A great Australian performer

Frank Bongiorno, The Australian National University

Diana Wyndham Norman Haire and the Study of Sex, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 2012 (485 pp). ISBN 9-78174332-006-8 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

His name is barely known today except among scholars of sexuality but Dr Norman Haire (1892–1952) was probably one of the more globally influential intellectuals Australia produced during the 20th century. In the period between the two world wars—years which Haire spent in London—probably only Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes and Sigmund Freud were better-known figures, in the English-speaking world at least, in that particular field that Haire made his own: the study of sex.

Haire has, of course, not been totally ignored. He figures in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in an account of sufficient length to suggest that his significance had registered with the dictionary’s team when the entry was commissioned (Forster 1996). There has also been the occasional nod in his direction by journalists, including a long and well-researched article in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend by George Munster (1983). Scholarly interest, however, has been patchy. Accounts of Australia during the Second World War sometimes mention his role as the man behind ‘Wykeham Terriss’, the pseudonym that Haire used for his regular column in Sydney’s Woman magazine, ‘A Doctor Looks at Life’, a pioneering sex advice column (Wickham Terrace was the street on which many of Brisbane’s medical specialists had their rooms). There is a delightful recollection by the journalist and historian, Gavin Souter, of the impact of Haire on his Second World War boyhood. ‘Mum did not get Woman every week’, he explained, ‘but whenever she did I looked discreetly to see what new words Dr Terrace [sic.] had for my vocabulary. Intercourse, genitals, contraceptive, pregnancy, womb, foetus: piece after piece they fitted into a picture which, although far from complete, was at least now visible in broad outline’ (Souter 1972, pp. 41–42). Historians of sexology in Australia have accordingly turned their attention to Haire (Bashford & Strange 2004). Similarly, scholars concerned with European sexology could not but have noticed Haire as a doctor who helped found the World League for Sexual Reform, and co-organised with Dora Russell its important London Congress in 1929. Haire was also an important link between the British and continental European worlds in the field of sexology, having been provided with an introduction to the German sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, by Havelock Ellis. From 1933, he found himself assisting Jewish sexologists forced to flee the new German regime under Adolf Hitler, and some of his own books were burnt by the Nazis (Crozier 2001, 2003; Dose 2003).

Despite the apparent destruction or disappearance of many of the papers and books Haire left to the library of his alma mater, Sydney University, the full biographical treatment was surely long overdue. I suspect that the rather incomplete and scattered nature of the sources on Haire, and the need to work in several European languages to deal adequately with his career, have been deterrents. Diana Wyndham, however, who has previously published studies of birth control (1990) and eugenics (2003) in Australia, has been meticulous in her research, and, appropriately enough for a book about one of its distinguished medical graduates, the revived Sydney University Press has produced a handsome volume.

Diana Wyndham has been meticulous in her research.

The book is so overflowing with information about Haire and his activities and networks that it does not always make for a smooth reading experience, but the cumulative effect is to show how an Australian expatriate could mix it with some of the leading intellectual figures of his day. Studies of this kind remind us of Australia’s place in a larger world of ideas during the 20th century and, most valuably, they reveal that the flow of ideas was not simply from ‘metropole’ to ‘periphery’. Although Wyndham has little to say about whether Haire’s background as an Australian mattered for his role as a London author and intellectual between the wars, and then again from 1946 until his death in 1952, there are plenty of clues offered in the book’s massive detail. But on occasion at least, Haire seems to have been happy, if possibly for rhetorical or tactical purposes, to adopt the identity of his adopted home: ‘We English are so backward in respect of the free discussion of sexual problems, so notorious for sexual prudery and hypocrisy’ (p. 172). He might have said similar things about his native land.

Haire was born Norman Zions in Sydney in 1892, the son of a Jewish emigrant from Poland who set up in Sydney as a tailor, and his London-born wife. He was the last of eleven children, a biographical detail that was to figure more than half a century later in the most controversial public spat of Haire’s brief Australian career as a major public figure. In 1944 Haire, back in Australia, was involved in an Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) radio debate on ‘Population Unlimited?’ organised by the political scientist, W. Macmahon Ball. The other speakers were Dame Enid Lyons, the politician and widow of the prime minister; Jessie Street, a feminist; and Colin Clark, an English-born Queensland economist and a Catholic convert. Haire wanted to stress that too many children would damage the health of a mother:

Dame Enid is the mother of eleven children. I am the youngest of eleven – (Applause) – and I know the disadvantages of being one of a too large family. (Laughter). I know, too, what my poor mother had to endure for eighteen years. She was always either pregnant or suckling, usually both at the same time. For eighteen years she had scarcely a night’s unbroken sleep. At the age of forty she, who had been an exceptionally strong and healthy young woman, had through her excessive and uncontrolled fertility become a devitalised, irritable, cantankerous, prematurely old woman. Only then, too late, did she attempt to prevent conception (Australian Broadcasting Commission 1944, p. 9).

Wyndham reports that the official ABC transcript, from which I’m quoting here, omitted a significant detail: that Haire had added: ‘For all that she got out of life she might as well have been a prize cow’ (p. 350). Members of the audience moved uneasily in their seats. Then Clark, who was speaking from Melbourne, added to the fun by describing contraception as involving ‘acts which are filthy, vicious and disgusting. They constitute one of the worst forms of sexual immorality’ (ABC 1944, p. 10). The ABC publication was a bit coy about Clark’s contribution, too, for he had added that what Haire meant by contraception, ‘in plain language’, involved ‘preceding intercourse by covering up the sexual organs by pieces of rubber or metal or by chemicals or by the interruption of co-habitation’ (p. 351). Haire responded by alleging that Clark’s attitude to birth control had been determined ‘by the peculiar religious superstition of the Church to which he belongs’ (p. 353). This remark, too, was omitted from the published transcript.

The flow of ideas was not simply from the ‘metropole’ to the ‘periphery’.

It was like a sectarian barney of old and got a lot of people very excited, even leading to debate in the federal parliament where Stan Amour, a Labor senator and Catholic, complained that Haire’s views were known to be ‘of such a character as to make him unfit to participate in such a broadcast’. He could not understand how anyone ‘could sink so low as to discredit his mother’ by likening her to an ‘old cow’. ‘Some of our finest women are the mothers of large families’, he added, ‘They may have aged prematurely; but they have done a wonderful service to the nation’. He called on the ABC to stop sales of the booklet, overlooking that, unlike him, it had omitted the ‘cow’ reference in any case. And, of course, he did not criticise Clark, despite his embarrassingly explicit references to contraceptive methods on the public broadcaster (Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. 179, 20 September 1944, p. 1022). Lyons described the broadcast in her memoir as ‘one of the most disturbing experiences I was to know as a Member of Parliament’, but her account of Haire—published in 1972—was respectful, and she behaved during the confrontation with characteristic dignity, possibly grateful that the pyrotechnics of Haire and Clark had deflected attention from her (Lyons 1972, p. 82).

Lyons described Haire in her memoirs as ‘almost the first bright harbinger in Australia of the permissive age’ while the title of Munster’s 1983 article referred to Haire as ‘a reviled prophet of sexual liberation’ (Lyons 1972, p. 88; Munster 1983). Yet this kind of recognition has been rare, and Wyndham largely adopts the stance of a conscientious truth-teller, defending Haire against ‘some mean-spirited opponents’ who ‘disparaged the dead Haire by lying’ (p. 356). I do not think her technique uniformly successful; Wyndham spends too many words grappling defensively with passing judgments by historians about Haire that would have been better answered simply by telling the fascinating story of this man’s extraordinary career.

Wyndham is surely warranted in making the case for Haire, whose undoubted bumptiousness seems a minor flaw when considered beside his humanity, generosity, courage, energy and intellect. All the same, she seems to me too inclined to overlook Haire’s faults and, strangely for a historian of eugenics, she gives remarkably little attention to the pseudo-scientific basis of Haire’s commitment to sex reform. At one stage, she seems to register an objection to my own description (Bongiorno 2012) of Haire’s proposals in his book Hymen or the Future of Marriage (1927) for ‘defective babies’ and ‘sexually abnormal people’ (p. 279). As Haire’s champion, Wyndham seems unable to bring herself to tell the reader what his ideas actually were. So, for the record: he proposed the appointment of boards who would have the responsibility of deciding whether they should be put to death: ‘Society will probably exercise the right of painlessly destroying persons who are a menace to it, either physically or otherwise’ (Haire 1927, p. 92). She then goes on to complain that I failed to refer to a 25-page draft from 1936 of a proposed revised version of this book which, although never published, supposedly ‘reflected Haire’s changed opinions’, in the wake of Hitler’s ascension to power (p. 279). Haire may well have had a change of heart when he saw where his own ideas could lead in the hands of deranged tyrant, but it did not extend to a fundamental reconsideration of his belief in eugenics. In the 1944 ABC radio debate, for instance, he complained of the stupidity of offering a ‘baby bonus to parents of bad stock in order to induce them to add mentally or physically unfit children to our population’ (ABC 1944, p. 8). It’s less creepy than the 1927 proposals for death panels, but Enid Lyons still saw the danger clearly enough. She liked Haire’s idea, she responded sarcastically, and ‘I rather fancy myself sitting in judgment on those who were of good stock and those who were not’ (ABC 1944, p. 20). And, in the context of the war, she couldn’t help pointing out that Churchill was fat—was she also having a shot at the obese Haire?—and Franklin Delano Roosevelt crippled.

Wyndham solves the mystery of how Haire became very rich in London in the 1920s.

Wyndham also handles Haire’s own sexuality with some uncertainty. Here, I have more sympathy with her, for Haire was discreet about his homosexuality, and there were both contemporaries and later commentators uncertain about it. Wyndham does well in assembling as much material as she has about this matter—including some tantalising clues concerning a Dutch partner, Willem van de Hagt—and dealing with Haire’s sexuality judiciously in the book’s conclusion. Yet, even considering the fragmented and uncertain nature of the evidence, she possibly needed to say more about this matter earlier, especially in view of Haire’s exclusion of discussion of homosexuality at the 1929 London Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform. There were so many subjects of greater interest, Haire explained to fellow-organisers, that they ‘could find no room for sexual abnormalities’ (p. 177). Haire’s evasion might well have helped ensure that many well-placed English sympathisers with sex reform were not put off, but the triumph of the 1929 Congress was only achieved at the price of marginalising an issue that mattered enormously for 20th century sex reform.

It’s difficult to know what to make of all this in biographical terms; Wyndham herself clearly isn’t sure. Haire’s homosexuality will perhaps have contributed to his sense of being sexually and socially marginal. As Australian, Jewish and grossly overweight, he already had three good reasons to feel this way, and just before leaving Australia he had also been involved in a scandal at Newcastle Hospital where, according to Wyndham, he had been made a scapegoat for its failures and fatalities during the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Wyndham records that Haire ‘was a shy, delicate child who was intimidated by his father and bullied at school’, but that he increasingly ‘gained confidence, courage and stability in the 1920s’ (p. 425), and she links this change to his relationship with van de Hagt. Perhaps she might have taken this matter further: is it possible that Haire’s homosexuality contributed to his decision to move to London, where he would be able to indulge his unorthodox sexual interests (whatever, precisely, they were) in a freer atmosphere than provided by Sydney immediately after the First World War?

Wyndham solves one particular mystery that had always slightly nagged at me in relation to Haire. How did he become so rich, so quick, in London of the 1920s? His rented six-storey Harley Street premises—which combined consulting rooms and home—were famous for their opulent Chinoiserie décor, a staff that included ‘a butler, chauffeur, several maids and a Viennese cook plus secretaries and a nursing sister’ (p. 154), and a garage for his Rolls Royce. As a host, Haire was generous to a fault, and he was a well-known gourmand. He also bought a grand country house on 46 acres, which he also found the money to improve.

Wyndham’s answer to the question of where all this money came from is that Haire provided ‘rejuvenation’ operations for wealthy clients, as well as the occasional artificial insemination. ‘Rejuvenation’—which could involve the transplant of a testicle or ovary, x-ray stimulation of the patient’s sex-glands, or, most commonly in Haire’s case, a vasectomy—would allow ageing men and women to experience increased sexual vigour and recover their youth. Associated especially with the Viennese doctor Eugen Steinach, the cause suffered a minor reverse after one of Steinach’s patients died the day before he was due to deliver the lecture ‘How I Was Made Twenty Years Younger’ at the Albert Hall (Haire 1924, pp. 8–9). It was nonetheless a popular vogue among the wealthy in the years after the First World War. In 1924 Haire wrote a book on the subject and the rejuvenation operations he performed from 1922 were, according to Wyndham, ‘the wellspring for his wealth in the 1920s’ (p. 87). Haire even performed such an operation for W.B. Yeats in 1934: ‘Haire deserves credit for his services to poetry’, Wyndham concludes rather implausibly (p. 263).

Haire really wanted to be an actor and the bug never left him.

Yet, whatever the indebtedness of Irish literature and modernist verse to Haire, he was spectacularly successful in building fame and fortune on the back of the rejuvenation vogue; he even claimed that homosexuality could be cured through testicle transplants. In the circumstances, it would be tempting to paint Haire as a charlatan but there is little doubt that, like many other doctors, he believed in the efficacy of rejuvenation. That it also made him seriously rich would surely not have prompted hard questioning. With Haire, however, as perhaps with other brilliant people, we need perhaps to take the good with the bad. In the latter category, one would also presumably have to include Haire’s efforts to sterilise women ‘by a course of hypodermic injections of human semen’ (p. 115).

But it was the same reforming, speculative, entrepreneurial spirit that helped the birth control movement through his clinical activities in London. In the early 1920s, Haire worked for the Malthusian League’s birth-control clinic in Walworth (Haire 1943, p. 22) and in 1927 he set up a free clinic of his own for working people in St Pancras. He was also influential through his publications on the subject. Haire had a predictably uneasy relationship with Stopes, and they advocated competing contraceptive devices. Inevitably, they emerged as rivals, with Haire appealing to the medical profession to rescue contraception from ‘quacks and charlatans and non-medical “doctors” who write erotic treatises on birth control conveying misleading information in a highly stimulating form’ (p. 103). There were no prizes for guessing whom he had in mind: Stopes, the author of Married Love (1918) and its sequel, Wise Parenthood (1918), had a doctorate in botany but had no medical training (Rose 1993).

Haire had really wanted to be an actor and the bug never left him. Even in 1944, back in Australia for the duration of the war, he performed in a Sydney University Dramatic Society production of the George Bernard Shaw play, The Doctor’s Dilemma. One is reminded in this respect of another highly successful Australian expatriate and internationally famous sex radical, Germaine Greer; she, too, had a background in amateur theatre that was a fine training for life as a celebrity intellectual (Britain 1997). Was the ability to perform knowledge in flamboyant ways essential to a ‘colonial’ seeking an impact in the centres of cultural and intellectual authority?

Anyone seeking answers to questions of this kind won’t usually find them in Wyndham’s book. But she has nonetheless made a valuable contribution to Australian intellectual and sexual history in a welcome biography of a man Michael Kirby describes with some justice in his Foreword as ‘an Australian hero’.


Australian Broadcasting Commission 1944, ‘Population Unlimited?’, The Nation’s Forum of the Air, vol. 1, no. 2, broadcast on its national network, 23 August.

Bashford, A. & Strange, C. 2004, ‘Public pedagogy: Sex education and mass communication in the mid-twentieth century’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 71–99.

Bongiorno, F. 2012, The Sex Lives of Australians: A History, Black Inc., Collingwood.

Britain, I. 1997, Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 1944, vol. 179, 17 July to 26 September.

Crozier, I. 2003, ‘“All the World’s a Stage”: Dora Russell, Norman Haire, and the 1929 London World League for Sexual Reform Congress’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 16–37.

Crozier, I. 2001, ‘Becoming a sexologist: Norman Haire, the 1929 London World League for Sexual Reform Congress, and organizing medical knowledge about sex in interwar England’, History of Science, vol. 39, no. 125, pp. 299–329.

Dose, R. 2003, ‘The World League for Sexual Reform: Some possible approaches’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 1–15.

Forster, F.M.C. 1996, ‘Haire, Norman’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, ed. J. Ritchie, vol. 14, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, pp. 353–354.

Haire, N. 1927, Hymen or the Future of Marriage, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, London.

Haire, N. 1924, Rejuvenation: The Work of Steinach, Voronoff, and Others, George Allen & Unwin, London.

Haire, N. 1943, Sex Problems of To-day, 2nd edn, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

Lyons, E. 1972, Among the Carrion Crows, Rigby, Adelaide.

Munster, G. 1983, ‘Only shadowy clues left by a reviled prophet of sexual liberation’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, 24 September, p. 38.

Rose, J. 1993, Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution, Faber & Faber, London & Boston.

Siedlecky, S. & Wyndham, D. 1990, Populate and Perish: Australian Women’s Fight for Birth Control, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Souter, G. 1972, The Idle Hill of Summer: An Australian Childhood 19391945, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

Stopes, M. 1918, Married Love, A.C. Fifield, London.

Stopes, M. 1918, Wise Parenthood, A.C. Fifield, London.

Wyndham, D. 2003, Eugenics in Australia: Striving for National Fitness, Galton Institute, London.

Frank Bongiorno is Associate Professor of History and Deputy Director (Education) in the Research School of Social Sciences at The Australian National University. Previously Senior Lecturer at King's College London and the University of New England, Armidale, he is the author of The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (2012, Black Inc.). He is currently researching a book on Australia in the 1980s.

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