nothing short of a national calamity” because it did a rough but effective job of killing the unfit. In this context, “flattening the curve” refers to the heavy thump of the grave-diggers shovel as he completed a burial.

Sir James became a vice-president of Dr Marie Stopes’ Mother’s Clinic in 1921 (as did Keynes, Russell and Wells), because the contraceptive clinic in a poor part of London was the beginning of a “check” he sought. He knew this because Dr Stopes had told him so. As she explained in the High Court in 1923, she set up the Mothers’ Clinic:

“… 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.”

Testimony of Dr Marie Stopes on the second day of the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial, February 1923.

The Tenets of the CBC – the beliefs of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress – make it clear that the organisation aimed to improve British racial stocks and that part of this involved the elimination and control of poor and working class Britons.

Why has this narrative not come to light? After all, the evidence is there and it has been presented many times on this site. My own view is that the “kindly woman helping her poorer sisters” foundation myth helps contemporary eugenicists co-opt those who do not share their views to further their program and that widespread knowledge of her genocidal aims would disrupt this.

Exterminating Poverty: The true story of the eugenic plan to get rid of the poor and the Scottish doctor who fought against it (written in conjunction with Neil Sutherland) will be published in paperback later this year. As our contribution to the history of British eugenics it is a “must read” or a “must ignore”. It all depends on your desire for accurate history.


[1] For instance, see Dominic Lawson’s article in the Daily Mail on 29 June 2020 in which he wrote: “It was actually Adolf Hitler who put their ideas into practice, though more radically than they had proposed…”

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This entry was posted on 3 July 2020 by in Uncategorized.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

Centenary of the House of Lords judgment21 November 2024
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