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Monday 4 October 2021

Part of a concealed tradition

When I read the article The great sperm heist: ‘They were playing with people’s lives’ in The Guardian recently it was a shocking story but one that did not entirely surprise me. The activities of Dr Boyd fitted in to a broader story of doctors in or around Harley Street, or generally in the supper reaches of discreet private practice, providing services in the sexual/reproductive areas which most medics shied away from, but which could be extremely remunerative. 

Boyd himself cropped up in the notes I had made from the archives of the British Sexology Society (held in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin). He seems to have been quite active in the Society during the 30s, which presumably provided him with connections and a certain amount of publicity. He gave lectures to the Society, and from its correspondence it appears that they gave enquirers referrals to him, both generally in the field of 'genito-urinary complaints', and more specifically, on  'the "Steinach" operation'. The Steinach operation was intended as a male rejuvenation operation and was, in fact, that performed on the poet WB Yeats by Dr Norman Haire

Haire was a particularly obvious example of a doctor who was committed to an agenda of sexual reforms, while providing somewhat shady services to desperate individuals, and also doing financially well out of this. While the expurgation of his papers by his executors means that little direct information survives, it is still possible to trace evidence of his activities. Although he was by no means popular with other members of the birth control movement of the interwar years, they nonetheless were prepared to refer women seeking abortions to him. His friend Ethel Mannin complained that although he was prepared to fit the long-term intra-uterine contraceptive the Gräfenberg ring, he charged so steeply for this it would be cheaper to travel to Berlin and be fitted by Gräfenberg in person. He would also perform sterilisations.

It had been recognised in the profession for decades that there had been some doctors prepared to perform abortions (even though illegal) as a remunerative practice, well before the allusion in AJ Cronin's 1936 novel The Citadel to a fashionable Harley Street society doctor making a good deal of his income from 'curettage'. There is a particularly good account of how this was working immediately before the 1967 Abortion Act in Paul Ferris's 1966 The Nameless, in which he indicates that the request to be paid in cash was not only to preserve discretion for the patients but a handy tax evasion device for the medics involved.

In an area which was already considered part of an ethically murky fringe, a 'twilight zone' where people were desperate and desirous of discretion, it's perhaps not altogether amazing that the practices of doctors providing AID turn out to have been dubious.