Eugenics and White Australia: the dark history of Anderson Stuart and Harvey Sutton

[Honi Soit] Eugenics and White Australia: the dark history of Anderson Stuart and Harvey Sutton

CW: Reader discretion is advised. This article contains references to eugenics, ableism, white supremacy, colonial violence towards Indigenous people, and fascism. 

Walking past the golden sandstone of Sydney Medical School’s Anderson Stuart Building and into its entrance, an imposing marble bust of the School’s founder, Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart (1856-1920), greets students. The bust of the building’s namesake rests alongside his carved initials, coat of arms, and a famous raven. USyd’s commemorative display does not reflect Anderson’s dark history as an enthusiastic believer in eugenics and a White Australia. Nor is founding Professor of Preventative Medicine Harvey Sutton (1882-1963), who have a scholarship named after him in the School of Public Health, remembered for his role in propagating eugenics and medical racism. 

Anderson Stuart: racism and eugenics Correspondence between Professor Anderson Stuart andFrancis Galton, 19 January 1885. 

Anderson Stuart was a member of the Eugenics Education Society in New South Wales and took an active part in the Society’s activities, paying a personal tribute to eugenicist Francis Galton in a lavish dinner hosted by the Society.

Then, In 1912, Stuart was the University of Sydney’s delegate to the inaugural International Eugenics Congress located in modern day Imperial College London, alongside fellow Australians Andrew Kirkpatrick and former Premier of South Australia John Cockburn. Here, notable delegates ranging from Charles Darwin’s son Leonard Darwin and former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour gathered to discuss topics such as: “The Causes of the inferiority of physical and mental characters in the Lower Social Classes”, “The Bearing of Neo-Malthusianism upon Race Hygiene” and “Ethnic Psychology and the Science of Eugenics”. 

Not only was the founder of USyd’s Medical School a eugenicist, he also took a leading role in Australia’s white supremacist policies, presiding over the Immigration League of Australia between roughly 1908 and 1911. The organisation, founded by Richard Arthur, explicitly advocated for the immigration of White Europeans to Australia to deter the threat of “alien race[s]”. 

During his term as President of the Immigration League, the West Gippsland Gazette reported that Stuart advocated for stopping immigration of non-white communities, specifically those of Asian descent, to the Northern Territory.

“The policy of a ‘White Australia’ demands that this huge territory [The Northern Territory] shall not be allowed to be peopled by Asiatics. Now this question of a ‘White Australia’ is not merely of local interest. It is of imperial importance,” Stuart said. 

“The Northern Territory of Australia ineffectively occupied is therefore a standing menace to the Empire. From this it is clear that the possibility of having a real ‘White Australia’ is of intense imperial interest.” 

Historian Dr Diana Wyndham’s Eugenics in Australia: Striving for National Fitness details that Stuart belonged to a “medical” group of Australian eugenists, who believed that eugenics could “reduce disease and suffering”. Throughout his professorship at Sydney, public addresses and correspondence, Stuart was a man deeply interested in eugenics and furthering its cause. 

In British eugenicist Francis Galton’s own words, eugenics refers to “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally”. 

In his book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (1883), Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’: “The most merciful form of what I ventured to call “eugenics” would consist in watching for the indications of superior strains or races, and in so favouring them that their progeny shall outnumber and gradually replace that of the old one”. In other words, eugenics advocated for selective breeding, and was the ideological driving force behind much of the Australian medical profession and political class’ support of the White Australia Policy and the Stolen Generations.  

Stuart admired Galton’s work, a letter written by Stuart to Galton saw him congratulating Galton on the his launch of the Anthropometric Laboratory following 1884 and expressing a desire to replicate Galton’s plans in Sydney. Stuart’s involvement in the eugenics movement, as such, was not a passing or fleeting interest. 

Galton’s Anthropometric Laboratory was established in 1884, whereby visitors paid a fee to be measured on a number of physical characteristics and provided a copy of their personal data. 

List of delegates to the 1912 International Eugenics Congress and Programme and Timetable. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, London. 

Harvey Sutton and Melbourne racism

In many ways, Harvey Sutton, USyd’s first Professor of Preventative Medicine and inaugural director of the School of Public Health, held far more fascist views than Anderson Stuart. Indeed, Dr Diana Wyndham noted that Sutton was never shy about his “open support of regimes in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany”. Speaking to Honi, USyd’s Professor of Politics, Governance and Ethics Warwick Anderson said that Sutton was part of a generation of Melbourne University-based white nationalists. 

“Melbourne was the centre of white nationalism in the [Australian] universities,” Anderson explains, with the context that Melbourne was the nation’s former capital before Canberra’s creation. “The University [of Melbourne] was utterly dedicated to this idea of implanting a pure white race.” 

In Anderson’s The Cultivation of Whiteness: science, health and racial destiny, Sutton — himself a Melbourne medical graduate — advocated for the sterilisation of those he deemed “unfit” for society: “As a member of various eugenics societies and the Family Planning Association, he [Sutton] sought to discourage the breeding of the physically unfit and feeble-minded, and he recommended sterilisation for hopeless degenerates.” 

To pursue this, Sutton led a scheme prior to World War I whereby all Victorian schoolchildren at the time had “their [physical] dimensions and intelligence quotients” taken in part to evaluate the racial purity of White Australia. 

Then, once he assumed leadership of the Commonwealth Institute of Tropical Medicine — today part of USyd’s School of Public Health, Sutton “recommended a classification of children by “racial stream”, indicating the degree of Australianness”. Sutton’s overarching goal was to create “a future white body “fully trained, free from defects of posture, upright, elastic, vigorous”.  

Mirroring Stuart’s leadership of the Immigration League, Sutton was a founding member of Australia’s Racial Hygiene Association. Rodwell detailed Sutton’s indifferent attitude to colonial violence that Indigenous communities endured, “Aboriginal people formed a dysgenic Australian social group which Sutton perceived to be incurable.”

According to former USyd Professor of Physiology John Carmody in a Royal Society lecture, later on in 1925, Sutton, in his capacity as Principal Medical Officer of the NSW Department of Education, supported pre-marital health checks as a means to screen out “hereditary defectives, mental defectives and epileptics” and that this “would be a step in the right direction”. These views are even more radical than those of Anderson Stuart, who opposed pre-marital checks in 1914 on the grounds that the measures were far too complex. 

Sutton’s views, in Professor Grant Rodwell’s essay, persisted even after World War II and the horrors of Nazi Germany’s fascism. 

“He preached the virtues of preventive eugenics — namely segregation — as the only solution to ‘these social misfits’,” Rodwell said in the study. “Despite the legal position of eugenic sterilisation he argued for the compulsory sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ in order to improve progressively the ‘inherited worth’ of human beings.”

Assessing Stuart and Sutton’s legacy at Sydney University

In many ways, Stuart and Sutton’s records point towards a grim past for the medical profession: Australia’s early public health architecture was deeply influenced by eugenics and ‘scientific’ racism.

In a biographical entry in the Australian National University’s (ANU) Australian Dictionary of Biography, despite purporting to be “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, any mentions of Stuart’s ties to Australia’s eugenics movement are ignored altogether. 

When asked if Sydney University would consider carrying out an investigation into the pair’s legacy or updating its plaque for Anderson Stuart, the University acknowledged in a statement that Stuart and Sutton’s records are contrary to its values: “We know there are aspects of our past that are open to criticism and debate.”

“Certainly, the views as presented are in stark contrast to our current values and policies.”

However, the University stopped short of confirming whether any investigation or update of Anderson Stuart’s plaque inside his namesake building will be carried out to acknowledge Stuart’s eugenicism or white supremacy. 

“We believe it is better to work to understand our history rather than erase it and we welcome our students expressing their political opinions in a respectful manner.”

However, members of the medical profession have voiced intense discomfort with the Medical School’s ties to eugenics and institutional racism. One example is Professor John Carmody’s lecture to the Royal Society of NSW (Southern Highlands) in Mittagong, where he voiced profound unease with Australian medicine’s eugenicist connections. 

“Education can lay a veneer over our emotions, but it is extraordinarily thin,” Professor John Carmody reflected.

“I suspect that it is only a matter of time before a few Australian universities are similarly compelled to establish comparable official investigations. And perhaps universities elsewhere as well (as a number in Britain and the USA have already done).” 

Carmody’s words echoes the increasing momentum behind investigations into other medical schools’ own colonial exploitation. In 2020, University College London (UCL), following an investigation into Francis Galton’s legacy, renamed three buildings: the former Galton Lecture Theatre, Pearson Building and Pearson Lecture Theatre, in recognition of Galton and Karl Pearson — the former greatly admired by both Stuart and Sutton. 

Carmody’s reflections offer a sombering chance for Australia’s universities to gaze into their own past. Time is overdue for Sydney University, above all its executives, to look more carefully into the dark history behind its own ties to eugenics, the ideals of White Australia and the intergenerational trauma that it causes. 

Source: Honi Soit