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The Social Context of Eugenic Thought

By Professor W.H.G. Armytage

IV. "And the Poor Get Children"

The events and aftermath of the First World War validated prevailing eugenic theories which had condemned it as a biological disaster whilst disproving those cruder forms of social Darwinism which had viewed the conflict as a continuation of man’s evolutionary "struggle". Whatever eugenic benefit or evolutionary advantage might be claimed for war in its historical context ("warrior-style" combat or "heroic command") (1)) the Armageddon that was the First World War (a total war involving conscripted mass armies and mechanised slaughter) was seen to be both dysgenic and of doubtful evolutionary relevance. The shell, the bomb and the machine gun were indiscriminate in their choice of victims: nor could the participating nations be regarded as "nascent species". No significant racial, ethnic or even cultural differences distinguished the major belligerents of 1914-1918. All, as Keegan points out, were states in which some form of representative institutions existing and which maintained large conscripted armies. "The loyalty of such armies, headily reinforced by national feeling, was to hold up throughout the first three years of the War’s terrible ordeal. By 1917 the costs, psychological as well as material, of making every man a soldier began to have their inevitable effects. There was large scale mutiny in the French army in the spring of that year; in the autumn the Russian army collapsed altogether. In the following year the German army went the same way; at the November armistice, on its return home, the army demobilised itself and the German empire was thrown into revolution" (2).

But though the First World War disproved those social Darwinist ideas currently on offer it did not discredit the general theory. On the contrary social Darwinism, in a refined version, continued to be a potent explanatory framework for cultural evolution though, in its application to conflict, it would henceforth be more often deployed as Crook has demonstrated (3), in support of "peace biology". When, in 1933, the Oxford Union declared in favour of the motion "This house will not fight for King and country" this was a reflection, not of the cowardice of its supporters, but of the sophisticated superiority of the proposers’ (largely social scientific) arguments (4).

Thus the decade following the First World War was characterised by evolutionary and, especially eugenic thinking. Indeed, when William Beveridge (a life-long supporter of the Eugenics Society) was appointed Director of the London School of Economics in 1919 he resolved to bring about the "application of biology to human society" by the creation of a Department of Social Biology. The syllabus for the proposed Department was outlined by Beveridge as: "Instinct in Man, Inherited and Acquired Characteristics, Quantity and Quality of Populations and Racial and Economic Tests of Fitness" (5). For the purpose of application to the Rockefeller Foundation for funding this was modified by the Professorial Council to "variation and heredity in man, selective immunity, relative importance of environmental factors in social structure and change, questions of race and class in relation to hereditary endowment, economic and biological tests of fitness" (6). Either variant could have been the synopsis for a Eugenics Society Symposium. When Lancelot Hogben was appointed to head the new Department (Solly Zuckerman was amongst the unsuccessful candidates) generously funded by Rockefeller, Wells chaired his inaugural lecture. After condemning the existing state of the social sciences "whose generalisations still float loose and away from its observations", he predicted that the new Department would be the basis on which "Economic Science will be built anew" (7). Sadly, Hogben’s tenure of the Chair of Social Biology was remarkable only for his invention of the first test for early human pregnancy - using toads - and for his recruitment to LSE of the demographer R R Kuczynski, an early refugee from Germany. When Hogben left LSE in 1937 his Department collapsed.

In making "quantity and quality of populations" central to his proposed new academic discipline, Beveridge was acknowledging what had now become a matter of general, and not merely eugenic concern: the problem of differential fertility. Nor was this concern confined to those on the political "right". Beveridge’s own Chairman of Governors at LSE, Sidney Webb, speaking for the Fabian Society, had told the National Birth Rate Commission in 1917 that rates and taxes fell most heavily upon the classes who should have most children but presented no impediment to "the thriftless and irresponsible, the reckless and short-sighted of all grades" with the result that "the community now breeds fastest from its least desirable stocks" (8). And Karl Pearson, a Fabian with Marxist economic leanings, claimed that the most fertile sector of the population produced fifty per cent of the next generation (9). The much delayed publication, in 1923, of the results of the 1911 Fertility of Marriage Census showed that, despite increasing resort to birth control by successive marriage cohorts since 1870, there was a persisting social class differential in birth rates. The problem was now officially recognised. It was also set to music. "There’s nothing surer", ran the lyrics of one of the most popular songs of the early 1920s, "The rich get richer and the poor get - children" (10).

Marie Stopes was a feminist and, what today would be called a sexologist. Her original purpose in espousing birth control was to give women control of their own fertility and to improve the quality of conjugal sex. When, however, in March 1921 she opened her first birth control clinic in London she was brought into contact with both the Eugenics Society and the Malthusian League as the, then, leading organisations advocating birth control. She became a life Fellow of the Eugenics Society in July 1921 and was closely associated with Dr Binnie Dunlop whose Malthusian League subsequently opened further clinics but later handed them over to voluntary management (11). Drysdale at this point rejoined the Eugenics Society declaring that selective control of fertility was now more important than an overall reduction in the birth rate.

The early birth control movement received unexpected, but influential, endorsement in October 1921 when Lord Dawson informed the assembled bishops at the Birmingham Church Congress that "birth control is here to stay. It is an established fact and for good or evil it has to be accepted. No denunciation will abolish it" (12). Dawson was physician-in-ordinary to the King and, by virtually putting the monarchy on the side of birth control, he attracted massive press publicity. "LORD DAWSON MUST GO" thundered the Sunday Express (13) though most press comment was favourable and there is little doubt that this event was a turning point in both medical and religious attitudes.

Throughout the 1920s however Marie Stopes remained the most visible, and audible, birth control presence. Through her many books, her quarrels with the medical profession and the churches she remained a newsworthy, and admired public figure. Her long-running libel case against Halliday Sutherland brought both publicity and sympathy. Her frequent public appearances were widely and fully reported. In her Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain recalls attending one of her public meetings and notes her elegant appearance and impressive manner (14). Indeed, as a platform speaker Marie Stopes’ success was measured not by the numbers of those attending but by the size of the overflow: Madeleine Simms records that at a meeting at Ealing Town Hall a thousand people were turned away (15).

Although Marie Stopes’ Mother’s Clinics were organised under the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress and dispensed her patented brands of "Racial" suppositories and "Prorace" caps, there is no evidence that contemporary opinion found cause for offence in these expressions. And though both the Mother’s Clinics and those which eventually became the Family Planning Association attempted, in the jargon of a later age, to "target" working-class women they assumed that women of higher social status were perfectly able to obtain the same facilities elsewhere; their object was the democratisation of birth control. Yet, as Francois Lafitte subsequently demonstrated, the birth control clinics consistently failed in their attempt to reach those in most desperate need and the wives of barristers were over-represented and those of boiler-makers under-represented amongst their clientele (16). This criticism would not have unduly disturbed the clinic pioneers of the 1920s. Their avowed aim (and this applied both to Marie Stopes and to the FPA) was to demonstrate the feasibility of their procedures in order to persuade government and local authorities to take on a public responsibility for their provision. By the end of the decade they had achieved partial success (17) - like other aspects of social reform public provision of contraception came on the instalment plan - but, as we shall see, the problem was by then overlaid with other public issues.


(1) John Keegan, The Mask of Command, Hutchinson, London, 1987.

(2) John Keegan, A History of Warfare, Hutchinson, London, 1993, p234.

(3) Paul Crook, Darwinism, War and History, CUP, 1994.

(4) When mathematical games theory, originally developed in economics, came to be applied to military decision-making there was an attempt to argue that the survival of those strategists making the largest number of "correct" decisions was a replication of natural selection, see Keegan op cit and R. Duson-Hudson, Human Intra-specific Conflict: An Evolutionary Perspective, New York, 1986.

(5) Ralf Dahrendorf, LSE A History of the London School of Economics 1895-1995, OUP, 1995, p252.

(6) ibid

(7) ibid, p256

(8) R. A. Soloway, Demography and Degeneration, University of North Carolina Press, 1990, p155.

(9) ibid, p168. Pearson, like a number of other Fabians, incuding Shaw and Wells, believed that an effective programme of eugenics could only be pursued under a socialist government.

(10) "Ain’t We Got Fun" Words by Gus Kahn and Raymond B. Egan, Music by Richard A Whiting. Copyright Warner Bros Inc., 1921.

(11) These were amalgamated first as the National Birth Control Association later adopting the name Family Planning Association.

(12) Dawson was known to support both birth control and euthanasia. Kenneth Rose (King George V; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1983, p.358) recalls that he was haunted by the jingle:

"Lord Dawson of Penn
Has killed lots of men.
So that’s why we sing
‘God save the King!’"

It is interesting that he chose to be publicly associated with the birth control cause but never with the contemporary voluntary euthanasia movement.

(13) Sunday Express, 16 October 1921.

(14) Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, Hogarth, London, 1933.

(15) Madeleine Simms, "Sixty years ago - birth control in the ‘Queen of the Suburbs’", British Journal of Family Planning, 19, 1993, p.204.

(16) Francois Lafitte, Family Planning in the Sixties, FPA, London, 1963.

(17) This was the famous Memorandum 153/MCW published by the Ministry of Health in July 1930. It allowed local authorities to give birth control instruction to mothers whose health would be injured by further pregnancy and became the nexus around which the birth control movement and its allies pressed their subsequent demands for extended facilities.