Doctor. Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.
I set up this blog to recall the life and work of Halliday Sutherland and to provide a resource for historians and researchers. I have conducted my own research and, from time to time, I have found articles concerning Halliday Sutherland, some of which are significantly inaccurate or have significant omissions.
One article was Marie Stopes Facts on the Your Dictionary website, which I read on 30th May 2014. The site portrays the issues around the Stopes v Sutherland trial as solely about contraceptives. The site values the opinions of its readers, so I placed additional facts in the “comment” section, as follows:
I read your article “Marie Stopes Facts” with interest and saw your notice: “We value your opinions and suggestions and we encourage you to contact us!” Here are mine. I am suggesting additional information be added to the article because they will enable readers to understand the issue of birth control in the context of the time of the Stopes v Sutherland trial.
The additional information concerns the (1) decreasing birth-rate in Britain; (2) the Neo Malthusian movement; and, (3) the Eugenics movement.
These issues are directly relevant to your article in that Marie Stopes was involved direct in each of these issues.
The decreasing birth-rate. Britain’s birth rate had peaked at 36.3 births per thousand in 1876, dropping twenty-one percent by the end of 1901, and nearly thirty-four percent by the outbreak of the war in 1914. There was concern, alarm even, that Britain would not have sufficient people to continue the Empire, particularly in the face of increased competition from other powers whose populations were growing.
Stopes was one of the concerned. She took part in the National Birth-Rate Commission 1918-20 and is quoted at length in its second report.
The Neo-Malthusian movement. This group followed the work of Thomas Malthus. In simple terms, they believed that an increase in population would stretch the capacity to house, clothe and feed the additional numbers. The effect of population increase – all detrimental – were shortages, famine, disease and conflict. This group sought to prevent the disaster arising from what they saw as overpopulation by preventing any further increase in the population. Stopes became a member of the Malthusian League in 1917.
Eugenics. Eugenics was an idea which was fashionable among people we might term the “movers and shakers” of Britain in the early Twentieth Century. Adherents included: Julian Huxley, Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Marie Stopes.
Eugenists drew their beliefs from the work of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton was influenced by his cousin’s work on Natural Selection. Given that many traits were inherited, he argued, it stood to reason that the quality of the British race could be achieved by ensuring that the “fit” had more children and that the “unfit” had fewer.
According to the historian Donald MacKenzie, eugenists in Britain believed that social standing was “largely the result of individual qualities such as mental ability, predisposition to sickness or health, or moral tendency”. They looked forward to a future Britain in which many illnesses and conditions, had been eradicated. To improve the race, they needed to increase progeny from “good” families and ensure that “bad” families produced fewer, if any, children. It was largely class based.
Eugenists were not in agreement as to how their goals should be achieved. There were two kinds of measure: “positive eugenics” which entailed encouraging eugenically fit couples to produce more children and “negative eugenics” which entailed preventing births amoung the eugenically unfit.
Stopes was a eugenist long before she became a birth-controller. She joined the Eugenics Education Society in 1912 and founded her own eugenic organisation, the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, in 1921. This was the organisation that stood behind her birth-control clinic. The eugenic aims of the clinic were evidenced by the branding of the cervical cap it dispensed: “Pro Race”.
Stopes believed that birth control should be the primary tool to achieve eugenic goals. This view was not shared by the Eugenics Education Society and eugenists were divided between those who supported artificial contraception and those who did not.
Stopes positive eugenic measures included using birth control to prevent a quick succession of pregnancies. This would allow a woman to space the occurrence of pregnancy thereby allowing her health to recover. Such measures are uncontroversial now and indeed, I believe that many people today would regard it as common sense.
Stopes advocated negative eugenic measures as well. This included urging the British Parliament to pass a law to compulsorily sterilize “the miserable, the degenerate [and] the utterly wretched in mind and body” (see Chapter 20 of “Radiant Motherhood”). The second report of the National Birth-Rate Commission records her advocacy of compulsory sterilization as “a very simple solution in regard to the hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character.”
Stopes promoted her ideas ardently. She sent a copy of her book “Radiant Motherhood” to the Prime Minister Lloyd George’s secretary, drawing attention to the ideas in Chapter 20 on eugenics. Her commitment to the cause crossed over into her personal life: when her son, Harry chose Mary Barnes-Wallace (daughter of the eminent British inventor) to be his wife, Stopes opposed the union on eugenic grounds. Mary wore thick spectacles and Stopes, ever the eugenist, believed this would diminish the eugenic value of her descendants.
Eugenics and compulsory sterilization were controversial then; they are controversial today. It was inevitable that a bitter argument would break out. One manifestation of this struggle was the Stopes v Sutherland trial.
Halliday Sutherland wrote “Birth Control” to attack the birth controllers and Neo-Malthusians. He argued that “organised poverty” in Britain arose from the enclosure of common land which drove the rural population the cities when they were driven from the land. Sutherland believed that the condition of the poor and working classes were not genetically inherent, and would not be improved by state control of their reproduction.
Sutherland argued that to improve the conditions of the poor and the working classes, poverty had to be alleviated, and living conditions and health had to be improved. Neo-Malthusians and Eugenists opposed such measures. In the case of the former, such measures would increase the population, meaning the natural law observed by Malthus would be delayed, not avoided. In the case of the latter, such relief was considered “dysgenic”, because improved conditions would encourage the “unfit” to increase their progeny, helping to maintain (and increase) the genetic taint on the British race.
Sutherland cared passionately about these issues. He was a medical doctor, tuberculosis pioneer (fighting a disease which killed ten percent of the British population between 1850 and 1950), ran the Anti-Tuberculosis Clinic in Marylebone and founded an “Open Air” school for poor families in the Regent’s Park bandstand. Sutherland believed the disease could be prevented and eradicated by social and medical intervention. In “Radiant Motherhood”, Stopes argued that such measures were not appropriate: susceptibility to disease was genetic. Social and medical intervention was expensive and irrelevant.
As can be seen, the issues at stake were far wider than birth control and contraception.
While Stopes’s writings were contemptuous of the poor and working classes, and while her clinic did have eugenic aims, it should be pointed out that she separated her rhetoric and political views from her clinical practice. In other words, working-class or poor women who attended her clinic were treated with empathy and respect. They were able to discuss contraception in a sympathetic environment and in a way that would not have been possible with their doctor.
Stopes should be credited with increasing awareness of contraceptives, and promoting women’s reproductive choices and health. On the other hand, it should also be acknowledged that she was a life-long advocate for eugenics, even after the Second World War when, for obvious reasons, it became unfashionable and lost many of its adherents.
The story is important today for this reason: eugenics led many countries, including the Unites States and Germany, into the dark places of history. That Britain avoided some (many?) of these excesses is surprising given the influence of the proponents of eugenics. That it did is, I believe, in part because of opposition to the eugenic agenda, and the opponents included Dr Halliday Sutherland.
Suggested further reading:
The Galton Lecture 1996: Marie Stopes, Eugenics and the Birth Control Movement by Richard A Soloway published by The Galton Institute.
Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose. Faber.
Radiant Motherhood by Marie Carmichael Stopes, particularly Chapter XX.
Eugenics in Britain by Donald MacKenzie in Social Studies of Science. Vol.6, No 3/4. Special Issue Aspects of the Sociology of Science: Papers from a Conference, University of York, UK 16-18 September 1975 (Sep., 1976). pp. 449-532