Last month a new book was published: Exterminating Poverty: The true story of the eugenic plan to get rid of the poor and the Scottish doctor who fought against it. The author is Mark Sutherland, Australian grandson of the book’s subject, Halliday Sutherland (1882-1960). It brought to mind this extraordinary figure of the early 20th century British Catholic Revival, whose work I first encountered in high school.
To be sure, my discovery of the work of this friend and contemporary of Belloc and Chesterton was restricted to his highly entertaining travel books. The latter glowingly reviewed his work: “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.”
Indeed, in such works as Lapland Adventure and Hebridean Adventure, the good doctor kept this then youthful reader spellbound. But it turned out that there was a more serious side to him.
Having earned his MD in 1908 from Edinburgh University, Sutherland he set to work among tuberculosis, opening a TB clinic in London in 1911. There he discovered that not only was tubercular milk being sold to the poor, but that this action was being hailed by eugenics groups as a way of eliminating the unfit. Sutherland then became an implacable foe of eugenics, something his conversion to Catholicism after World War I did nothing to abate.
This stance brought him into conflict with Marie Stopes. As with the American Margaret Sanger, Stopes pushed birth control as much for eugenics as for any other reason. Sutherland called her out on this tactic in his 1922 book Birth Control, in which he not only exploded the neo-Malthusian ideas behind it, but exposed Stopes for the eugenicist she was. She sued for libel; in a case that over the next two years went all the way to the House of Lords, Sutherland won.
The younger Sutherland’s book deals extensively with this drama – and draws important conclusions for our own times, when eugenics have become tacitly accepted, albeit not under that name. But his grandfather’s crusading spirit did not shrink from denouncing evils wherever he saw them – as at the Magdalene Homes in his Irish Journey. We need his spirit today!
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