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

“…or even killed”

Is it correct to assert that eugenics could have led to people being killed because of their low social status?


Modern eugenics was founded by Sir Francis Galton, who described it as:

“the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.” (Galton, 1904)

The involvement of the state and the serious nature of eugenic aims were indicated in January 1873 when he wrote:

“I do not see why any insolence of caste should prevent the gifted class, when they had the power, from treating their compatriots with all kindness, so long as they maintained celibacy.  But if these continued to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies of the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.” (Galton, 1873)

The term “enemy of the State” is old-fashioned today, so it should be pointed out that an enemy of the state is someone who commits crimes against the state. Being found guilty of such crimes would lead to consequences such as imprisonment or capital punishment.

Eugenics had many adherents who had different ideas as to how to “improve the inborn qualities of a race.”  There was no single ruling body.  The Eugenics Education Society (“E.E.S.”) was the most prominent organisation (membership around 1,700. (Kevles, 1995, p. 59)), though the ideology was more widespread.  Not all eugenists were members of the E.E.S., most notably Karl Pearson.

The clearest indication that eugenics would lead to the extinction of the unfit came from an American, Dr W. Duncan McKim.  In Heredity and Human Progress, he 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)

In The Fertility of the Unfit, W.A. Chapple’s quoted from McKim’s book, and while he did not approve of killing himself, his attitude appears to have been ambivalent:

“I quote them, not with approval, but merely to show how grave and serious the social outlook is, in the minds of some of the best thinkers and truest philanthropists that have taught mankind.” (Chapple, 1904, p. 102)

The historian G.R. Searle wrote that while demands for death were sometimes heard in America they “were never seriously put forward by British eugenists.”  He then cited an “instructive” example from November 1909 in which:

“…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.  Celebrities from various walks of life at once rushed into print, disassociating themselves from so wicked a proposition, and among them was the Chairman of the E.E.S., the unfortunately named Dr Slaughter.” (Searle, 1976, p. 92)

This would indicate that eugenic ideas were influencing public officials in matters of public policy.  After all, if the Mayor of Plymouth had not been of serious, why would anyone have felt it necessary to condemn his view?

Searle also reports G.B. Shaw’s “notorious speech” to the E.E.S. in March 1910.  This was reported in the Daily Express on 4th March 1910 under the headline “Murder by the State”.  This is what Shaw was reported to have said:

“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)

Searle commented:

“Shaw probably did not expect his audience to take everything he said literally; yet this was widely felt to be a joke in the worst possible taste, and orthodox eugenists, not the quickest of people to appreciate even a good joke, were emphatically not amused.” (Searle, 1976, p. 93)

On Monday 28th October 1918, Major Leonard Darwin, son of the great naturalist and successor to Dr Slaughter as the head of the E.E.S., gave evidence to the National Birth Rate Commission.  In his statement, he said:

“Many eugenists have been accused of advocating the murder of children for the sake of killing off the unfit.  That is entirely untrue.  We condemn murder exactly on the same grounds as everybody else.  Moreover, we see clearly that if we are to do any good to the race of the future it will demand serious sacrifices at the present time, and we shall never get these sacrifices made if we teach the present generation to be careless as to the welfare of their neighbours.” (National Birth-Rate Commission 1918-20, 1920, p. 127)

To conclude, there is no evidence to show that putting people to death on the basis of racial fitness was ever an official policy of the British eugenics movement.  Given the nature of the issue, this is perhaps unsurprising.  There is evidence that killing the unfit was a part of eugenic thought.

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.

Galton, F., 1873. Hereditary Improvement. Fraser’s Magazine, January, Volume 7, pp. 116-30.  Retrieved online from: http://galton.org/essays/1870-1879/galton-1873-frazers-mag-hereditary-improvement.pdf on 26 June 2016.

Galton, F., 1904. Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims. The American Journal of Sociology, July.X(1).  Retrieved online from: http://galton.org/essays/1900-1911/galton-1904-am-journ-soc-eugenics-scope-aims.htm on 26 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).

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.

Get updates on the adventures of Halliday Sutherland straight to your inbox.

Join 28 other followers

Centenary of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial

February 21st, 2023
5.7 years to go.