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The Trial of Dr. Halliday Sutherland

At Christmas in 2013, I traveled from my home in Sydney, Australia to visit my mother in Britain. One morning, I was up early and decided to sort through a tea chest containing my belongings in the cellar below the kitchen.

I left the warmth of the kitchen and descended the worn stone steps to the cellar. I switched on the light, a single uncovered bulb in the ceiling, and noticed the vapor of my breath in the cold air.

My tea chest was in a dim corner, but what caught my eye was a brown leather suitcase lying on the floor in front of me. Damp had rotted through a corner of the case and some of the papers inside. I opened the case, carried the documents upstairs, and placed them on the kitchen table.

I was looking at the manuscripts of my grandfather: Halliday Sutherland. Born 1882, died 1960, medical doctor, bestselling author, tuberculosis pioneer, and defendant in the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial.

The trial had taken place in the High Court, London, in February 1923. Dr. Marie Stopes had accused Sutherland of libelling her in his 1922 book Birth Control. For five days, the press and the public packed into the crowded courtroom to hear the testimony of the best physicians in the country.

Unlike Stopes, Sutherland had no money to fight the case, and he faced financial ruin until (mainly Catholic) Christians raised money to pay his legal bills.  He won the first trial; lost on appeal; and, in 1924, conclusively won the case in the House of Lords.

The case had been a bit of an embarrassment to me. I am a grandson of Dr. Sutherland and was named after him. For many years, I wondered why he had criticized Stopes so vehemently.

I had absorbed the generally accepted “Catholics against contraceptives” narrative of which this excerpt from the BBC’s online biography of Stopes is an example:

In 1921, Stopes opened a family planning clinic in Holloway, north London, the first in the country. It offered a free service to married women and also gathered data about contraception[.] … The Catholic church was Stopes’s fiercest critic. In 1923, Stopes sued Catholic doctor Halliday Sutherland for libel. She lost, won at appeal and then lost again in the House of Lords, but the case generated huge publicity for Stopes’s views[.] … Stopes continued to campaign for women to have better access to birth control.

No one, family or otherwise, told me differently.

Halliday’s manuscripts now lay on the kitchen table, handwritten and typed, some bound, some loose, and some in envelopes. Untouched since his death some 53 years before, their rediscovery led me to understand why he had attacked Stopes’s work, and that what had been presented as an innocuous family planning clinic was the first step in a bold campaign to implement eugenic [1] population control in Britain.

Stopes’s eugenic agenda

Marie Stopes joined the Eugenics Education Society in 1912 and became a life fellow in 1921.

On the second day of the trial, under oath, Stopes said she had “embarked upon this work”:

… to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C3 [2] end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale.

She had established the “Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress” (CBC) to support the clinic. Stopes was president, and she was supported by eminent vice presidents, including J.M. Keynes and H.G. Wells. The society’s aims stated:

[T]here are unfortunately many men and women who should be prevented from procreating children at all, because of their individual ill-health, or the diseased and degenerate nature of the offspring that they may be expected to produce.

The slogan for her clinic (“Joyous and deliberate motherhood — a sure light in our racial darkness.”) and the brand names of the cervical caps she dispensed there (“Pro-Race” and later “Racial”) also reflected the eugenic agenda of her project.

Stopes knew that the women who came to her clinic were the willing ones and that, to “counteract the steady evil,” she needed to influence the “C3s” who were not inclined to visit her clinic. To this end, she advocated the compulsory sterilization of people she thought unfit for parenthood, and she lobbied the prime minister and politicians to pass the requisite laws.

Stopes also recommended that C3 women be fitted with a device known as the the “gold pin” or “gold spring.” Once in place, it could not be removed without assistance from a doctor.

It is, therefore, the one and only method (apart from actual sterilisation) which is applicable and of real help to the lowest and most negligent strata of society. It is therefore a method of the greatest possible racial and social value and should become widely known and practiced.

An accomplished paleobotanist and university lecturer, Stopes was, she insisted, a scientist. Yet the imprecise language she used to designate (and denigrate) those to be sterilized was anything but scientific: “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character”; the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced”; and “parasites.”

Sutherland opposed eugenics long before he became a Catholic

In the 1930s, Dr. Sutherland achieved success as the author of autobiographical books. In A Time to Keep (1934), he wrote about the trial:

In 1919 I had become a Catholic, I knew the Church forbade artificial birth-control, but I had not the slightest interest in this controversy until I attended a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society in London, on 7th July 1921[.]

He explained how he had come to write Birth Control; how he had no money for his legal defense; and how, when a friend contacted the Church at Westminster, he had received the message: “Tell Dr. Sutherland that Cardinal Bourne will stand by him to the end,” after which he wrote:

My attitude thereafter was that I was merely an instrument having the honour of representing the Catholic Church in a great public controversy.

To me, the explanation was incomplete. Going “all in” on an issue in which he had “not the slightest interest” was odd, but to do it two years into his marriage to my grandmother (Muriel), and when they had a young family (my aunt, Jane, and later, my uncles, twins John and Peter), seemed impulsive, to say the least.

There was nothing to explain why a doctor who specialized in tuberculosis and who worked in the Ministry of Pensions had set off in in an entirely different direction. The rediscovery of his papers changed that.

I read the first (1911) and fourth (1914) annual reports of the St. Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption, which he served as medical officer from 1910 onward. I learned that each year, 50,000 people died of consumption, which is tuberculosis of the lung. In addition, 20,000 died from other forms of the disease, and 150,000 were disabled. It was a disease of poverty, afflicting the poor three times more than wealthier people. When TB struck the breadwinner, whole families would be thrown into destitution.

In addition to his day-to-day duties in St. Marylebone, Sutherland compiled research, produced Britain’s first health education cinema film [3], founded an open-air school in a bandstand in Regent’s Park, and edited a compendium of essays by international experts on the eradication and cure of tuberculosis.

At this time, Sutherland was nominally a Presbyterian but was an agnostic in belief. He joined the Church of Scotland on the eve of the Great War in 1914 in order to make his peace with God.

A pamphlet from the suitcase — “Consumption: Its Cause and Cure” — provided the next clue. It contained the transcript of his speech to the National Council of the YMCA on September 4, 1917. In it, he railed against unnecessary deaths from tuberculosis, including the 10,000 children who died each year from drinking tuberculous milk.

Sutherland singled out eugenicists for blame, describing them as “race breeders with the souls of cattle-breeders.” He attacked their belief in “the survival of the fittest” because, he argued, “in preventing disease you are not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong.”

I later learned the link between tuberculosis and eugenics. At the time, it was thought that susceptibility to tuberculosis was an inherited condition. In Darwinism and Race Progress (1895), Dr. John Haycraft said:

It is a hard saying, but none the less a true one, that the bacillus tuberculosus [sic] is a friend of the race, for it attacks no healthy man or woman, but only the feeble.

I found Haycraft’s views echoed in the speech by the president of the British Medical Association (“BMA”) to the delegates at the July 1912 annual conference:

Nature … weeds out those who have not got the innate power of recovery from disease, and by means of the tubercle bacillus and other pathogenic organisms she frequently does this before the reproductive age, so that a check is put on the multiplication of idiots and the feeble-minded. Nature’s methods are thus of advantage to the race rather than to the individual.

The speaker was Sir James Barr, a vice president of the CBC, who testified for Stopes on the first day of the trial.

In 1918, Barr said:

Until we have some restriction in the marriage of undesirables the elimination of the tubercle bacillus is not worth aiming at. It forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit[.] … I am of opinion … that if to-morrow the tubercle bacillus were non-existent, it would be nothing short of a national calamity. We are not yet ready for its disappearance.

Frequently, my research took place in the early hours of the morning. Perhaps it was tiredness, but the heartlessness of Barr’s views shocked me deeply.

I reread “Consumption: Its Cause and Cure” and heard the anger in Halliday’s voice:

Tuberculous milk kills 10,000 children every year and creates an amount of child sickness, suffering and sorrow so widespread as to be incomprehensible to a finite mind, and no more natural than if their food had been poisoned with arsenic. Yet in London to-day, one out of even eleven churns of milk arriving at our railway termini contains this death-dealing virus.

They knew about pasteurisation. A Royal Commission, many years before, had recommended that this be done. Yet nothing had been done.

It struck me that the deaths of 10,000 children was the “rough” part of Barr’s “very serviceable check on the survival and propagation of the unfit.” In this context, tuberculosis was not a disease, so much as a legal means to exterminate the so-called unfit.

Four months after Barr’s 1912 presidential address, Sutherland published his research in the British Medical Journal and concluded that the disease was primarily infective, not inherited. The treatment was to prevent and cure TB, rather than to let nature take its course.

In May 1921, Barr wrote to congratulate the persons who, while not restricting the marriage of undesirables, were limiting the progeny from those unions:

You and your husband have inaugurated a great movement which I hope will eventually get rid of our C3 population and exterminate poverty. The only way to raise an A1 population is to breed them.

The letter was addressed to Dr. Marie Stopes.

The Libelous Words

The passage that led to the trial has been reprinted many times, but it was the paragraph that followed had not. These made it clear that the attack was much broader that a dogmatic attack on contraceptives:

[I]f 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? … 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.


All this happened a long time ago. Does it matter? I would argue that it does.

The Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial is a forgotten episode in the Church’s history of consistent opposition to eugenics. Yet the historical narrative of the trial was left to the detractors and enemies of the Church who cooked up a version that I used to believe myself.

History influences how we perceive our life and times. We live in an age in which gene technology gives eugenicists the tools that their predecessors could only dream of.

Now, more than ever before, Catholics need to know their history to prepare for the battles ahead.

[1] Eugenics was the pseudo-science of genetic inheritance. It arose in its modern form when Sir Francis Galton observed the fine animals produced by selective breeding and wondered: “Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?”

[2] The term “C3” was used by the British army that came into public use. When recruiting soldiers, the best physical and mental applicants were designated A1. There were designations for men of a lesser quality, and at the end of the spectrum was the category “C3,” those physically and mentally unfit to serve in the armed forces. Recruitment for the Boer War and the First World War revealed the shocking health of the urban poor. Though it was debatable whether this was due to nature or nurture, eugenicists saw it as an indication of the deterioration of British “racial stocks.”

[3] This can be viewed online here (U.K. residents only).

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