Please be aware that this blog contains distressing content from the outset.
After the Second World War, the British Advisory Committee for Medical War Crimes was set up to investigate experiments carried out on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The committee’s records are held by the RCP archives. One of the categories into which the Committee divided the war crimes was eugenics, the bigoted ideology of ‘perfecting’ society through state-planned breeding. However, eugenics was not an ideology confined to Nazi Germany. Two members of the war crimes committee, Carlos Paton Blacker (1895-1975) and Aubrey Lewis (1900-1975), were also members of the RCP’s euphemistically named Voluntary Sterilisation Committee. Assistant Archivist, Felix Lancashire, examines eugenic theory and practice among British physicians in the 1930s-50s.
‘We had to undress and our sexual organs were placed under an apparatus and kept there under the apparatus for 15 minutes. The apparatus strongly heated the sexual organs and the surrounding parts, and later these parts began to show a black colour. After this treatment we had to work again right away. After some days, the sexual organs of most of my comrades became purulent and they had great difficulty in walking. In spite of this, they had to work until they collapsed and those who collapsed were sent to the gas chambers.’
This was the experience of Chaim Balitzki, a 23-year-old Jewish man from Poland, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp from 1943 to 1945. Two weeks after being forcibly sterilised by x-rays, Balitzki’s testicles were surgically removed: ‘none of us were asked whether we agreed to the operation. They just said, “You go,” and then we were sent to the operation table without the possibility of saying anything.’ Balitzki’s entire testimony to the Nuremberg war crimes trials can be read here.
Six million Jewish adults and children were murdered in the Holocaust. During this time, the Nazi regime also persecuted, maimed, and murdered other groups including Romani people, Black people, gay people, people with disabilities, communists, socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Among the experiments investigated by the British Advisory Committee for Medical War Crimes, was the forced hormone treatment of gay men. Reporting on these procedures, Charles Lovatt Evans (1884-1968) writes, ‘The object was to find whether the sexual attitude of homo-sexuals can be normalised by implanting “artificial male sexual gland” (by which is no doubt meant a tablet of male sex hormone). Experiments were made at Weimar-Buchenwald on 5 men (2 castrated, 1 sterilised, 2 not previously operated.) It was also hoped to find the cause of homo-sexuality.’ In answer to the question, ‘Was the object of the experiment a reasonable one?’, Evans replies ‘Yes, but the idea was not original.’ Evans writes that the Nazi doctors ‘concluded that cures were effected.’
Evans, though critical of the unscientific methods employed, does not contest the word ‘cure’ in this context. Homosexuality was not removed from the World Health Organization’s list of mental disorders until 1992, so Evans was far from alone among the medical profession of the 1940s in viewing ‘sexual attitude’ as something that needed to be ‘normalised’ or ‘cured’. Given that the RCP had already endorsed the mass sterilisation of people it deemed ‘unfit for parenthood’ (of which more later), it is perhaps unsurprising that Evans glosses over the fact that three of the victims had been either sterilised or castrated, a procedure presumably inflicted on them as part of the experimentation. Even the physician Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), whose attitude to homosexuality was relatively progressive, was a leading member of the Eugenics Education Society and believed that gay people were ‘a neurotic and failing stock’ who should not have children.
In his report to the war crimes committee on the subject of eugenics, Carlos Blacker writes that the Nazi regime had decided that the operations of vasectomy for men and salpingectomy for women were too slow for the purpose of mass sterilisation; he goes on:
‘What was now needed was a cheap method which could be used on a mass scale irrespective of whether the subject was merely sterilised or castrated as well. Three methods were tried on inmates of concentration camps, but without satisfactory results. These methods were the following: the use of Caladium Seguinum; the use of x-rays; the use of sclerosing substances.’
The only instance of Blacker explicitly condemning the Nazi crimes is in the conclusion of his report, where he writes, ‘Nothing could justify the initiation of experiments on human beings, even had these been voluntary'. However, he quickly goes on to attempt to distance his own continued advocacy for eugenics from the horrors of the Nazi camps: ‘None of these experiments have any bearing on eugenics as the subject is understood in [Britain].’
It is understandable that Blacker, who was secretary of the British Eugenics Society from 1931-1952, would try to convince his readers of a difference between British and German eugenics, and revealing of the attitude of his readers – his medical peers – that he didn’t need to try very hard. His casual racism and the coldness with which he writes of ‘the disposal of children and mothers’ in the following passage makes it hard to demarcate his attitudes from those of his Nazi counterparts:
‘Twelve documents [that Blacker had been provided with as evidence on which to base his report] […] deal with various questions arising from sexual relations between German and foreign workers – the punishments, the disposal of the children and of the mothers, and the standards by which the children should be assessed as of Germanic or of alien blood. These topics might be regarded as broadly falling within the meaning of eugenics (or rather of the Nazi version of eugenics called race hygiene)’.
Despite Blacker’s half-hearted protests, there are many parallels between the practices of the Nazi regime and the policies endorsed by the British ruling class in the 1930s. In 1933, the Nazi government passed a law enforcing the compulsory sterilisation of people with certain hereditary (or supposedly hereditary) mental and physical health conditions. Two years earlier, the British Labour MP, Archibald Church (1886-1954), had introduced a Sterilisation Bill in the House of Commons. It was voted down, but the debate continued and, at the same time the Nazi law was enacted, a British parliamentary committee produced what became known as the Brock Report, which called for the sterilisation of people who were ‘mentally defective and mentally disordered’. A member of the parliamentary committee was Bertrand Dawson (Viscount Dawson of Penn) (1864-1945), who also happened to be the president of the Royal College of Physicians.
Dawson quickly assembled an RCP committee to lend support to the mass sterilisation movement. Despite throwing the word ‘voluntary’ into their reports when they remembered to do so, the committee, which in its initial incarnation was called simply the Committee on Sterilisation, made its views clear on who should decide who to sterilise when it supported ‘allowing and even encouraging mentally defective and mentally disordered patients to adopt the only certain method of preventing procreation’ (emphasis mine). In the minutes of a committee meeting on 13 December 1938, the physicians opine that it is their duty to impose their ‘enlightened medical opinion’ on an ignorant public. A memo from the same year again makes clear that the physicians feel it is they who should be making these decisions, not the individuals concerned:
‘Marriage [b]etween a [n]ormal [p]erson and an [e]xhibitor of a [r]ecessive [a]bnormality […] should, in the first place, be discouraged. But when they have taken place, a decision as to sterilisation should be based upon the gravity of the abnormality in question (and the consequent undesirability of the recessive gene being spread) and upon the other qualities shown by the families of the two people concerned. If these families were markedly sub-normal it might on balance be desirable that the two people concerned were childless. A grave abnormality such as deaf-mutism of one partner would justify sterilisation in such a mating. It would certainly be justified in a mating between an exhibitor of a recessive abnormality and a person who was suspected of being a carrier.’
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone on the committee that it would be more desirable to build a society that didn’t disempower deaf people (or any of its members), rather than one that sterilised them. Other groups of people targeted by the committee for potential sterilisation included people with albinism, haemophilia, cleft palate, or diabetes (see MS5074 for a full list). The committee saw the empowerment of humans in all their diversity as a greater threat than the violent enforcement of the chauvinist status quo. The title of this blog is quoted not from an opponent of eugenics, but from a note written by Dawson himself on 1 September 1939. The ‘evil’ he imagines is not mass sterilisation, or the prevalence of rape within marriage which he alludes to, but the existence of humans he considers ‘defective’: ‘evil consequences may well follow [if sterilisation is not performed], e.g. in the case of a woman who has already had defective children and is in a constant state of anxiety as to whether others might be born, and, at the same time, she might be married to a husband who is sexually persistent and indifferent to consequences.’
Although it soon adopted the name, Voluntary Sterilisation Committee, a large concern of many of its members was how to inflict sterilisation on people who were not judged capable of giving consent. Dawson supported the 1934 draft of the bill, which stated that ‘the Minister of Health shall have power to act upon the application of the person or authority who is in fact responsible for the defective’s maintenance.’ It is easy to see why opponents of the bill would see it, as Blacker himself acknowledges, as ‘the thin end of a Fascist wedge.’ Blacker, seeing that any level of democratic scrutiny was a threat to eugenics, pushed for mass sterilisation to be enabled via legal precedent rather than by an act of parliament, as a public debate would only help his enemies:
‘The Roman Catholic Church, whose hostility to sterilisation has been enunciated in unequivocal terms in a recent papal encyclical[…] has been supported in this matter by certain elements of the Labour Party, who see in this measure the “thin end of a wedge”. The thick end is compulsory sterilisation on Nazi lines which, it has been asserted, might be used as an instrument of class oppression. […] The example of Germany is always before them, and it is easy to describe the measure as the thin end of a Fascist wedge. By taking the matter before Parliament, we would be giving opponents a battle-ground on which they could exert their full forces’ (MS5074).
Blacker’s dismissal of the idea of class oppression is galling at a time when, far from the mere ‘assertion’ that it ‘might be used’ for this purpose, this was very definitely the purpose to which sterilisation was being applied in Germany. While it was perverse that the RCP committee sought to supress the rights of people with certain mental and physical conditions to have children, they were at least able to argue these points on medical grounds, however spurious. However, they invariably appended to their lists of ‘clinical indications’ for sterilisation some variation of the phrase ‘and those unfit for parenthood’, providing the maximum scope for the ruling class to target whichever groups it pleased. The committee fully backed the Brock Report, whose authors make clear their utter contempt for the most vulnerable sections of the working class:
‘there is a concentration in the lowest social stratum of the physically and mentally defective, the chronic unemployables, the habitual recipients of relief, and a delinquent element of a mentally subnormal type. […] From some points of view it may be true that the economic residuum of the population must always constitute a social problem’.
Straying as they were wont to do from medical matters, the RCP committee, in a note dated 28 November 1938, added their ‘enlightened’ voice to those condemning poor people for having children:
‘Among the “social indications” for sterilisation might be considered the unfavourable economic position of parents who already have large families. In many such cases the parents[…] are incapable of utilising birth control methods and the bulk of the pregnancies are frequently unplanned and unwanted.’
Whether consciously or not, the wealthy establishment eugenicists on the RCP committee expressed the view that the working class existed to serve the interests of the British state, either as labour, or as scapegoats for perceived social problems. In his eugenics report for the war crimes committee, Blacker was able to recognise this policy in the German state, which he says chose to sterilise, rather than kill, people of certain nationalities, because they needed foreign labour. He quotes the SS officer, Viktor Brack (1904-1948), in saying that adults and children with ‘incurable’ mental or physical disabilities ‘could no longer be of any use to the Reich’ and that Hitler wanted to exterminate these ‘useless eaters.’ And yet the 1934 report of the RCP sterilisation committee subscribes to exactly this logic, when it states that the disabilities of certain people ‘will seriously interfere with their economic and social efficiency and will impose a heavy financial burden upon the State. It is clearly desirable that[…] persons suffering from inheritable diseases and defects should not produce offspring’ (MS5074). In a 1938 memo, Blacker writes that one purpose of sterilisation is ‘to prevent the transmission of hereditary infirmities or to prevent procreation when the parents are unfit to rear children, i.e. in the racial or social interest,’ and goes on to describe sterilisation in openly violent terms as ‘one of the most useful weapons in a population policy that takes qualitative considerations into account’ (MS5074).
When Charles McMoran Wilson (Lord Moran) (1882-1977) assembled the war crimes committee, he gave strict instructions to its members that they were not to report on the morality of the Nazi experiments, but only on their potential usefulness to British and allied interests (see MS5954/1 and MS5954/2). They all reported that the experiments were of no scientific value. However, the reality is that British eugenics had already benefited from Nazi practices. The sterilisation committee note from 28 November 1938 (MS5074) blithely remarks that ‘as a result of the German sterilisation laws’, there is much new information about the risks of the operations of vasectomy and salpingectomy, and that ‘[s]ome 100,000 persons have been sterilised in Germany.’ By 1945, this figure was over 400,000, and because of the war it had become politically expedient for the British establishment to recognise these people as victims rather than as research data.
There were at least a handful of RCP physicians who objected entirely to the aims of the sterilisation committee and spoke out against the push for eugenic implementation. When the committee’s proposals were first put before the wider RCP on 25 October 1934, three fellows argued against them. Herbert Spencer (1860-1941) exposed the mockery the report made of the idea of consent, and called for the proposals to be halted until more research could be conducted. Charles Oliver Hawthorne (1858-1949) and Philip Hamill (1883-1959) were also strongly opposed to the proposals; Hawthorne was appalled at the thought of a medical profession that defaulted to mutilating people when contraception was a perfectly workable method for people who didn’t want children. But these dissenting voices aside, the RCP fellows present agreed with Walter Langdon-Brown (1870-1946) that ‘the State was faced with the double problem of the economically inferior and the biologically inferior’, and that the solution to these ‘problems’ was mass sterilisation; they endorsed the report of the sterilisation committee by 82 votes to 3.
The exposure of the Nazi war crimes made the implementation of a British eugenics programme politically unviable in the immediate wake of the war, although hardliners like Blacker continued to lobby for it. But although the sterilisation of whole groups was not enforced, castration was used by the state to punish individuals. While advocating for sterilisation during the 1938 committee discussions, Edward Alfred Cockayne (1880-1956) asserted that ‘There will be no question of the operation being imposed from without upon a reluctant patient or of it being used as a threat or a punishment, or (even less) as an instrument of state policy.’ And yet this was exactly what happened to Alan Turing (1912-1954), the computer scientist who had led the team that cracked the Nazi Enigma code. In 1952, Turing was prosecuted for having consensual sex with another man, and was chemically castrated as a punishment. The procedure, which involved injections of oestrogen, resulted in Turing becoming impotent and developing breast tissue. Because of his conviction, he was barred from continuing to work at GCHQ. Two years later, he was found dead in his home from cyanide poisoning, and the inquest concluded the most likely cause of death was suicide. Despite Turing serving its military aims, the British state was happy, now that the war was won, to use him to serve its political aims, making an example of him to others it considered ‘biologically inferior.’
The records of both the war crimes committee and the sterilisation committee show us the dangers of dividing society into different groups that can then be vilified, exploited and persecuted in specific ways. These records offer a warning about how easy it is for society to dehumanise vulnerable groups, and that we must actively guard against this practice. They show that today, as in the past, the fights for the human rights of particular groups, such as trans people or migrants, are not separate but are all part of a wider struggle. These records, along with all our archives, are available for anyone to view in our study space. They reflect a society that discriminates based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, and mental and physical health; and they hopefully suggest a pathway to the opposite of such a society, one that liberates and empowers all its members.