"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
Next year will mark a centenary event in a doctor’s brave fight against eugenics. His story is relevant today. Please read the story below and help spread to the word so that it becomes more widely known.
Can you imagine your body being the property of the state? Or the government preventing you from having children, or even killed, because of your low social status? Then thank Dr Halliday Sutherland. The freedom enjoyed by British people today owes in part to him, and others like him, who opposed eugenics at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Halliday Sutherland qualified as a doctor in 1908, graduating with honours from Edinburgh University. He then became the director of the St. Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption.
Sutherland’s innovative work fighting tuberculosis earned recognition, but it was his dogged opposition to eugenics and his championing of the rights of ordinary British people that makes him an enduring hero.
In around 1910, Sutherland was appalled by the popularity of eugenics among Britain’s middle and upper classes. Eugenists believed that the failure of Britain’s lower classes to be rich and successful reflected their genetic inferiority. They fretted that the higher birth rate of the lower classes, and their own shrinking birth rate, would lead to national deterioration and even “race suicide”. Eugenists urged Parliament to pass laws to compulsorily sterilise ordinary Britons. There was even talk of using a lethal chamber to improve Britain’s gene pool by killing “inferior” people.
In 1912, Sutherland rebutted the Professor of Eugenics at London University who said that tuberculosis was primarily caused by heredity, and urged that the disease be cured by breeding-out the tuberculous types (i.e. the urban poor). After an interval caused by active service in WW1, Sutherland made a speech in 1917 in which he called Britain’s eugenists “race breeders with the souls of cattle breeders,” and argued that “in preventing disease you are not preserving the weak but conserving the strong.”
In 1921, a eugenist began dispensing “Pro-Race” contraceptives to women in a poor part of London. The advice and fitting of these devices was free of charge, and her aim was to check the birth rate of inferior stocks. Attacking this scheme in a 1922 book, Sutherland described it as a social “experiment” that would lead to a “Servile State” (a phrase he borrowed from Hilaire Belloc). He argued that if ordinary Britons were legally prevented from having children, they would have no societal role other than to work.
Shortly after publication of his book, Sutherland received a writ for libel from the eugenist. Married with three children under five, Sutherland’s legal bills brought him close to financial ruin. The threat was lifted when he won the case in 1924.
The publicity from the trial was enormous and it helped him in the next stage of his career: continuing his work as a doctor, becoming the author of best-selling books, helping set up Britain’s nascent National Health Service, and travelling the world as a sought-after public speaker.
Determined, single-minded, and relishing challenge and controversy, Halliday Sutherland succeeded in saving helping save Britain from the terrible race-science that disfigured history. It is for this reason that he deserves to be remembered for his bravery on the centenary of his speech Consumption: Its Cause and Cure on September 4th 2017.
Today, Sutherland’s story is largely forgotten. If it is remembered at all, it is distorted. This BBC article provides a typical example: no mention of eugenics, nor of the eugenic plans for ordinary Britons. There are other examples here.
The removal of eugenics from the story of Dr Halliday Sutherland makes a mockery as to his motivation in speaking out on behalf of ordinary people.
Please help publicise the true version of his story. It took courage to speak out against the eugenic elite. The actions that Sutherland, and others like him, took played an important role in ensuring that eugenics did not take hold in Britain, as it did in the United States, Germany and other countries.
…because, for better or for worse, eugenics is back. While scientists can do a great deal of good for mankind, good intentions alone are not enough: the work must be guided by ethical and moral guidelines. The false story of Dr Sutherland, such as the one propagated by the BBC retrospectively undermines his moral authority, as well as the moral authority of those who follow in his footsteps today.
You can change this.
With your help, the truth will prevail. Thank-you.
The author acknowledges this article in The Guardian as the basis for what is written above.