James Barr, an Ulster Scot, was born at Cumber in County Derry on 25th September 1849. He qualified in medicine at Glasgow and in 1874 he came to Liverpool, having been appointed house physician at the Northern Hospital. He spent the next half century practicing in the city, becoming a prominent member of the medical fraternity and a leading figure in the political and scientific life of the city. Barr has been described as “a vigorous, pugnacious man with a strong Ulster accent, impervious to criticism and incapable of moderation” (RCP biography) and he courted great controversy by his forthright espousal of the merging eugenics movement. In simple terms eugenics represented a belief that it was possible to perfect human beings and eliminate so-called social ills through genetics and heredity.
When he was instrumental in the formation of a branch of the Eugenics Education Society in Liverpool in 1910, he was already a national vice-president of the society. The foundation of the branch was reported by the local press under the headline “Survival of the Fittest, Eliminating the Insane and Undesirable, Sir James Barr’s Advocacy”. Between 1910 and 1916 Barr was active, both nationally and internationally , in promoting the eugenics message. When, in July 1912, he was elected President of the British Medical Association he used his presidential address to deliver a eugenics theme. In 1911, when delivering the prestigious Huxley lecture he declared that “the feeble-minded are a growing incubus on the nation and should be subjected, humanely, to sterilisation or segregation, although the latter is more likely to be accepted”. The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury reported the fury of Catholic doctors at “Mutilating Eugenicists”. With the coming of the First World War the Liverpool Branch suspended its activities in 1916 and it was not possible to revive it after the hostilities ceased.
Barr saw the slaughter of the country’s finest young men as a blow to the virility of its population, although he thought the flu epidemic of 1918 went some way to compensate. His own son, S Tudor Barr, a Lieutenant in the Kin’s Own Hussars, had been killed in the war. Barr himself served as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 1st Western General Hospital.
In later years he switched his focus somewhat to becoming a keen supporter of the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes.
I find it difficult to assess Barr’s advocacy of eugenics fairly, as the context of his times was markedly different to our own. Barr himself was a considerate man of some sensitivity. In 1877 he was appointed the medical officer at H.M. Prison Kirkdale (it operated from 1865-1890) and he exhibited great consideration for those in his care. He once said that “the firm grip of the hand from a prisoner on his way to the scaffold” had made a lasting impression on him. He was at one time involved in the training of the first three hangmen to be officially listed as competent to perform executions.
James Barr married Isabella Woolley on 12th July 1881. The couple first lived at 1 St Domingo Grove L5 (now demolished) but by 1901 his advancing career had taken them to 72 Rodney Street L1. Retaining his practice at this address in the early 1920’s he was living at Otterspool Bank in Aigburth Vale L17. The house occupied the land adjacent to Aigburth Peoples’ Hall. After his retirement in 1926 he moved to the south of England and died at Putney on 16th November 1938, his wife having dies a few days before his 89th birthday. He was knighted in 1905 and received the CBE in 1920.
Barr's home at No.1 has been demolished but this present day view shows the majority of sizeable semi-detached 'villas' remain.
Barr's home and practice were at this address.
The Wikipedia entry gives a basic outline and there is a short article on him on the Royal College of Physicians website. The most useful source I have found for his association with eugenics was a short paper Sir James Barr and the Liverpool Branch of the Eugenics Education Society 1910-1916 by Eric W Owens. This was on the website of the Galton Institute (now the Adelphi Genetics Forum) but the link I had no longer works. If anyone should wish to see a copy please email me and I will send a copy.
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