Halliday Sutherland

Doctor. Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.

digpodcast.org Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes: Pioneer of Married Sexual Pleasure, Birth Control and Eugenics

On 23 December 2017 I listened to the digpodcast.org podcast on Marie Stopes: Pioneer of Married Sexual Pleasure, Birth Control and Eugenics. In the main, it was a balanced and fair account. Given digpodcast is an award-winning history podcast, I contacted the podcasters to share Dr Halliday Sutherland’s backstory, now published in the comments section of the digpodcast.org post and shown below:

Hi Averill and Elizabeth,

I listened to your podcast on Dr Marie Stopes with interest. I am reaching out because I thought you might be interested in Dr Halliday Sutherland’s life prior to the 1923 Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial, which puts his opposition to Dr Stopes into context.

Born in 1882, Sutherland qualified as a medical doctor in 1906. By 1910 he was in the forefront of the fight against tuberculosis, a disease that killed 70,000 and disabled 150,000 people annually in Britain. In addition to his duties as Medical Director of London’s “St Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption”, he set up an “open-air” school in the bandstand of Regents’ Park, produced Britain’s first cinema public health film and edited a book on TB that led to a knighthood for his mentor, Sir Robert Philip.

At that time, tuberculosis was thought to be a disease of heredity, not least because it affected the poor (the so-called “unfit”) around three times more than wealthier persons. The new science of eugenics confirmed that this was the case. Karl Pearson, Professor of Eugenics at London University wrote that “the influence of environment is not one-fifth of heredity, and quite possibly not one-tenth of it.”

Hereditary causes sought hereditary cures: “The bulk of the tuberculous,” wrote Pearson, “belong to stocks which we want ab initio to discourage. Everything which tends to check the multiplication of the unfit, to emphasize that the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy, will pro tanto aid Nature’s method of reducing the phthisical death-rate.” In other words, TB was not a medical problem so much as “Nature’s way” to strengthen British racial stocks.

This view was shared at the top of the medical profession. In his address to the Conference of the British Medical Association (“BMA”) in July 1912 the president, Sir James Barr, said:

“Nature…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.”

Working against the disease in the slums of London in around this time, Sutherland had formed a contrary view. He published his findings in the Dispensary’s annual report and, in November 1912, in the British Medical Journal. In “The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis”, he wrote that TB was not hereditary, but was primarily an infective disease.

Given that Stopes and her subsequent biographer drew attention to the “Roman Catholic doctor,” it is worth noting that at this time, Sutherland was a Presbyterian by baptism, but an atheist or agnostic by belief.

His views on TB made little difference. The Eugenics Education Society continued to lobby Parliament for eugenic laws and achieved success for the first time with the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913. Active service in World War 1 interrupted his work, though in September 1917 he took up the cause against eugenics in a speech “Consumption: Its Cause and Cure”.

At this point, the “Roman Catholic doctor” was a member of the Church of Scotland (he had joined in 1914 as a preliminary to war).

In his “Consumption” speech, Sutherland railed against eugenists [both Pearson and Sutherland used this older form of “eugenicist”]:

“But why should you set out to prevent this infection and to cure the disease? There are some 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 war has smashed their rhetorical phrase. Who now talks about the 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 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.”

This was not, however, merely a battle of ideas, but one with real-world impacts:

“Tuberculous milk [which] kills 10,000 children every year and creates an amount of child sickness, suffering and sorrow so widespread as to be incomprehensible to a finite mind, and no more natural than if their food had been poisoned with arsenic. Yet in London to-day, one out of even eleven churns of milk arriving at our railway termini contains this death-dealing virus.”

Tuberculous milk could be rendered harmless by pasteurisation, as was the practice in the United States at that time. Yet in Britain, despite having the technology and the backing of a recommendation of a Royal Commission, British authorities had failed to act.

Regardless of the reason(s), while the views of Sir James Barr prevailed, the government of the day were not likely to be pressured to solve this problem. In 1918 Barr, by now no longer president of the BMA but still respected and influential, said:

“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. This world is not a hothouse; a race which owed its survival to the fact that the tubercle bacillus had ceased to exist would, on the whole, be a race hardly worth surviving. Personally, I am of opinion—and I think such opinion will be shared by most medical men who have been behind the scenes and have not allowed their sentiments to blind them—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.”

The following year, in 1919, Sutherland became a “Roman Catholic doctor”.

When Stopes opened her Mother’s Clinic in 1921, Barr saw it as the way restrict the progeny of “undesirables”. He became a vice-president of her Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress and, on May 26th, 1921 (on the eve of her Queen’s Hall rally) he wrote to her saying:

“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.” [A1 refers to best recruits for military service, while C3 describes those mentally and physically unfit to serve.]

Barr testified for Stopes on the first day of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial on February 21st, 1923.

In the trial, Sutherland said that describing Stopes’ work as an experiment, it was as a social experiment rather than a surgical one. Of course, that was for the Court to decide.

In the trial Stopes was forthright about why she set up her society and her clinic:

“The object of the Society is, if possible, 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 the 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.”

At this point, [while] the clinic was an achievement, Stopes’ campaign for the compulsory sterilisation of “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal” and the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced” and “parasites” (see Chapter XX of “Radiant Motherhood”) was a work in progress.

While the passage of “Birth Control” that was at the centre of the libel trial are well-known, it was in the subsequent paragraphs in which Sutherland’s motives for opposing Stopes were revealed: the social injustice of the negative eugenic agenda.

“…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.”

The Servile State was a concept he borrowed from his friend Hilaire Belloc. It was a Britain in which poor and working class people had no societal role other than as workers.

Thank you for your podcast and I hope you have found my research of interest. Please let me know if you would like sources, references for the quotations and facts I cite.

Mark Sutherland,
Curator, hallidaysutherland.com

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Centenary of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial

21 February 2023
4.3 years to go.
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