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

“…even talk of a lethal chamber”

Is it correct to assert that “there was even talk of using a lethal chamber to improve Britain’s gene pool by killing “inferior” people?”


In Heredity and Human Progress, Dr W. Duncan McKim wrote:

“The surest, the simplest, the kindest, and most humane means for preventing reproduction among those we deem unworthy of this high privilege, is a gentle, painless death; and this should be administered not as a punishment, but as an expression of enlightened pity for the victims—too defective by nature to find true happiness in life—and as a duty toward the community and toward our own offspring.” (McKim, 1900, p. 193) [Emphasis in the original]

McKim lists the categories of people to whom this would apply and the method that would be used to kill them:

“The roll then, of those whom our plan would eliminate, consists of the following classes if individuals coming under the absolute control of the State:–idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, habitual drunkards and insane criminals, the large number of murderers, nocturnal house-breakers, such criminals whatever their offence as might through their constitutional organization appear very dangerous, and finally, criminals who might be adjudged incorrigible.  Each individual of these classes would undergo thorough examination, and only by due process of law would his life be taken from him.

“The painless extinction of these lives would present no practical difficulty—in carbonic acid gas we have an agent which would instantaneously fulfil the need.” (McKim, 1900, pp. 192-3)

One can infer that there would have been a chamber of some sort to administer death.

The historian G.R. Searle wrote about:

“…the Mayor of Plymouth, on his own initiative, publicly advocated that, if three doctors decided that the hopelessly unfit and feeble-minded stood no possible chance of recovery they should painlessly put to death.” (Searle, 1976, p. 92)

Presumably, “painlessly put to death would infer gas” and therefore a chamber, but no “lethal chamber” per se.

The talk of the “lethal chamber” refers to G.B. Shaw’s speech to the Eugenics Education Society (E.E.S.) in March 1910. The Daily Express reported his remarks on 4th March 1910:

“We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill.  We should have to get rid of all ideas about capital punishment …A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber.  A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.” (Searle, 1976, p. 92)

To conclude, there is evidence that there was the advocacy of killing the unfit and even talk of a lethal chamber.

Works Cited

Chapple, W., 1904. The Fertility of the Unfit. Melbourne: Whitcombe & Tombs Limited. Retrieved online from: https://archive.org/details/cu31924072968104 on 26 June 2016.

McKim, D., 1900. Hereditary and Human Progress. New York and London: Putnam’s Sons.  Retrieved from: https://archive.org/stream/heredityandhuma00mckigoog#page/n208/mode/2up on 26 June 2016.

National Birth-Rate Commission 1918-20, 1920. Problems of Population and Parenthood. London: Chapman and Hall Ltd.  Retrieved from: https://archive.org/stream/problemspopulat01marcgoog#page/n300/mode/2up on 26 June 2016.

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

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