The Vision of George Drysdale, Part I




Birth Control Review, July 1923, pp. 177-179
Margaret Sanger Microfilm Edition, Smith College Collections, S70:1008


This article is the first of a five-part series of the same title. For following articles see Aug. 1923, Sep. 1923, and for art IV and V Oct. 1923.


Robin, Paul
Konigsberger Hartungsche Zeitung
Montegazza, Paolo
Drysdale, George




The Vision of George Drysdale

George Drysdale is perhaps the greatest pioneer of our modern conception of Birth Control, because he was the first to approach this great problem from the point of view of individual and social psychology. He saw, more clearly than any of his predecessors, the great necessity of a new science and psychology of sex. He revitalized the theory of Malthus by lifting it out of the sphere of political economy, and vindicating Birth Control from the point of view of human and individual need. He discarded the old metaphysical preconceptions of political and theological dogma, and insisted upon the necessity of scientific and biological study of human instincts and needs. In studying this great and forgotten achievement, we must remember that it was wrought by a young man still in his twenties. Also, that "The Elements of Social Science" was first published in 1854, long before the crystallization of modern evolutionary science, in the very darkest days of the Victorian era. This explains why many of the most illuminating points in the vision of George Drysdale fell on stony ground. He was so much in advance of his day that by the time European thought had caught up to him, his great book had been discarded or forgotten. I hope to show, for instance, in the course of the present study, how closely Drysdale predicted the technique and aims of the Freudian school of psycho-analysis. Nevertheless, in spite of the neglect that Drysdale has suffered, we must not minimize the tremendous influence exerted by "The Elements of Social Science" throughout the civilized world during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Nietzsche remarks that every philosophy is, in a certain sense, a confession or an autobiography. If this is true, the "Elements of Social Science" reveals an unusually attractive, vigorous personality, uninhibited by the restraints and repression of the harsh and Puritanical environment in which he was born and brought up. Born in Edinburgh in 1825, the son of the Treasurer of the City of Edinburgh, Drysdale revealed from childhood all those exceptional qualities that we are accustomed to associate with the term "genius." He evinced such great power of intellect that his teacher, Mr. Musgrave, in the Circus Place School, named him, for his rapid progress in elementary studies, "King." He passed seven years at the Edinburgh Royal Academy, obtaining the highest prizes in all his classes. At the time of his death, November 19, 1904, his brother, Dr. Charles R. Drysdale, declared that the medals and books given to his brother for merit formed a collection and a library in themselves. After seven years at the Edinburgh Royal Academy, George Drysdale studied at the University of Glasgow, and obtained honors equally from all the professors there. Shortly after the death of his father, George, with Charles Drysdale and their brother-in-law, made a tour through France and Switzerland. The younger brother speaks of George's pre-eminence in all physical and outdoor sports, just as he was pre-eminent in his studies. This splendid love of physical perfection and activity, combined with intellectual pursuits, is expressed throughout his book.

Like all of the young thinkers of the early half of the nineteenth century, the Drysdales became interested in the study of political economy, which had become the center of most of the intellectual activity of that time. George Drysdale took copious notes of the works of Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Chalmers, Whately and the two and Mills. Returning from the continent he resumed his residence in Edinburgh, where he graduated in medicine.

"The Elements of Social Science," written at the age of twenty-seven, is the living monument of his exceptional youth and joyous vitality. It has been criticized as being, from our modern point of view, unscientific. Yet in spirit it is truly not lacking in this quality. We must not forget that scientific details and discoveries keep changing our point of view; and we must at least credit Drysdale with an illuminating foresight into the discoveries and scientific interests of our own century.

The young man hurried down to London in the hope of immediately finding a publisher. It was not so much personality and egotistical pride in his own book that made him do this; he did it in a truly visionary spirit. He felt he had expressed the truths of which humanity was in dire need. Perhaps he did not realize the extent of his own iconoclasm. He felt that he was truly following in the footsteps of the great Malthus and the two Mills. A good deal of the "Elements of Social Science," it is true, is a restatement of the principles and convictions of those early pioneers in social reform. But imbedded in the closely printed pages of this astonishing book there is ample evidence of George Drysdale's realization of the great fundamental and central truths of human nature.

Needless to say, he found great difficulty in finding a publisher for his book. In 1853 Great Britain was laying the foundations of Victorian prudery; and it is not surprising that such a book as the "The Elements of Social Science" was refused by all reputable publishers. But at length, by a lucky chance, Drysdale discovered Edward Truelove, a free-thought bookseller, living at that time near Temple Bar. Mr. Truelove undertook the printing of the work. Edward Truelove, we may note in passing, possessed scarcely less courage and bravery in his own particular field than the Drysdales themselves. He was vitally interested in the neo-Malthusian movement. He suffered imprisonment for publishing, not the "Elements of Social Science," but other works of the same character. The dauntless courage of the early English Malthusians opens a fascinating chapter in the history of human thought.

The "Elements of Social Science" was published anonymously, not merely in its first edition, but in all the editions printed during George Drysdale's lifetime. An edition appeared in 1905 with George Drysdale's name in parenthesis under the pen-name of the author--"A Doctor of Medicine." In his preface to the first edition, Drysdale confessed that "Had it not been from fear of causing pain to a relation, I should have felt it my duty to put my name to this work; in order that any censure passed upon it should fall upon myself alone." The "relation," as we may guess, was his mother. Charles R. Drysdale, who inserted a brief memoir of his brother in the posthumous edition, tells us that George wrote anonymously, at first on account of his dislike to give pain to his mother by his avowal of heretical opinions in theology and traditional morality, and finally because, his health becoming weaker, he disliked those wordy disputes which interfered with "that philosophic tranquility so necessary for thinking out the different problems of social life."

George Drysdale devoted all the remaining years of his life (he died at the age of seventy-eight, November 19, 1904) to the translation of his book and its publication in the other European countries. To do so, he made himself familiar with most of the Continental tongues, even with Russian, a feat which was rendered possible only by his deep studies in language and science. He was thus enabled to criticize the style and expression made use of by his translators, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Danish. In later years, with the appearance of each successive edition, he added much material to the book, but the great fundamental truths remained unchanged. With his characteristic, challenging boldness, Drysdale confessed that he did not make the slightest pretention to have offered any comprehensive or adequate exposition of social science. He aimed instead to be suggestive and stimulating. He acknowledged his indebtedness to Mill's "Logic" and to Comte's "Positive Philosophy." He dissented from Comte on most of the vital points of moral and social doctrine, but he expressed the profoundest admiration for the manner in which the French Positivist carried out the leading ideas of his great work. He agreed that the first need was to emancipate the human mind from supernaturalism, to prepare the way for a great intellectual regeneration, when human life might be governed by sincere and openly expressed convictions.

In the years following its first appearance, this anonymously published book gained a wide European reputation; but due perhaps to its anonymous publication, this reputation became mostly an underground one. We find little reference to it in the revolutionary literature in which the great spiritual heretics of the latter half of the nineteenth century found expression. Drysdale, nevertheless, was a true precursor of the dynamic Dionysianism of Nietzsche, and of all our modern multiform striving for intellectual and psychological freedom.

By 1880, six German editions had appeared; by 1881 four Italian editions; while in France the book was published both in its entirety and in parts. Paul Robin spoke of it as one of the "bibles of humanity," while M. Robin's son-in-law, G. Hardy, himself made a translation of that section entitled, "Poverty, Its Only Cause and Its Only Cure." In Great Britain, the British colonies and America, more than 19,000 copies were sold. The great virtue of the book, according to Havelock Ellis, is that it brought to the attention of many, who had no means of intelligent information, the importance of sexual science.

Charles Bradlaugh recommended it to the members of the International Workingmen's Association (the first Internationale). The

Examiner spoke of it as "the only book that has fully, honestly and in a scientific spirit recognized all the elements in the problem--How are mankind to triumph over poverty, with its train of attendant evils?--and fearlessly endeavored to find a practical solution." The British Journal of Homeopathy in 1860 spoke of Drysdale's book as the most remarkable one in many respects the writer had ever read. This conservative editor thought that some of Drysdale's remedies tended rather to a dissolution than a reconstruction of society; but nevertheless admitted the benevolence and philanthropy of its motives.

One of the great admirers of the book who was undoubtedly influenced and stimulated by its ideas was the distinguished Paolo Montegazza of Florence. Montegazza wrote of Drysdale in the Medico Di Casa, 1874: "A foe to all hypocrisy and prejudice, the author of the 'Elements of Social Science' calls things by their real names, and shrinks only from the excessive sufferings and privations to which the poor children of Adam are condemned. He is firmly convinced that to measure human fecundity in accordance with the economical production of families and nations is the most certain means of destroying pauperism and all forms of want; and in this perhaps he is in error, for the evils of modern society have many sources, and with the drying up of one (perhaps even the most fruitful), another and another would present themselves, which only the combined and constant labours of future generations will, perhaps, be able to overcome. However this may be, the courage with which the author faces one of the most formidable problems of human society is most praiseworthy. Human morality is gradually changing its centre of gravity to rest upon a more solid and durable basis. In this new morality, the doctrines of Malthus and those of the author of the 'Elements of Social Science' must also have a large share. In the place of the alms-giving which humiliates, in the place of that charity which caresses an evil that it does not know how to cure, there will be substituted preventive philanthropy, which by studying want and suffering in their most hidden and deep-seated springs, will be able radically to remove them. Jurisprudence, medicine and morality follow the same movement, are aiming at the same end--to prevent rather than to cure."

In Germany and Holland likewise, the book aroused much discussion, praise as well as adverse comment. Though little spoken of in public, it was, nevertheless, to produce a quiet, lasting effect. The Konigsberger Hartungsche Zeitung (December 4, 1871) confessed that "whatever may be said against this fearless laying bare of the most intimate relations of social life, and against his whole theory--purely and undisguisedly materialistic as it is--even the opponent of Dr. Drysdale will be unable to deny him the merit of scientific closeness of reasoning; and what is quite as important, of warm and zealous philanthropy. He will rather honor the moral courage and mental energy with which the author must have had to work his way out of the bewildering maze of hitherto unsolved problems and conflicts to a conviction so logically consistent, so luminous and yet so opposed to established institutions and to the moral sentiments in which men have been brought up."

In probing into the deepest causes of human misery and unhappiness, in pointing the way to a new emancipation, a truly spiritual and physical freedom, Drysdale is never irritated, never fault-finding, never seeking to blame individuals or classes. This is a point well worth remembering, when we compare his work with that of other leaders who use the weapons of invective and angry attack against their enemies.

Further evidence that this remarkable mind was truly "future piercing" is to be found in his essay on war, published in 1881. George Drysdale was fully conscious that the great principle of restrictive fecundity might give, if put to practice, new orientation to individual and social activity. The intensive culture of the human race, as opposed to nationalistic and racial imperialism, eliminating the need and controlling the cry of national expansion and territorial aggression, might do much to wipe out war as a fearful remnant of barbarism. He saw that international relations were then in an essentially chaotic state, and that war was the natural and inevitable result of competitive armament and of international relations based on secret agreements. He discussed the question of the general reduction of armaments, of a league of nations or confederation of states and of the place of international armies. He saw that disarmament could be only a palliative, and not a cure, for present evils, which today, as we know, are even more aggravated than in the days when he was writing.