Dr. Halliday Sutherland

"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

“…eugenics was popular”

Is it correct to assert that eugenics was popular among Britain’s middle and upper classes?


The Eugenics Education Society (E.E.S.) was the most prominent organisation with a membership of around 1,700, though the ideology was more widespread. (Kevles, 1995, p. 59)

Sir Francis Galton, founder of modern eugenics became a member of the E.E.S. in 1908 (Kevles, 1995, p. 59). Not all eugenists were members of the E.E.S., most notably Karl Pearson.

Kevles wrote of the numbers and social composition of British and American eugenists:

Nominal membership in the British society never exceeded seventeen hundred, and in the American probably no more than two-thirds of this, but what the organizations lacked in size they made up for by what was an early British member predicted would be “the advantage of excellent patronage.” Local British and American groups listed leading townspeople among their members, and the national councils included distinguished scientists and social scientists, prominent lawyers, clerics, physicians, schoolmasters, intellectuals, and—in Britain—several knights of the realm. In 1911, the Oxford University Union moved approval of the principles of eugenics by a vote of almost two to one, and meetings of a eugenics society at Cambridge University before the war drew hundreds of people, including high college officials, Nobel laureate scientists, powerful senior professors, and the young John Maynard Keynes. The prime mover in the American Eugenics Society was the well-known Yale economist and public health advocate Irving Fisher. The president (from 1911 to 1928) of the British society bore a name to conjure with in matters of descent—he was Major Leonard Darwin, a son of Charles Darwin. (Kevles, 1995, p. 59)

Donald Mckenzie wrote a paper on the social composition of the eugenics movement in Britain in 1975. In it, he argued:

“…that eugenics should be seen as an ideology of the professional middle class, and in particular of the ‘modern’ rather than the ‘traditional’ sector. Eugenic ideas were put forward as a legitimation of the social position of the professional middle class, and as an argument for its enhancement.” (MacKenzie, D., 1975.)

Care must be taken not to conflate social status with political outlook. Not only did eugenists come from all sides of British politics, but many of them believed that eugenics transcended mere politics:

“…many of its advocates, especially the scientists, viewed it rather as a message which transcended what ordinary people meant by politics; so overwhelmingly important was it, conventional political issues must pale into insignificance by comparison. Science had taken the place once occupied by an unscientific politics and ethics, and the latter would soon arouse interest only as historical curiosities.” (Searle, 1976, p.67)

Moreover the terms to describe political outlook today do not have the same meaning as they did earlier in the Twentieth Century. The labels “left” and “right” are misleading because what would be loosely called “right-wing” today was “left-wing” back then. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian on 18th February 2012:

“The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their left-wing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, leftwing reasons.

“They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning, the Fabian faith that the gentlemen in Whitehall really did know best? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak.” (Freedland, 2012)

Likewise, in the same newspaper on 3rd September 2011, Zoe Williams attributed eugenics to the other end of the spectrum, when she labelled Marie Stopes a “right-wing turbo Darwinist ranter” and wrote that “her eugenics programme was actually slightly to the right of Hitler’s”. (Williams, 2011)

To conclude, eugenics was popular among Britain’s middle and upper classes, the influential and the intelligentsia. Care should be taken in using the categories of social class labels to ascertain the political viewpoints of particular eugenists.

Works Cited

Freedland, J. Eugenics: the skeleton that rattles loudest in the left’s closet. “The Guardian”, 18 February 2012. Retrieved online from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/feb/17/eugenics-skeleton-rattles-loudest-closet-left on 30 June 2016.

Kevles, D. J., 1995. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. (Paperback edition).

MacKenzie, D., 1975. Eugenics in Britain. Social Studies of Science, 6 (3/4).

Searle, G., 1976. Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914. Leyden: Noordhoff International Publishing.

Williams, Z. Marie Stopes: a turbo-Darwinist ranter, but right about birth control. “The Guardian”, 3 September 2011. Retrieved online from: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/sep/02/marie-stopes-right-birth-control on 30 June 2016.

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