"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is 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
Halliday Gibson Sutherland (1882-1960) was a tuberculosis pioneer, doctor and author. This site celebrates his life and work. Blog updates are published on the first day of each month.
Sutherland’s obituary in the British Medical Journal described him as “a tenacious fighter for the principles he thought were right, whether medical or political.”
When Sutherland began to specialise in tuberculosis in around 1908, the disease killed 70,000, disabled 150,000 and infected 500,000 people annually in Britain. When it struck the bread-winner whole families would be thrown into pauperism.
Sutherland was pupil and protégé of Sir Robert Philip (the originator of the “Edinburgh System” for the prevention and cure of tuberculosis), and he implemented many of Philip’s schemes. He produced Britain’s first health-education cinema film and started an Open-air school in the bandstand in Regent’s Park. There were obstacles preventing a cure, not least the poor living conditions in the urban slums of Edwardian Britain, but by far the biggest obstacle was ideological.
Eugenics, then fashionable among the ruling elite and progressives of the era, mandated that tuberculosis was caused primarily by heredity, not infection. They argued that the cure for the disease would be achieved by breeding out the tuberculous types. Incredibly, those at the heart of the British medical establishment saw tuberculosis as a “weed-killer“, both metaphorically and literally.
Fighting eugenics was to change Sutherland’s life. In 1906 Sutherland was nominally a Presbyterian and an admitted atheist. In 1912 Sutherland wrote The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis for the British Medical Journal in which he concluded that both hereditary and environmental factors were at play and that fighting infection was the key to curing the disease. In September 1917 he spoke out against eugenists, in a speech: Consumption: Its Cause and Cure. Each time he spoke out, it brought him into conflict with the medical establishment and to the brink of financial ruin when he was sued for libel by a leading eugenist in 1923.
In 1921, Marie Stopes and her husband opened a eugenic birth-control clinic in a poor part of London to achieve:
“a reduction of the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale”
Stopes was a celebrity following the publication of her book Married Love in 1918. She advocated and campaigned for the compulsory sterilisation of those she considered unworthy of parenthood.
In 1922, Sutherland’s book Birth Control in which he attacked Stopes’ clinic, arguing that:
“…if children are to be denied to the poor as a privilege of the rich, then it would be easy to exploit the women of the poorer classes. If women have no young children why should they be exempt from the economic pressure applied to men?”
“The English poor have already lost even the meaning of the word “property,” and if the birth controllers had their way the meaning of the word “home” would soon follow. The aim of birth control is generally masked by falsehood, but the urging of this policy on the poor points unmistakenly to the Servile State.”
Stopes read an advance copy of the book and was reportedly incensed by a passage headed “Exposing the Poor to Experiment”. Through her husband, Stopes challenge Sutherland to a public debate. He did not respond, on the grounds that he did not want to promote her cause, and subsequently he received a writ for libel.
On 21st February 1923, Stopes v. Sutherland opened in the High Court. The defendants—Sutherland and his publisher—successfully defended the action. Stopes appealed and won. Sutherland appealed to the House of Lords, the highest Court in Britain, and won in 1924.
In 1933 Sutherland’s book The Arches of the Years was published and became an international bestseller, making the Publishers Weekly list for that year.
G. K. Chesterton reviewed Sutherland’s A Time to Keep—in The Listener in 1934 and he described him as:
…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.
Sutherland continued to oppose eugenics in his 1935 book The Laws of Life. In 1936 he wrote about a the “lethal chamber” in The Perfect Eugenic State, foreshadowing the appalling discoveries that would be made later in the century.
In 1955, Sutherland again encountered controversy , when he travelled to Ireland to find material for a book. During his visit he sought permission from the Bishop of Galway to visit the Magdalene Laundry at Galway. He told the Bishop the reason for the visit: “I want to find out how you treat unmarried mothers,” and asked, “Is there anything to hide?”
Permission to visit was granted on the basis that anything he wrote be vetted by the Mother Superior of the Laundry. Accordingly his 1956 book Irish Journey was censored. Following the discovery of the publisher’s manuscript in 2013, the uncensored manuscript is available for the first time, exclusively, on this site.
Irish Journey caused ripples, which Sutherland described this way, in the preface to the 1958 American edition:
In 1955 I wrote Irish Journey and this book has been damned by faint praise from every newspaper critic in Ireland. I was not surprised, because all the critics have ignored my main criticism, which concerns the Irish secular clergy. In my opinion they have too much political power. They hold themselves aloof from their people, and are too fond of money.
In the bad old days, when Ireland was subject to the foreign power of England, the parish priest was probably the only educated man in an Irish village. The foreign power has been driven out, the people are better educated, but the parish priest is loathe to relinquish his political power.
During my Irish holiday, I was assaulted by a total stranger in a Tipperary hotel. The incident was reported in all the Dublin papers, and when I returned to my Dublin hotel, the receptionist said to me, “Will you be writing about it?” I told her I would, and she replied, “That won’t be nice.” She was obviously afraid that the record of this incident would spoil Ireland as a show place.
Ireland is certainly a wonderful show place, and heaven may reflect Killarney; but as a Scotsman I think Loch Lomond, twenty miles from Glasgow, is more beautiful.
Another day a well-known man called at the hotel to see me. I met him in the lounge, but he asked me out to his car, I asked him where we were going and he said, ” Nowhere, but there were too many people in the lounge who might overhear what I am going to ask you, and that is not to mention me in your book.”
“And why not?”
“They wouldn’t like it.”
I know that he meant the Irish hierarchy, It is strange how the shadow of the hierarchy falls on the most unexpected places in the public life of Ireland.
If Ireland goes communist within the next ten years, I think the secular clergy will be to blame.
The “Catholic Medical Guardian” of London gave my book an excellent review and said that my account of the assault on myself in a Tipperary hotel recalled the best chapters in “Handy Andy”. But a copy of my book was sent to a nun in Dublin who replied, “This book should be burnt by the public hangman.”
I only hope that what I have written will be more appreciated in the clearer air in the United States of America.
Followers and advocate of eugenics are sometimes called “eugenicists” and sometimes “eugenists”. Which is correct? The answer is that both are. I notice that in modern times, people tend to use eugenicist. I prefer to use the term “eugenist” on the grounds that it has fewer syllables and that it was the term used by Dr. Sutherland and Professor Karl Pearson, Professor of Eugenics at London University.
Enjoy the site!
Mark Sutherland, Curator, hallidaysutherland.com
© Mark Sutherland 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. All material on this written or created by Mark Sutherland is copyright.
Header quote: “Documents of the Twentieth Century” by G. K. Chesterton “The Listener” December 12, 1934. Acknowledgement and thanks to Mr. Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society for bringing this to my attention.