Halliday Sutherland

"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.

Museum für Verhütung und Schwangerschaftsabbruch (Museum for Contraception and Abortion)

I read this article on the Museum’s website. The article included this statement:

“Stopes published a newspaper called ‘Birth Control News’ in order to teach people about sex. Her campaigning pitted her against both the Church of England and the Catholic Church: in 1922 she lost a libel case against Dr. Halliday Sutherland, who described her “monstrous campaign” for birth control as a “serious crime”.”

Three paragraphs below, it read:

“Today, Stopes is often criticised on grounds of her stance on eugenics, as she supported sterilisation for those with hereditary defects. Knowing what we know now, it is difficult for us to understand the reasoning that led her to that conclusion, because we are chillingly familiar with the impact that such policies subsequently had.”

I decided to write to the museum to clarify some issues, addressed to Christian Fiala MD PhD who was identified as being responsible for the contents.

For the attention of Herr Christian Fiala MD, PhD

Dear Herr Fiala,
I read the information concerning Marie Stopes on the Museum’s site with interest (http://en.muvs.org/topic/marie-stopes-1880-1958-en/). I have a few comments to make.

Firstly, the statement: “in 1922 she lost a libel case” is not correct. The Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial opened in the High Court on 21 February 1923 and Stopes lost. Later that year, Stopes appealed and won. Sutherland then appealed to the House of Lords, which upheld the original judgement on 21 November 1924. Accordingly the year should be 1923 or 1924, not 1922. I would also take issue with the statement:

“Today, Stopes is often criticised on grounds of her stance on eugenics, as she supported sterilisation for those with hereditary defects. Knowing what we know now, it is difficult for us to understand the reasoning that led her to that conclusion, because we are chillingly familiar with the impact that such policies subsequently had.”

Stopes was criticised on the grounds of her eugenics in her own times. Halliday Sutherland, whom is mentioned in the article, was one of these critics.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Sutherland was a doctor specialising in tuberculosis—a disease that killed and disabled around 220,000 each year in Britain at the time. In 1911, he was in the forefront of the “Edinburgh system” for the treatment and cure of the disease, and was optimistic that it could be cured. His opposition to eugenics began when it interfered with his work.For instance, in 1910, Karl Pearson F.R.S. and Professor of Eugenics at London University said that it was “safe to say…that the influence of environment is not one-fifth of heredity, and quite possibly not one-tenth of it.” (Pearson, 1910). In 1912 Pearson followed up with a withering criticism of the work of doctors treating tuberculosis. He praised Koch’s discovery of the bacteria that caused the disease, but said that this had led to the erroneous focus on infection as the cause of the disease. Pearson argued that a person’s genetic inheritance was the significant factor, not environment or infection, and this meant that doctors were treating symptoms and not causes. (Pearson, Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment, 1912)

This was no mere academic disagreement, because Pearson was an influential person, and because he—and other eugenists—specified that the “cure” for tuberculosis was to breed out the “stocks” that tended to suffer from the disease. He said:

“But Eugenists have something better to propose. No one can study the pedigrees of pathological states, insanity, mental defect, albinism, &c., collected by our laboratory, without being struck by the large proportion of tuberculous members—occasionally the tuberculous man is a brilliant member of our race—but the bulk of the tuberculous 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. That is what the Eugenist proclaims as the “better thing to do”, and £1,500,000 spent in encouraging healthy parentage would do more than the establishment of a sanatorium in every township.” (Pearson, Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment, 1912)

In other words, the cure for the disease would be achieved by checking the “multiplication of the unfit”. Sutherland objected to this: for instance, during the Stopes v Sutherland trial, Sir Patrick Hastings asked Sutherland:

“Have you dealt with the differences between the Malthusian doctrines and this lady’s doctrines; have you studied the difference between this lady’s views and Malthusian views?”
Sutherland: “I know, roughly, what the differences are.”
Hastings: “There is a very great distinction between them?”
Sutherland: “Yes.”
Hastings: “You know she does not advocate the limitation of birth in the sense of restricting the population?”
Sutherland: “She wishes to restrict the population amongst the poor.”

In 1912, Sutherland rebutted Pearson’s views in the British Medical Journal in his article: “The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis”. (Sutherland, 1912) The rebuttal was on the basis of science and statistics and by 1917, his opposition was on moral and ethical grounds as well.

In September of that year, Sutherland made a speech in which he said that the obstacle to curing tuberculosis was not the disease itself, but the attitudes of men.(Sutherland, 1912) He attacked eugenists, describing them as “race breeders with the souls of cattle breeders,” and he mocked their doctrines:

“This war has smashed their rhetorical phrase. Who talks now about survival of the fittest, or thinks himself fit because he survives?”

He added that the improvement of living conditions and medical services for the urban poor was “not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong.” (Sutherland, 1912)

The other issue thing I would take issue with is that to separate Stopes’ work on birth control, contraception and her eugenic views is an indulgence for the purposes of modern literary analysis that was not available to her contemporary critics. Stopes’ birth control, her clinic and her eugenic beliefs were unified and interdependent. The evidence for  my statement:

Firstly, Professor Jane Carey has written that “In the interwar years, birth control and eugenics were so intertwined as to be synonymous.” (Carey, 2012)

Secondly, Stopes birth control clinic was a eugenic project. The evidence for this is that Stopes herself said so, under oath in the High Court during the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial of 1923. Her advocate, Sir Patrick Hastings K.C. asked her: “Is the reduction of the birth rate any part at all of your campaign?” and she replied: “Not reduction in the total birth rate, but reduction of the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale.” (Box, 1967 page 76) Stopes went on to explain the role of the Society that she had set up to run the 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.” (Box, 1967 page 76)

Note: “C.3” was military jargon which refers to those unfit for service in the Army on mental or physical grounds or both. It came into common usage in Britain during the Boer War, when it was believed that a large proportion of the urban population were unfit for service.

Thirdly, Stopes relationship to eugenics was more than a “stance”—it was central to her life and work. She joined the Eugenics Education Society (“EES”) in 1912, some six years after it was founded. She became a life fellow of the EES in 1921. She established her own society “The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress” in 1921 to run her clinic. (Soloway, 1996 page 54) According to Carey, this was because she was “annoyed that the [EES] refused to place birth control prominently on its platform.” (Carey, 2012)

Fourthly, The clinic dispensed Stopes “Pro-Race” brand of cervical cap. On her death she left a large part of her estate to the Eugenics Society (the Eugenics Education Society changed its name in 1926). (Rose, 1992)

The statement: “Stopes did support sterilisation for those with hereditary defects” needs clarification. Her definition of defective was wide indeed and included:

  • “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character” (National Birth-Rate Commission 1918-20, 1920 page 133)
  • the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced” (Stopes, 1920 Chapter XX)
  • “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal” (address to the Voluntary Parenthood League on 27th October 1921)

My point is that Stopes’ definition of “hereditary defects” was a broad category, largely motivated by a visceral disdain for poor and working class people.

Finally, the website states: “Knowing what we know now, it is difficult for us to understand the reasoning that led her to that conclusion, because we are chillingly familiar with the impact that such policies subsequently had.”

Of course, Sutherland, and others who opposed the eugenic creed (such as Belloc, Chesterton and Wedgwood), did not know what we know now. Nor did they have the benefit of hindsight that we have. Despite this, they had the foresight to see where negative eugenics might lead and they opposed it. Their stance took great courage, given that eugenics was supported by politicians, intellectuals and other influential people in Edwardian Britain.

Please do not take these comments as a criticism of the Museum’s site. By all means, it should celebrate the pioneers of contraceptive devices if it so chooses. But please represent Halliday Sutherland accurately. After all, had there been more people like him, the greatest crime in human history might have been averted.


Box, M. (1967). The Trial of Marie Stopes. (M. Box, Ed.) London: Femina Books.

Carey, J. (2012). The Racial Imperatives of Sex: Birth Control and Eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the Interwar Years. Women’s History Review 21, No.5, 733-752.

National Birth-Rate Commission 1918-20. (1920). Problems of Population and Parenthood. London: Chapman and Hall Ltd.

Pearson, K. (1910). Nature and Nurture: The Problem of the Future. Annual Meeting of the Social and Political Education League (p. 31). London: Dulau and Co, Ltd.

Pearson, K. (1912). Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment. Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics (p. 46). London: Dulau and Co., Ltd.

Rose, J. (1992). Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Soloway, R. A. (1996). “Marie Stopes and The English Birth Control Movement”. In E. Robert A. Peel, “Marie Stopes and The English Birth Control Movement”. London: The Galton Institute.

Stopes, M. C. (1920). Radiant Motherhood: A Book for Those Who are Creating the Future. London and Toronto: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Ltd, London and The Musson Book Company, Limited, Toronto.

Sutherland, H. (1912, November 23). The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis. British Medical Journal, 1434-1437.

Kind regards,

Mark Sutherland,

Curator of hallidaysutherland.com
[I can be contacted through the website’s “contact” page]

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Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

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