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

“…tuberculosis caused by heredity”

Is it correct to assert that the Professor of Eugenics at London University  said that tuberculosis was primarily caused by heredity, and urged that the disease be cured by breeding-out the tuberculous types (i.e. the urban poor)?


Karl Pearson was the protégé and biographer of the founder of modern eugenics Sir Francis Galton, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a brilliant intellect in the field of statistics. He was the Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College, London  and he ran the Biometric Laboratory [Kevles page 39]

Although never a member of the Eugenics Education Society, his views were at the centre of mainstream eugenics and provided the scientific respectability it required.

The historian Daniel Kevles described the work of the laboratory as follows:

“Pearson’s people calculated the variability of human populations and the correlations among relatives for different diseases, disorders and traits. Studies emanating from the laboratories typically explored the relationship of physique to intelligence; and the resemblance of first cousins; the effect of the parental occupation upon children’s welfare or the birthrate; and the role of heredity in alcoholism, tuberculosis, and defective sight. It was tedious labor, but between 1903 and 1918 Pearson and his staff published some three hundred works—including a series the Pearson chose to call “Studies in National Deterioration”—not to mention various government reports and popular expositions of eugenics.” [Kevles  page 39-40]

The female mainstay of the staff was Ethel M. Elderton and according to Kevles, she:

“summarised the attitude that suffused the Galton Laboratory’s key eugenic endeavors: “Improvement in social conditions will not compensate for a bad hereditary influence….The only way to keep a nation strong mentally and physically is to see to it that each new generation is derived chiefly from the fitter members of the generation before.” What Pearson’s department produced was a mixture of sound statistical science with usually biased explorations in human heredity. But in the early years of the twentieth century it was the sole British establishment for eugenic research, the principal source of authoritative eugenic science, the scientific benchmark of all eugenic discussion in England.” [Kevles 40]

There are two legs to this assertion:

  1. that tuberculosis was primarily caused by heredity, and
  2. the disease be cured by breeding-out the tuberculous types (i.e. the urban poor)?

by a reading of two lectures he gave:

Nature and Nurture: The Problem of the Future

Nature and Nurture Pearson

On April 28, 1910 Pearson gave the Presidential Address at the Annual General Meeting of the Social and Political Education League. His topic: Nature and Nurture: The Problem of the Future. He spoke of the inconsistency of standards between scientific problems and social problems and how those who dealt with the social problems lacked the data-driven and statistical analysis of scientists:

“For I picked up a journal termed the Sociological Review the other day, and the first article that attracted my attention was by a distinguished professor of philosophy, entitled “National Degeneracy”, and the problem was solved to the satisfaction of the professor in some ten pages of type, without a single figure, without a single sign that he had knowledge of the immense biological complexity of a question which for a true answer needs not verbal disquisition but an intensive study of heredity in man, of differential marriage rates, differential fertility, selective death rates, to say nothing of immigration and emigration, and of the correlation of all of these with the social and antisocial qualities of the several reproductive groups in the community.”

Pearson compared this to the accuracy expected of other scientific problems:

“What would you think of the physicist who told you that the position of the plumb-line depended partly on gravity and partly on the rotation of the earth? Would you not at once ask him to define quantitatively the relative influence of both factors? How is it possible to evolve a working policy for social reform if we do not know whether 1 per cent. or 90 per cent.  of the observed evil is due to nature?”

In Pearson’s opinion, the focus had all been on nurture, not nature and that this had not produced a national revival.

“We have had twenty to thirty years now of technical instruction, university and polytechnic engineering schools, we have had a population immensely larger that in 1800 to draw from…Yet has that system produced for us any four names which will stand out in the future like those of Arkwright, Watt and the Stephensons? These men would have benefited immensely by modern technical training, But will nurture alone produce such men? If so why is it that no Englishman of our period of technical education has been the discoverer of motor-car, submarine, or aeroplane? Can we assert that, relatively to the size of our population, the period of bettered environment has led to greater provision of capable men in craftsmanship, in the arts, in science, in literature, or in politics? Nay, when we talk among ourselves, and not in the world’s market-place, are we not rather conscious of a present dearth of national ability? – of an uncomfortable doubt as to whether we have leaders who lead, writers who can write so as to stir national feeling and national conscience, or sufficient men able to preserve by feats of enterprise and daring the old racial reputation for endurance and strength?”

For Pearson, the problem was that the reforms in Britain has focussed on nurture not nature:

“If we look back on the more than fifty years during the betterment of nurture has been our chief policy, can we honestly assert that the nation has grown – relatively to other nations – in its number of able men of all types, in its power of action, in its self-control, in its enterprise and its originality? Yet I do not think there is any single nation which since 1840 has so continuously and successfully worked at improving environment as our own country. Might we not on the basis of such doubts legitimately demand that the problem of nurture and nature should receive closer attention; that we should not for another fifty years confine our attention to nurture?”

Later he pointed out the consequences of focusing on nurture rather than nature:

“…in a primitive society a harsh environment undoubtedly checks the survival of all forms of physical and mental defect. Further, in civilised society all legislation which provides nurture for the feebler at the cost of the socially fitter must be detrimental to racial efficiency UNLESS (i) it is accompanied by some check to the reproduction of the unfit, or (ii) we can show that nurture rather than nature dominates the production of the mentally or physically desirable members of our community.”

On Britain’s report-card, Pearson had written “F”. The mistake of its social policy was to provide environmental improvements as its primary aim and, in seeking to “advance the nation by legislation which has hampered nature, to provide nurture for the feeble, for the inherently weak stock” who were so flawed as to be incapable of being useful members of society.

Pearson then said:

“Now I will not dogmatically assert that environment matters not at all; phases of it may be discovered which produce more effect than any we have yet been able to deal with. But I think it is safe to say that the influence of environment is not one-fifth of heredity, and quite possibly not one-tenth of it. There is no real comparison between nature and nurture; it is essentially the man who makes his environment; and not the environment that makes the man. The race will progress fastest where consciously or unconsciously success in life, power to reproduce its kind, lies within native worth. Hard environment may be the salvation of a race, easy environment its destruction. If you will think this point out in detail, I believe you will see the explanation of many great historical movements. Barbarism has too often triumphed over civilisation, because a hard environment had maintained, an easy environment suspended, the force of natural selection – the power of the nature factor.”

Conclusion to the first part: according to the expert in the field of eugenics, the influence of heredity is between five and ten times more influential on people than their environment.

Tuberculosis, heredity and environment

Tuberculosis Heredity and Environment Pearson

On March 12, 1912 Pearson gave a lecture at the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics. In the opening part of the talk, he stated that though the “importance of the discovery of Koch cannot be overrated” it had led to the emphasis of infection as being the cause of the disease and “the result was an immediate neglect both of the hereditary factor and of the environmental factor.”

Pearson then used statistical analysis to establish the causes of the disease. His findings confirmed that heredity was greater than environment or infection.

Pearson opinion of doctors fighting tuberculosis was withering. He urged them to:

“Admit that the sanatorium treatment is purely experimental, admit that dispensaries are another experiment, and that tuberculin is another and perhaps more hazardous one, and there is nothing more to be said than the words” Experiment, but record your observations in such manner that the trained mind can ultimately measure their bearing on human welfare.

“But experiment on human beings is held in itself to be reprehensible. That does not mean that it is not being made day by day; it means simply that it is screened, and the experimental treatment is described as the most efficient and certain cure for human ills. Such description not only disguises its experimental character, but often hides its true nature from the actual experimenter, who forgets the necessity for adequate records to test the value of his work.”

He concluded:

“It is a counsel of despair to spend millions when you have no evidence of the efficiency of the expenditure, because you have nothing better to propose In the next place, why should we do something when we have nothing better to do? To practice the ineffectual as if it were a proven cure checks the road to better things. Admit it that there is no cure for phthisis  and it incites men to find one, far more actively than to praise existing “cures”.

“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.”

Conclusion to the second part: given that tuberculosis affected the poor more frequently than richer sections of society, the “bulk of the tuberculous” were the urban poor. Nature’s method of reducing the death rate from phthisis (pulmonary tuberculosis) would be achieved by checking “the multiplication of the unfit” and to “emphasize…the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy.”

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Centenary of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial

February 21st, 2023
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