"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. His obituary in the British Medical Journal described him as “a tenacious fighter for the principles he thought were right, whether medical or political.” He publicly spoke out against eugenics, a stance which led him into a bitter legal battle against the eugenist, Marie Stopes.
When Sutherland chose 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, 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 the eradication of the disease, such the poor living conditions in the urban slums of Edwardian Britain. The biggest obstacle however, was eugenics.
For many years, breeders of livestock had known that the careful selection of mating pairs could be used to permanently improve the quality of the offspring. Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, wondered:
“Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?” [In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel Kevles 2004, page 3]
Modern eugenics was born. Mainstream eugenists held the view that it was a person’s heredity rather than their environment that determined their quality. Social standing was seen as indicating a person’s fitness for their environment.
At the turn of the century, British eugenists fretted about the “differential birth-rate”. This arose from the observation that:
“one half of each succeeding generation was produced by no more than a quarter of its married predecessor, and that the prolific quarter was disproportionately located among the dregs of society.” [In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel Kevles 2004, page 74]
Given their belief that nature was the predominant factor, they concluded that the trend would lead to “national deterioration” and even “race suicide”.
The link to tuberculosis was this: the disease affected the lower classes three to four times more than their social betters. The mainstream eugenist thought that the disease formed a natural check on the progeny of the “dregs” of society—in other words, it killed them before they could reproduce. To mainstream eugenists, tuberculosis was a literal and metaphorical “weed-killer”.
In 1908 Sutherland decided to specialise in tuberculosis and, in 1910, became the Medical Officer at the St Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption. His research into consumption here led him to conclude that the disease was primarily caused by infection, not by a person’s inherited disposition. In the first annual report of the dispensary he wrote:
“…one fact stands out clearly—that the infectious consumptive is the determining factor in causing the onset of the disease in others, rather than the seeds of the disease implanted before birth. The work of the Dispensary is based on this, for by the observance of a few simple precautions the infectious patient can be rendered non-infectious, and it is also known that if infectious persons can be placed under conditions of life whereby their resistance will be raised, they are less likely to develop the disease in later years. Therein lies the hope for the future.”
Sutherland published his results in the British Medical Journal in 1912 (The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis), but his views were heretical to the scientific and medical establishment—who believed that consumption was caused by an inherited disposition to the disease—and were ignored. At the British Medical Association’s annual conference the same year, Sir James Barr said this in his Presidential Address:
“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.”
The outbreak of war in 1914 and service in the Royal Navy took Sutherland away from his work. In September 1917, he made a speech in London in which he expressed anger and frustration that the efforts to cure tuberculosis were hindered by:
“…self-styled eugenists…who declaim that the prevention of disease is not in itself a good thing. They say the efficiency of the State is based upon what they call ‘the survival of the fittest.’ This [First World] war has smashed their rhetorical phrase. Who talks now about survival of the fittest, or thinks himself fit because he survives? I don’t know what they mean. I do know that in preventing disease you are not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong. And I do know that those evil conditions which will kill a weakly child within a few months of birth, and slay another when he reaches the teens, will destroy yet another when he comes to adult life.”
Yet the old beliefs about tuberculosis being a hereditary condition persisted. In 1918, an ex-president of the British Medical Association, Sir James Barr, expressed the view that:
“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…Personally, I am of opinion…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.’
Dr Marie Stopes was famous as the author of Married Love. Stopes was a member of the Eugenics Education Society (“EES”) and had become increasingly frustrated that it would not adopt her birth-control agenda. To her, the way to combat what she called the “social evil” of the differential birth rate was to provide contraception free-of-charge for those who sought it, and to compulsorily sterilise those who did not. In 1921 she became a fellow of the EES, opened the “Mother’s Clinic” (with her husband, Mr Humphrey Roe) in a poor part of London, and established the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress.
The clinic was part of her campaign 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”
The Mother’s Clinic was the “restriction” that Barr had sought. On 26th May 1921 he wrote to Stopes telling her:
“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.”
Barr became a Vice-President of her Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress.
Stopes lobbied the government for controlled breeding and compulsory sterilisation of those she considered unworthy of parenthood. The groups Stopes nominated for sterilisation were not only wide-ranging, but were described in disparaging terms that were at odds with her scientific background.
In 1922, Sutherland attacked the clinic in his book Birth Control. He argued:
“…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 ordered 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.
Blog articles are posted on the first day of each month (except in April when the article is published on the 2nd).
Enjoy the site!
Mark H. Sutherland,
© Mark Sutherland 2019.
Header quote: “Documents of the Twentieth Century” by G. K. Chesterton “The Listener” December 12, 1934. Acknowledgement and thanks to Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society for bringing this to my attention.