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.

Socialist Party of Great Britain

UKEssays.com A sexual revolution Marie Stopes

So, some 43 years late, I managed to catch up with the Socialist Party of Great Britain in relation to the article Marie Stopes, Reformer. The article showed little respect for Dr. Halliday Sutherland, so I decided to explain why their attitude towards him should be different by sending an email to spgb(at)worldsocialism.org which read:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I read your article “Marie Stopes Reformer”, written by Harry Young and published in October 1973 with interest.

What surprised me was that the article showed such little respect for Dr. Halliday Sutherland.  He certainly deserved it, because he stood up for poor and working class people.  Let me explain.

In 1911, Sutherland was a tuberculosis pioneer who was the medical director of the St. Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption.  As you may know, tuberculosis was a disease which afflicted around 220,000 people in Britain at the time (70,000 deaths and 150,000 disabled).  It afflicted the poor around three times more than the rich.  His pioneering work led to the establishment of a school for tuberculous children in the Bandstand in Regents Park, as well as producing Britain’s first public health cinema film.

At the time, eugenics was very popular.  Many (though not all) eugenists believed that tuberculosis was hereditary. The professor of eugenics at London University, Karl Pearson, had completed a series of studies of tuberculosis and in 1912 pronounced that:

“…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.”

Now there’s a plan! Improve Britain’s health using nature’s method (it sounds more acceptable than “death”).

Stopes approved of such measures, because the poor were demanding too much tax from the middle classes. As she put it in 1924: “From the point of view of the economics of the nation, it is racial madness to rifle the pockets of the thrifty and intelligent who are struggling to do their best for their own families of one and two and squander the money on low grade mental deficients, the spawn of drunkards, the puny families of women so feckless and deadened that they apathetically breed like rabbits.” [Marie Stopes writing in “John Bull”, 2nd February 1924, page 13]

So it fell to Sutherland to refute Pearson’s findings in an article in the British Medical Journal in 1912 (“The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis).

In 1917, following a gap during which Sutherland served in the war, he spoke out against eugenics. In Consumption: Its Cause and Cure he railed against eugenists when he said:

“Is the disease inherited?  It is not.  No child is born tuberculous; nay more, every child who acquires the disease is infected after birth.  There is not even, in my judgement, an inherited disposition…”

“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.”

While Sutherland’s opposition to eugenics started when he was an atheist, he became a Catholic in 1919, most likely attracted by the Church’s opposition to eugenics and Malthusianism.  When Stopes came to prominence, with her pronouncements to solve Britain’s problems by urging the compulsory sterilisation of poor and working class people, Sutherland opposed her as well.  This drew a writ from Stopes and the legal battle threatened him with ruin.

If Harry Young had actually bothered to read what Sutherland wrote in his book “Birth Control” he would have noticed that Sutherland was arguing from the socialist viewpoint when he attacked what he called “organised poverty” in England.  In one passage called “Severance of the Inhabitants from the Soil,” he wrote:

“It was not a high birth-rate that established organised poverty in England.  In the sixteenth century the greater part of the land, including common land belonging to the poor, was seized by the rich.  They began robbing the Catholic Church, and they ended by robbing the people.  Once machinery was introduced in the eighteenth century, the total wealth of England was enormously increased; but the vast majority of the people had little share in this increase of wealth that accrued from machinery, because only a small portion of the people possessed capital.  More children came, but they came to conditions of poverty and of child-labour in the mills.  In countries where more natural and stable social conditions exist, and where there are many small owners of land, large families, so far from being a cause of poverty, are of the greatest assistance to their parents and to themselves.  There are means whereby poverty could be reduced, but artificial birth control would only increase the total poverty of the State, and therefore of the individual.

“From early down to Tudor times, the majority of the inhabitants lived on small holdings.  For example, in the fifteenth century there were twenty-one small holdings on a particular area measuring 160 acres.  During the sixteenth century the number of holdings on this area had fallen to six, and in the seventeenth century the 160 acres became one farm.  Occasionally an effort was made to check this process, and by a statute of Elizabeth penalties were enacted against building any cottages “without laying four acres of land thereto.”  On the other hand, acres upon acres were given to the larger landowners by a series of Acts for the enclosure of common land, whereby many labourers were deprived of their land.  From the reign of George I to that of George III nearly four thousand enclosure bills were passed.  These wrongs have not been righted.” (Sutherland, 1922, pp. Ch.2, Section 2)

When he discussed Stopes’ eugenic agenda, he argued that it would lead to the further impoverishment and exploitation of the poorer classes: “…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?”  He added: “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, a concept that Sutherland borrowed from Hilaire Belloc, was a state in which the poor were prevented from having children and had no societal role other than to work.

So there you have it.  From the tone of your article, Young appears to have been disdainful of Sutherland’s Catholicism.  He and his religion are nonetheless deserving of respect, because when his time came to “man the barricades” and stand up for the weak, he did, supported by his Church.  Rather than sneering at him, perhaps the article should have been thankful that he and others like him succeeded in their opposition to eugenics, because otherwise we would today live in a very different society.  Presuming, of course, that you would be living in it.


Mark Sutherland

Curator, hallidaysutherland.com

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

Centenary of the Court of Appeal's judgment7 July 2023
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