Marie Stopes, D.Sc., Ph.D.

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Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes

Birthplace: Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Death: Died in Dorking, Surrey, England, United Kingdom
Cause of death: Breast cancer
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Henry Stopes and Charlotte Carmichael Stopes
Wife of Humphrey Verdon Roe
Ex-wife of Reginald Ruggles Gates
Mother of Harry Verdon Stopes-Roe

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Marie Stopes, D.Sc., Ph.D.

Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes (15 October 1880 – 2 October 1958) was a British author, palaeobotanist, campaigner for women's rights and pioneer in the field of birth control. She was the wife of Humphrey Verdon Roe, with whom she founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. Stopes edited the newsletter Birth Control News which gave explicit practical advice. Her sex manual Married Love, which she wrote while legally a virgin, was controversial and influential, while her book, Wise Parenthood, was written before she'd become a parent. She was never in favour of abortion, arguing that prevention of conception was sufficient.

Early life and education

Marie was born in Edinburgh, the daughter of Henry Stopes, a brewer, engineer, architect and palaeontologist from Colchester and the Shakespeare scholar and women's rights campaigner Charlotte Carmichael Stopes from Edinburgh. At 6 weeks she left Scotland and stayed briefly in Colchester, before she was brought to London where Henry had bought a house in Upper Norwood. Both her parents were members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science—where they had met—and Marie was taken to meetings where she met the famous scholars of the day. She was at first home schooled, then from 1892 to 1894 she attended St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh. Stopes was later sent to the North London Collegiate School, where she was a close friend of Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn.

She attended University College London as a scholarship student studying botany and geology, graduating with a first class B.Sc. in 1902 after only two years by attending both day and night school. Following this, Stopes earned a D.Sc. degree from University College London, becoming the youngest person in Britain to have done so. In 1903 she published a study of the botany of the recently dried-up Ebbsfleet River. After carrying out research at University College London, she pursued further study at the University of Munich, receiving a Ph.D. in palaeobotany in 1904. She was also Fellow and sometime Lecturer in Palaeobotany at University College London and Lecturer in Palaeobotany at the University of Manchester (she held the post at Manchester from 1904 to 1907; in this capacity she became the first female academic of the University of Manchester).

Scientific Research

During Stopes's time at Manchester, she studied coal, coal balls, and the collection of Glossopteris (seed ferns). This was an attempt to prove the theory of Eduard Suess concerning the existence of Gondwanaland or Pangaea.

A chance meeting with Robert Falcon Scott (Scott of the Antarctic) during one of his fund-raising lectures in 1904 brought a possibility of proving Suess's theory. Stopes's passion to prove Suess's theory led her to discuss with Scott the possibility of joining his next expedition to Antarctica. She failed to join the expedition, but Scott promised to bring back samples of fossils to provide confirmatory evidence for the theory. (The interior of Antarctica, being perpetually below 0°C, is not suitable for life, and the existence of fossils can be taken as providing inferential evidence of major changes in biological conditions in that region during geologic time.) Although Scott died during the expedition (1912), his corpse was found; and located near the bodies of him and his companions were fossils from the Queen Maud Mountains that did indeed provide this evidence.

In 1907 she went to Japan on a scientific mission, spending a year and a half at the Imperial University, Tokyo, exploring for fossil plants in coal mines on the island of Hokkaido. She published her Japanese experiences in the form of a diary, called Journal from Japan: a daily record of life as seen by a scientist, in 1910.

In 1910 Stopes was commissioned to date a geological structure in New Brunswick, Canada, known as the Fern Ledges, due to a heated debate concerning the age of the Ledges. Canadian scholars were divided between dating the Ledges to the Devonian age and the Pennsylvanian period. Stopes arrived in North America before Christmas to start her research and on 29 December she attended a dinner in St. Louis, Missouri, where she met Reginald Ruggles Gates. (They became engaged two days later.) Starting in earnest in February 1911, she made geological excursions and visited geological collections in museums, before shipping specimens back to England for further investigation. Married in March and back in England on 1 April with her new husband, she continued her research, dispatching her results in mid 1912, finding for the Pennsylvanian period of the Carboniferous.

During the First World War she was engaged in various studies of coal for the British government, which culminated in the writing of a Monograph on the constitution of coal with R.V. Wheeler in 1918. However, due to the success of work in marriage issues and birth control, her scholarly work began to flag and her last scientific publications were in 1923.

Marriage and Married Love

A year into her marriage with Gates and the pair were struggling. She had maintained her name out of principle rather than taking on her husband's. Her work was blooming while his was struggling. He was disturbed by what seemed to him her suffragette support. He had failed to assert his position as head of the household and was thus frustrated. After another year she sought legal advice as to how she could end the marriage. Not receiving useful help, she took to reading the legal code looking for a way to get a divorce. The marriage had fallen apart amid squabbling over the house and rent. On 11 May 1913, Stopes filed for divorce, citing that the marriage had never been consummated. Gates left England in the following year and did not contest the divorce.

Some time around the start of the divorce proceedings, Stopes began to write a book about how she thought a marriage should work. In July 1915, she met Margaret Sanger, who had just given an address on birth control at a Fabian Society meeting. Stopes showed her what she had written and sought her advice regarding a chapter on contraception for her book. Her book was finished before the year was out, offering it to Blackie and Son, who declined. The book was too controversial, as she found out with refusals from several publishers. It wasn't until Binnie Dunlop, secretary of the Malthusian League, introduced her to Humphrey Verdon Roe, her future second husband, in 1917 that she received the boost that helped her publish her book. Roe was a philanthropist interested in birth control and he supplied the finance to entice Fifield & Co. to publish the work. The book was an instant success, requiring five editions in the first year and elevating Stopes to a national figure.

On 26 March 1918, the day Married Love was first published, Stopes was to her publisher's dismay visiting Humphrey Roe, who had just returned from World War I with a broken ankle after his plane had crashed. Less than two months later they were married and Stopes had her first opportunity to practise what she preached in her book.

The success of Married Love had stimulated the need for a follow-up, which Stopes provided in the form of the already written Wise Parenthood: a Book for Married People, a manual on birth control, published later that year. It also brought an avalanche of letters seeking her personal advice, which she energetically endeavoured to give.

The following year she had published a condensed form of Wise Parenthood aimed at the poor entitled A Letter to Working Mothers on how to have healthy children and avoid weakening pregnancies. It was a pamphlet of 16 pages and was to be distributed free of charge. Stopes's intended audience had—until this work—been the middle classes. She had shown little interest in, or respect for, the working classes, but the Letter was aimed at redressing her bias.

Stopes was now pregnant and a month overdue she entered a nursing home on 16 July 1919. There was a conflict between Stopes and the doctors over the method of birth—she was not allowed to give birth on her knees—and, when the baby came, it was stillborn. The doctors suggested that the incident was due to syphilis, but an examination excluded the possibility. She was furious and claimed that her baby had been murdered. She was 38 years old.

New Gospel

When Stopes had sufficiently recovered she returned to work in 1920, engaged in public speaking, responding to letters seeking advice on marriage, sex and birth control. She sent Mrs. E.B. Mayne to disseminate the Letter to Working Mothers with its message of birth control to the slums of East London and, while Mrs. Mayne approached 20 families a day, after several months she brought back the observation that the working class was just too mistrustful of well-intentioned meddlers (see the Settlement movement, which peaked at about that time).

It may be that this lack of success brought her to contemplate a different approach to bringing her message to the poor. A conference of Anglican bishops was to be held in June and at home not long before the conference she had a vision: she called in her secretary and dictated a message addressed to the bishops which begins as follows:

"My Lords, I speak to you in the name of God. You are his priests. I am his prophet. I speak to you of the mysteries of man and woman."

The New Gospel to All Peoples seemed to be that the time was now ripe for the Stopes message of wholesome sexual relations between husband and wife. The bishops' response was not receptive. Among the resolutions carried during the conference one was aimed against "the deliberate cultivation of sexual union" and another against "indecent literature, suggestive plays and films [and] the open or secret sale of contraceptives". The Catholic Church's reaction was more strident, marking the start of an open conflict that lasted the rest of her life.

Family planning

In 1917, before he'd met Marie Stopes, Humphrey Roe offered to endow a birth control clinic attached to St Mary's Hospital in Manchester. He had set conditions that all the patients be married and that there were to be no abortions, but the offer was declined. This was a serious issue for Roe, so after their marriage he and Stopes planned to open a clinic for poor mothers in London.

Margaret Sanger had attempted to run a birth control clinic in New York, but it was closed down by the police. In 1920 she proposed opening a clinic in London, which spurred Stopes to act more constructively, though Sanger's plan never materialized. Stopes resigned her lectureship at the University College of London at the end of 1920 to concentrate on the clinic and three months later she and Roe opened the Mothers' Clinic at 61, Marlborough Road, Holloway, North London on 17 March 1921. The clinic, run by midwives and supported by visiting doctors, offered mothers birth control advice and taught them the use of a cervical cap.

A few months later, Stopes, who had become enthusiastic about a contraceptive device called the "Gold-pin" which was reportedly successful in America, contacted a young Australian doctor in London, Norman Haire, and asked if he would be interested in running a clinical trial of the device, as she had two correspondents who had expressed a desire to use the pin. Haire had already investigated the device and found it dangerous. Haire later became involved in a birth control clinic which opened in Walworth in November 1921 and a year later inter-clinic rivalry between Stopes and Haire erupted in The Lancet with allegations hurled in both directions. Haire brought up the gold-pin episode, despite the fact that Stopes's clinic had never used it. The issue of the gold-pin would resurface in the Stopes-Sutherland libel case a few years later.

Later in 1921 Stopes had founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, a support organization for the clinic.

In 1925 the Mothers' Clinic moved to Central London, where it remains to this day. Stopes gradually built up a small network of clinics across Britain, working tirelessly to fund them. She opened clinics in Leeds in April, 1934; Aberdeen in October, 1934; Belfast in October, 1936; Cardiff in October, 1937, and Swansea in January, 1943.

Stopes and her fellow family planning pioneers around the globe, like Dora Russell, Margaret Sanger and Norman Haire played a major role in breaking down taboos about sex and increasing knowledge, pleasure and improved reproductive health. In 1930 the National Birth Control Council was formed.

The Marie Stopes International organisation

Main article: Marie Stopes International

The clinics continued to operate after her death, but by the early 1970s they were in financial difficulties and in 1975 they went into voluntary receivership. The modern organisation that bears Marie Stopes's name was established a year later as an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) working on sexual and reproductive health. The Marie Stopes International global partnership took over responsibility for the main clinic, and in 1978 it began its work overseas in New Delhi. Since then the organisation has grown steadily and today the MSI works in over 40 countries, has 452 clinics worldwide, and has offices in London, Brussels, Melbourne and USA.

Birth control on trial

In 1922 a book was published called Birth Control by a Roman Catholic doctor, Halliday Gibson Sutherland. The book attacked Stopes over her advocacy of the cervical cap, describing the cap as "the most harmful method [of contraception] of which I have had experience" associating her birth control campaign with a writer convicted of obscenity for publishing on birth control 45 years earlier. Sutherland did not respond to a challenge to debate the issue, so a writ for libel was issued against him. The court case began on 21 February 1923; it was highly acrimonious; and the jury found in favor of Stopes, answering the judge's four questions:

1.Were the words complained of defamatory of the plaintiff? Answer: Yes.

2.Were they true in substance and in fact? Answer: Yes.

3.Were they fair comment? Answer: No.

4.Damages, if any? Answer: £100.

However the judge ignored the general tenor of the jury's response and found in favor of Sutherland, based on the response to #2. It was a moral victory for Stopes, as the press saw it and she appealed. On 20 July the Court of Appeal reversed the previous decision, awarding the £100 to Stopes, but this victory was short-lived. The Catholic community was now mobilized to provide Sutherland support for a final appeal to the House of Lords, which was heard on 21 November 1924. The decision, irrevocable, was in Sutherland's favor. The cost for Stopes was vast. However, the publicity and book sales partially compensated her losses. The trial had made birth control a public topic and the numbers of clients visiting the clinic doubled.

Stopes was even remembered in a playground rhyme:

Jeanie, Jeanie, full of hopes,

Read a book by Marie Stopes,
But, to judge from her condition,
She must have read the wrong edition.

Persistence and hard work had always served her well. She had gained remarkable results as a scientist. She had two runaway best sellers. She had her clinic and had an organization behind her to maintain it. Humphrey Roe, the co-founder of the clinic, was demoted to "husband of Dr. Stopes". In 1924 the 43-year-old Marie Stopes gave birth to her only son, Harry.

Literary Stopes

Stopes knew many famous people of her age. Among them were writers such as George Bernard Shaw with whom she corresponded for many decades, Aylmer Maude another lifelong correspondent, H.G. Wells with whom she had stormy discussions, Noël Coward who wrote a ditty about her, and Lord Alfred Douglas whose letters she edited. (She unsuccessfully petitioned Neville Chamberlain to obtain a civil list pension for Douglas: the signitaries included Arthur Quiller-Couch, John Gielgud, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf.) Muriel Spark, then general secretary of the Poetry Society, had an altercation with the birth control champion and lamented "that Stopes's mother had not been better informed on the subject."

This was Coward's hymn to Marie Stopes:

If through a mist of awful fears

Your mind in anguish gropes,
Dry up your panic-stricken tears
And fly to Marie Stopes.
If you have missed life's shining goal
And mixed with sex perverts and Dopes,
For normal soap to cleanse your soul
Apply to Marie Stopes.
And if perhaps you fail all round
And lie among your shattered hopes,
Just raise your body from the ground,
And crawl to Marie Stopes.

Stopes herself wrote plays and poetry. Starting during the First World War she wrote plays on themes that became more didactic until her major success in 1923, a play called Our Ostriches, which dealt with society's shortsighted approach to working class women forced to produce babies all their lives. The play ran for three months at the Royal Court Theatre. The play was hurriedly produced in place of another Stopes play, called Vectia. This was a strongly autobiographical play, which attempted to analyze the failure of her first marriage. As it dealt with sex and impotence, the play never received a licence to be performed, despite Stopes's frequent efforts over the following years. Vectia she had printed in 1926 under the title A Banned Play and a Preface on Censorship. Her later plays did not reach the stage.

In her later years, with the war for birth control won, she published several volumes of poetry.

Abortion views

Stopes was strongly against the termination of a pregnancy once it had started: her clinics did not offer the possibility during her life. She saw birth control as the way families should limit their size.

It is worth noting some of her views on abortion either in statement or in action. "The desolating effects of attempted abortion can only be exterminated by a sound knowledge of the control of conception."

"America, on the other hand, where the outrageous 'Comstock' laws confuse wise scientific control with illegal abortion of lives already begun and labels them both as obscene, has, by thus preventing people from obtaining decent hygienic knowledge, fostered criminal and illicit operations."

The nurses at her clinic had to sign a declaration in which they swore not to "impart any information or lend any assistance whatsoever to any person calculated to lead to the destruction in utero of the products of conception." When Stopes discovered that a certain William Carpenter displayed her name on a birth control and abortion clinic he ran, she took steps to have him arrested and imprisoned.

Stopes wrote to the Courier-Mail of Brisbane in 1938, saying, "I was glad you gave space to the fact that the Queensland Medical Association is planning "an extensive educational campaign against the evil of abortion." The majority of married women do not realise the frightful injury they do to themselves and to their possible future children by an abortion."

When it came to her notice that one of Avro Manhattan's woman friends had had an abortion, Stopes accused him of "murdering" the child.

Advocacy of eugenics

Stopes was a supporter of eugenics, in line with the progressive thinking of the era. (See for example, Havelock Ellis, John Maynard Keynes and Cyril Burt.) As a child she had met the founder of the Eugenics movement, Francis Galton, both through the British Association for the Advancement of Science and socially through her father.[50] In 1912 she attended the inaugural congress of the Eugenics Society. When she came to write her works on marriage and birth control, it was not strange that they were infused with eugenics theories.

In an age when there was a piece of legislation on the books called The Mental Deficiency Act 1913, which described not only people it categorized as idiots and imbeciles, but also those who were "moral defectives" and "feeble-minded", Stopes, mentioning "the inferior, the depraved, and the feeble-minded", advocated "the sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood [to be] made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory."

She contributed a chapter to The Control of Parenthood (1920), comprising a sort of manifesto for her circle of Eugenicists, arguing for a "utopia" to be achieved through "racial purification":

Those who are grown up in the present active generations, the matured and hardened, with all their weaknesses and flaws, cannot do very much, though they may do something with themselves. They can, however, study the conditions under which they came into being, discover where lie the chief sources of defect, and eliminate those sources of defect from the coming generation so as to remove from those who are still to be born the needless burdens the race has carried.

However, in this tract, she argues that the leading causes of "racial degeneration" are "overcrowding" and sexually transmitted disease. It concludes somewhat vaguely, that racial consciousness needs to be increased so that, "women of all classes [may] have the fear and dread of undesired maternity removed from them ..." to usher in the promised utopia, described throughout.

In 1935 Stopes attended the International Congress for Population Science in Berlin, held in the second year of Hitler's rule. She was more than once accused of being anti-Semitic by other pioneers of the birth control movement such as Havelock Ellis. She was also anti-Prussian, anti-Catholic and anti-Russian, if one can judge by the following unpublished piece of verse, written in 1942, at the height of the struggle with the Axis powers.

Catholics, Prussians,

The Jews and the Russians,
All are a curse,
Or something worse...

Stopes, who was ever ready to promote her writings, sent a copy of her Love Songs for Young Lovers to Adolf Hitler with the following cover letter:

Dear Herr Hitler,

Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these (poems) that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?
The young must learn love from the particular 'till they are wise enough for the universal.
I hope too that you yourself may find something to enjoy in the book.
(letter from Marie Stopes to Hitler, August 1939)

Her aim was to have her poems distributed through the German birth clinics, but the letter has been interpreted as showing sympathy for Hitler. However, any sympathy she may have had would soon have dissipated when Hitler closed the birth control clinics. On 12 July 1940 she wrote to Churchill to offer a slogan, "Fight the Battle of Britain in Berlin's Air".

Personal life

Stopes had a serious relationship mainly through correspondence with Japanese botanist Kenjiro Fujii, whom she met at the University of Munich in 1904 whilst researching her Ph.D. It was so serious that, in 1907, during her 1904–1910 tenure at Manchester University, she arranged to do research in Japan, allowing her to be with him, but the relationship ended. In 1911 Stopes married Canadian geneticist Reginald Ruggles Gates. Her marriage to Gates was annulled in 1916 on the grounds that the marriage was never consummated.

In 1918 she married the financial backer of her most famous work, Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of the Sex Difficulties, Humphrey Verdon Roe, brother of Alliott Verdon Roe. Their son, the philosopher Harry Stopes-Roe, was born in 1924.

Stopes took a dislike to her son Harry's companion, Mary Eyre Wallis (the daughter of the noted engineer Barnes Wallis), and, when Harry announced their engagement in October 1947, his mother set about "to try to sabotage the union". She found fault with Mary, writing to Mary's father to complain. She tried to get Humphrey's support against the marriage, utilizing the eugenics argument that, due to Mary's myopia, her prospective grandchildren might inherit the condition. He was not persuaded. Later, Stopes cut her son out of her will, believing that "he had betrayed her by this marriage."

Stopes died at her home in Dorking, Surrey, UK from breast cancer. In her will she left her clinic to the Eugenics Society. The bulk of her estate went to the Royal Society of Literature. To her son, Harry, whom she had never forgiven for marrying Mary Eyre Wallis, she left her copy of the Greater Oxford Dictionary and other small items.

Portland Museum

In 1923 Marie Stopes bought the Old Higher Lighthouse on the Isle of Portland, Dorset as an escape from the difficult climate of London during her court case against H.G. Sutherland. The island is well known for its Jurassic fossil forests, so it provided her with endless interest. She founded the Portland Museum, on the island, which opened in 1930, and acted as the museum's curator. The cottage housing the museum was an inspiration behind The Well-Beloved, a novel by Thomas Hardy, who was a friend of Marie Stopes.

Selected Works

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Marie Stopes, D.Sc., Ph.D.'s Timeline

October 15, 1880
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
March 27, 1924
Age 43
London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom
October 2, 1958
Age 77
Dorking, Surrey, England, United Kingdom