The Lethal Chamber Proposal, 1930 Letter to Editor by Dr. Richard Berry

A little known fact is that those with a eugenics mindset had been talking about ‘lethal chambers’ and ‘segregation camps’ for a long time before the Nazis actually used them.  Here is one example.

The Lethal Chamber Proposal

To the Editor, Eugenics Review 

 SIR,-I observe in your issue of April 1930, page 6, that you attribute to me, probably through some misunderstanding, not my own view and words, but those of a newspaper reporter, on the question of a National Lethal Chamber for the grosser types of our mental defectives. I have never, at any time or anywhere, “seriously suggested” such a procedure, though I did say in The Times that I thought, when all had seen what I have, that there would be many who would agree with me that such an act of extinction would be the kindest, wisest, and best thing we could do for all concerned.

Until I read your April number I was unaware that even this mild opinion had aroused either support or a ” storm of protest.” Certainly none such appeared in The Times, but in any case I do not share your views as to the ” sanctity of human life ” or ” the almost insuperable legal and practical difficulties ” which a lethal chamber would involve. There was surely little or no sanctity of human life in the War, and there do not seem to be any legal difficulties involved in judicial murder by hanging. By a stroke of the pen the politician condemns hundreds of thousands of his fellow-men to death as fodder for cannon, and the law can always take away the “sanctified” life of the murderer. Why, then, should we be so anxious to preserve the life of the almost brainless, senseless, speechless idiots and imbeciles when it seems almost pathetic to condemn them to live their lives as helpless automata? Why spend, as I am informed England actually does, £93 per annum per head on such human refuse, and only £12 per annum per head on the normal, healthy child? And we seek the reply in the “sanctity of human life'” and the sentimentality of a national ignorance which seems to believe that a human mind can exist without a human brain.

Every living animal, man included, conforms and must conform, whether he wills it or not, to the two great Laws of Nature-the Law of Self-preservation and the Law of the Reproduction of the Species and Nature takes no risk in her ample provision for both. Sterilization cuts across-in more senses of the word than one-the second of these laws. Segregation appears to interfere with both; whilst a lethal chamber attacks the first of these laws, and incidentally the second as well. If Professor E. W. MacBride be correct-and there can be none familiar with the facts who would differ from him-that unless the birth rate of the mentally defective be restricted, “the British Nation as a virile people, is doomed,” it appears probable that politicians and people will both have to face all three-Sterilization, Segregation, and the Lethal Chamber.

I have frequently been asked, especially since my return to this country: Is mental deficiency appreciably worse to-day than it was fifty or a hundred years ago? Has there not always been mental deficiency amongst us? And the answer to both questions is unhesitatingly: Yes. But fifty or a hundred years ago, as indeed through all the long ages of the past, we did not pamper, clothe, and care for the mentally deficient, but allowed Nature to take her own proper course, and the weakest went to the wall, and thus a decent natural balance between the fit and the unfit was maintained. But that is not the case to-day. To-day, under the urge of a mawkish sentimentality, we house our mental deficients in ducal palaces, do our utmost to prolong their lives, employ able-bodied women to attend to those physical wants they are themselves incapable of performing, and seek by every means, both in and beyond our financial power, to prolong lives which, on account of the lack of brain, are neither useful nor human.

There seems to be in post-War England a curious dislike of the truth, or at least a strong tendency to camouflage awkward or unpopular facts, and so we do not like to be told that, notwithstanding all our care of mental defectives, we are still quite unable to cure them, and the higher grades we disguise as merely “backward” or “dull,” and return them to the outside world as “greatly benefited ” by Institutional treatment. Their minds are in no way improved, but their reproductive properties have become slightly more vigorous, so they breed freely, and as the result of our efforts things become rather worse than before. Sooner or later Nature will have her revenge. She is always a dangerous lady to trifle with, as this country will find to its cost before long.

However strange it may seem, this is not nearly so pessimistic as appears, for I believe that once the people can be made to realize the canker gnawing at our vitals, the scourge could be met, and our hope is in the education of that people. We shall not accomplish our end by learned articles in scientific or high-brow journals of limited circulation, but through those channels with the widest appeal and of the greatest educational value-though curiously enough the most mis-used of the lot-and that is the cinema. No one who has seen the facts of sex so delicately and accurately unfolded in that splendid film termed the “Gift of Life,” or the entrancing story of medical science displayed in a well-known popular film on malaria, can have any doubts at all as to the educational possibilities of the cinema for purposes of national education on national truth and problems. The film of mental deficiency has yet to be made, but well made with a sympathetic understanding of the intensely human interest involved, I have no doubts at all that our public would soon be educated to the value of truth and the stern facts of Nature.

RICHARD J. A. BERRY, M.D., F.R.C.S., F.R.S.E.R

Stoke Park Colony, Stapleton, Bristol.

[NOTE.-In our editorial comment we quoted verbatim a very widely published newspaper report which definitely stated that Dr. Berry advocated the lethal chamber, and which caused a great deal of comment in the Press, mainly provincial, of the country. We much regret that he should have been thus misrepresented and ourselves misled.-Ed. ]

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