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Biomedicine and Health: Dissection and Vivisection

Biomedicine and Health: Dissection and Vivisection


Most people in the West today would consider that knowledge of the body's inner anatomy and the working of its parts is essential to medicine. This has not always been the case and still is not so in some non Western cultures. In ancient Greece, one medical sect, the empirics, denied the value of dissection since, they said, a living body is different from a dead one. Very large sections of Western society were deeply suspicious of dissection and very hostile to animal experimentation until quite recently. Many people still are.

Some cultures have complicated accounts of the body as detailed as those of the West, but gained without dissection. This is the case in traditional Chinese medicine, where knowledge of the interior of the body has been put together from a theory of the cosmos and the experience of health and disease. In other cultures, like the Islamic civilization at the end of the first millennium AD, anatomical knowledge of the sort that is valued today in the West was much prized. Representing the body pictorially was forbidden for religious reasons, however, making the transmission of accurate anatomical knowledge almost impossible.

What this all adds up to is that there is nothing essentially right or obvious about gaining knowledge of the body by dissection and animal experimentation. It is, however, along with other related ways of enquiring into nature, the path that has been chosen in Western society. Certainly, when measured by modern surgery and drug therapy, it is impossible to deny that it produces a very powerful form of bodily knowledge.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Dissection and experimentation are practices that appeared at different times in Western history. They have no necessary connection with each other. The works of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (c.460–375 BC), although now known to be written by many different authors, are nevertheless important since they assume that all processes in the observable world, including health and disease, can be explained in the same way and are independent of supernatural interference.

Bedside observation was the root of Hippocratic medicine, and the texts contain only a few descriptions of internal anatomy derived from observation of severe wounds or, in one case, the discovery of water in the skull of a goat that was used to confirm an explanation of epilepsy. The so-called humoral theory of the body, based on blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile, originates in Hippocratic writings. This theory would almost certainly have been derived from the observation of such things as the prevalence of phlegmatic, respiratory disease in the winter and intestinal disease in the summer. Human dissection was almost certainly unknown.

Dissection in the Hellenic world was not the preserve of doctors but a philosopher, Aristotle (384–322 BC). As a dissector of animals, Aristotle had no noticeable predecessors and no successors of comparable genius for 2,000 years. Aristotle described the natural histories of a vast range of animals and dissected a huge number. He was an incredibly acute observer, and his description of the development of the dogfish is still admired by modern animal morphologists.

Aristotle did not dissect humans nor were his enquiries pursued for immediate medical ends. They were carried out to answer fundamental philosophical questions about cause. Aristotle not only described body parts but attempted to discover what they were for, both immediately and in the overall plan of the animal. The idea of design—“nature does nothing in vain”—was central to Aristotle's natural history. Thanks to Greek physician Galen (AD c.129–c.216) and the spread of Christianity, this idea was to remain crucial to animal and human dissection until the nineteenth century.

During the Hellenistic period, Alexandria became the great center of ancient scholarship where human dissection was performed. The studies of the Greek physicians Herophilus of Chalcedon (born c.320 BC) and Erasistratus of Ceos (fl. 250 BC) are known only by reports from the early Christian era, in which Roman writers say they practiced human vivisection. It is impossible to know the truth of these claims, but they may not be mere fabrication. The Greeks, after all, were victorious colonizers in Egypt and could well have treated criminals as experimental subjects.

These Hellenistic anatomists are important for two reasons. First they claimed that medicine should be based on knowledge of the hidden structure and workings of the human frame. So familiar is this to us, its breathtaking novelty is easily overlooked. Second, in pursuit of this goal the Alexandrians described a large number of internal organs in detail. The gross structure of the eye, liver, and the female reproductive organs were outlined. The coverings of the brain (meninges) and its ventricles were described. Herophilus distinguished between arteries, veins, and nerves. Both gave names to new structures and accounts of the workings of organs by using metaphors from the military and domestic arenas—notably that the heart was a pump.

Medieval and Renaissance Dissection

Although human dissection was forbidden in Islamic culture, Galen's anatomical works were eventually translated from their original Greek into Arabic. These were much valued, as were texts from legendary Arab physicians al-Razi (c.865–925), Avicenna, (Ibn Sina; 980–1037), Averroës (ibn Rushd; 1126–1198); the surgeon al-Zahrawi (936–1013); and Saladin's (1138–1193) doctor, Maimonides (1135–1204). Galen's works were also translated, in very truncated and corrupt form, into Latin, where they found use in medieval universities.

Dissection seems to have been practiced in Italy, if not the rest of Europe, as part of the medical curriculum. This was especially true in Bologna, which was a center of medical learning. Mondino di Liuzzi (1275?–1326) a Bolognese professor and anatomist, performed many dissections during his career, including the first government-approved dissection of an executed criminal. Unlike many anatomists of the time, Mondino performed his own dissections, instead of relying on a “barber” or assistant to do the actual cutting. His treatise Anathomia Mondini (1316), which included results of these dissections, was the first anatomical examination of the structure and function of the human body and remained an influential anatomy textbook for 200 years.

Anatomical study underwent a revolution in the Renaissance. Artists began to study the human form to create a more realistic form of representation in drawing, painting, and sculpture. Medical humanists rediscovered anatomical and medical manuscripts in their original Greek and were amazed at the wealth of Galen's knowledge and the comparative barbarism of medieval translations. Finally, the birth of the scientific method led to the realization that direct enquiry was the road to knowledge.

Leonardo da Vinci

Artists, like medical humanists, looked to the past as well as the future. Their model for naturalism and ideal beauty came from Roman statues, which abounded in the Italian countryside. In fifteenth-century Italy, artists

such as sculptor and painter Andrea Verrocchio (1435–1488) taught his pupils (including Leonardo da Vinci) the anatomy of superficial muscles from flayed (skinless) bodies. Painter and sculptor Michelangelo (1475–1564) also worked for about 12 years with famed anatomist Realdo Colombo (1516–1599).

During his career as an artist, scientist, and engineer, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) performed at least 30 dissections, beginning at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Judging from his notebooks, he pursued this anatomical study between 1489 and 1514.

Leonardo drew the results of these dissections with an extraordinary attention to detail. His anatomical drawings of bones and soft tissues show all the characteristics of an acute observer and excellent draftsman, but by no means demonstrate new ways of viewing or representing nature. Many of them may, in fact, have been done from memory, rather than direct observation. His drawings of the inner organs view anatomy as described by the ancients, much of which was soon to be overthrown. Most famously his drawing of a saggital (side-on, length-wise) section of human coitus shows the testis connected to the spinal cord, a visualization of an ancient idea that the seat of the soul in the brain and the sperm were joined in some way.


The greatest anatomist of antiquity was undoubtedly Galen of Pergamum (AD 129–c.216), a Greek physician who practiced in Rome. He is important for three reasons. First, he was a brilliant dissector who produced extremely detailed studies of bones and soft tissues—muscles, tendons, vessels etc.—which even by modern standards remain incredibly accurate. Second, he sometimes used animal experiments to elucidate function. Third, his writings formed the basis of medical and anatomical study from the late Middle Ages to the end of the seventeenth century.

Human dissection was forbidden in Rome, and it is quite clear that many of Galen's studies that later interpreters took to be accounts of human anatomy were carried out on Barbary apes and other animals. For this reason, Galen's accounts of the human internal organs are reckoned far less accurate than his studies of bones and muscle. It used to be said that because of the reverence paid to Galen in the Renaissance, human anatomy was held back and errors were perpetuated. It is now clear that Galen's genius permitted Renaissance anatomy to flower in the way it did.

Galen can be thought of as an early mapmaker. Although he made no drawings, his written accounts, particularly On Anatomical Procedures, were virtual maps of the body that permitted Renaissance anatomists to “see” where they were going in the same way that second- and third-generation explorers of new territory are indebted to their predecessors. In Galen's case, the debt was enormous.

Like Aristotle, Galen's anatomy was based on the view that “form follows function”—body parts had been designed to perform their functions. (Physiology and anatomy did not become separate disciplines until the nineteenth century. To talk of the structure of a body part before this time was to talk simultaneously about its function.) Although he used this view to extrapolate from form to function, he also performed experiments to understand physiology. He discovered, for example, the function of the recurrent laryngeal nerve by severing it in a pig, which then lost the capacity to squeal.

The time he obviously spent dissecting and picturing the inner organs was unusual for a painter, but of course he did not do this just as a painter. Like other Renaissance figures, his study of the body was part of the study of “man” in every aspect. Unfortunately, his notebooks disappeared and resurfaced at various times but had no impact on the history of dissection or anatomical knowledge.


Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) was born in Brussels. After preparatory study in Latin and Greek in 1533, he began his medical studies at the University of Paris. In 1537 he was appointed lecturer in surgery and anatomy at Padua, by this time the most renowned of European universities. A popular teacher, in 1538 he produced Tabulae Anatomicae Sex (Six anatomical charts of the body), some of the first illustrations produced for students. As he performed his own dissections and published the results, Vesalius began to realize that Galen had dissected only animals. He began work on a massive, comprehensive treatise on anatomy which was necessarily also a treatise on function. This work was published in 1543 as the De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the structure of the human body), recognized both then and now as a masterpiece.

The Fabrica, although inspired by Galen, is a work on human anatomy. It begins with the bones and moves on to the muscles and vascular system. Vesalius draws attention to Galen's errors throughout, including, for example, the belief that the liver has five lobes. (This is the case in lower animals but not in humans where it is undifferentiated.) As with Leonardo da Vinci, however, once the complicated internal organs were encountered, ancient opinion largely ruled, or nearly so.

Galen had no concept of the circulatory system. He believed that blood passed from the right side of the heart to the left, through pores that he described as situated in the septum between the ventricles. Vesalius did not contradict Galen, but summoning the authority of observation, wrote that he could not find the pores. In the series' second edition (1555), however, he was able to deny that they existed. He never, however, challenged Galen's view of the overall motion of the blood, which was away from the heart with no return. The Fabrica finishes with a chapter, On the Dissection of Living Animals.

What made the Fabrica such a remarkable book, and makes it a much prized, almost priceless, bibliographical acquisition today, is its beautiful typography, layout, and illustrations. These were probably drawn by Dutch painter Jan Steven van Kalkar (1499–1546), a pupil of the great Venetian painter Titian (c.1488–1576). Naturalistic though they are, they are full, however, of Renaissance reminders of death and judgment.

The Anatomists

In the first half of the sixteenth century a small number of anatomists in Europe, mainly Italy, dissected cadavers and published books illustrated with their drawings. In the process, some began to doubt Galen's findings.

Berengario da Carpi (c.1460–c.1530) was one of the first modern anatomists. A lecturer on surgery and anatomy at Bologna, he published his Commentary on the Anatomy of Mondino in 1521. This text repeatedly admonishes readers to study anatomy by observation, which he emphasized by his lavish use of woodcut illustrations. Although he, too, relied on ancient authorities, he warned against unthinking adherence to them. Most important for the symbolic challenge to classical knowledge it made, he denied the existence of a structure whose existence had been asserted by Galen, the rete mirabile, or “marvelous network” of blood vessels believed to lie at the back of the neck. (It exists in some animals but not humans.)

In 1531 a reliable Latin edition of the first part of Galen's On Anatomical Procedures was published. Translated from the original Greek, it was a revelation to anatomists who were accustomed only to the abbreviated and corrupted versions available until then. The publication illustrated the way that humanism contributed to the growth of science—moving forward into new knowledge by going back to authentic ancient texts. Besides its detailed descriptions of the body, On Anatomical Procedures prescribed a method of dissection that started with the bones and not the internal organs. (This was the usual procedure in Italy and other warm climates in which decomposition begins quickly. It did not, however, allow anatomy to progress as a rigorous science by building on fundamentals.) Beginning about 1543, however, all previous anatomical study was eclipsed by the work of Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), a Flemish physician who began to break Galen's hold on anatomical knowledge and move beyond it.

The Supply of Corpses

Vesalius's achievement is all the more impressive given how limited access to corpses was in sixteenth-century Europe, a problem that would perplex anatomists for centuries to come. There seem to have been four main sources of supply in early modern Europe, two of which were legal. First, in many countries the law required that a post-mortem be carried out after deaths in which foul play was suspected. Examination of an apparently stillborn child was also sometimes requested when there was a suspicion that a living newborn infant had been suffocated by its mother. And finally, many aristocratic families volunteered the bodies of dead relatives for post-mortem at this time. (Since inheritance was such a key social institution, no doubt murder by poisoning was sometimes suspected.) Post-mortems, however, require a different approach from systematic dissection and may have yielded little new anatomical information, although they did provide experience in opening up corpses.

A second legal source of supply was the bodies of executed felons, which the law sometimes required be dissected. This was not simply a privilege that the law permitted surgeons—it was the ultimate penalty the law could inflict; punishment after death. In some places these were

very public affairs; in others they were carried out more secretively in institutions such as colleges of surgeons.

The remaining sources were both illegal. The unclaimed bodies of the poor who died in hospitals or workhouses were often simply sold off by those charged with their burial. Finally, grave robbing—the “resurrection” of the recently buried was a last resort. It was often carried out by surgeons themselves, medical students, or men who simply needed to make a living. It was considered a sacrilege to “resurrect” a Christian buried in consecrated ground. Despite the dangers, the practice grew, continuing into the nineteenth century.

After Vesalius

Vesalius's masterpiece of anatomy, the Fabrica, is not merely testimony to the brilliance of Renaissance art and printing. It set new standards, not only in anatomical description and illustration, but more subtlety in what anatomists should be and do. After its publication anatomical treatises fairly flew off printing presses as anatomists claimed new, often eponymous, discoveries, including the fallopian tubes, made by Gabriele Fallopius (1523–1562) and the eustachian tubes, named after Bartolomeo Eustachio (c.1500–1574).

By around 1600 Galen had been thoroughly discredited, and new body systems were being discovered. In 1622 Italian physician Gasparo Aselli (1581–1626) described the lacteal vessels, part of the lymphatic system, in a dog. Best known is the 1628 explanation of blood circulation by English physician William Harvey (1578–1657). Contemporaries often compared exploration of the human body on the dissecting table to New World voyages of discovery and the “opening up” of the American continent. Both anatomy and geographical exploration were forms of conquest.

Comparative Anatomy

New translations of Aristotle's works, like those of Galen, became a source of original enquiry in the sixteenth century. Renaissance anatomists and naturalists began to reexamine well-known animal and plant species, describing a great number that were previously unknown—many, of course, from the New World. To do this, observers turned to dissection. In 1551 French naturalist Pierre Belon of Le Mans (1517–1564) published a work on the natural history of fishes and another on birds.

In 1555 French naturalist and physician Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566) also produced a famous and beautifully illustrated work on fishes; both authors based their work on Aristotle's texts. Many authors writing on animal anatomy in this period shared Aristotle's interest in embryological development (for Aristotle this had been a means to investigate the philosophical problem of change or “how things come to be”).


Anatomy reigned supreme as the science of medicine until the late eighteenth century, but, during this period, increasing attention was paid to animal experimentation as a means to understanding the body. Two reasons seem to lie behind this. First the stress on original observation was given a philosophical formulation by English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Second the so-called “new science,” which stressed mechanical explanation and the law-bound regularities of natural phenomena, was given particular importance by René Descartes's (1596–1650) model of the body as a machine.

England became a stronghold of this new science in the second half of the seventeenth century. Inspired in part by the work of Harvey, English natural philosophers studied the relationship between circulation and respiration. Atmospheric pressure was a central focus of the new science, and the recently invented air pump an important part of experimental investigation. In England a circle of men using this device developed around British natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627–1691), an enthusiast of mechanical and chemical study, and English physicist Robert Hooke (1635–1703), curator of experiments at the Royal Society. The two placed animals in an air pump and observed their behavior under varying pressures. Hooke and British physician Richard Lower (1631–1691) conducted experiments on dogs, exposing their lungs and artificially ventilating them with bellows. In the 1660s Boyle and Lower transfused blood between dogs. In 1667 Lower transfused blood from a sheep into a “madman.”

The Eighteenth Century

Broadly speaking, the Enlightenment consolidated new anatomical and physiological approaches. Animal experimentation was widely practiced, sometimes by amateur natural philosophers, sometimes by university professors, but it had not yet acquired the obligatory role in medical research and education it attained in the nineteenth century. Indeed there was no university study of physiology at this time, nor was there any movement against vivisection (live dissection), although occasional voices deplored animal experimentation. The great lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) said that by this practice, doctors were aiming to “extend the arts of torture.” Physiology was taught and practiced by the anatomists who dominated university faculties and later in private medical schools. By the 1770s in both of these sorts of institutions, thousands of young men who aspired to be doctors flocked to learn anatomy. Anatomists, in turn, who depended on student fees, created innovative teaching techniques to attract pupils. The most important lure was to provide a corpse for each student to dissect, a practice developed by Parisian surgeons, where massive overcrowded hospitals gave the poor little dignity before or after death. It was brought to perfection, however, in London by the British obstetrician William Hunter (1718–1783) at his private school in Soho.

Grave Robbing

The trickle of concern about grave robbing or body snatching had become a torrent by the eighteenth century. It was particularly prominent in London and in Edinburgh. By this time gangs of “resurrectionists” were at work, supplying anatomists like Hunter who were only too pleased to turn a blind eye to the practice. By the early nineteenth century the problem of corpse supply had become acute, particularly so in Edinburgh where the private or extramural school of anatomy and surgery was one of the greatest in Europe. But corpses were hard to come by in such a small city. This, combined with huge numbers of students, precipitated a crisis.

English doctor and scientist Robert Knox (1791–1862) was an extramural teacher who paid for corpses procured by the usual illicit routes. Two of his suppliers, however, were serial killers. William Burke (1792–1829) and William Hare (b. 1792 or 1804) took to filling up the deficit of corpses by murder, killing 17 victims and selling them to medical researchers, usually to Dr. Knox. Exposure led to Burke's hanging, after Hare turned Queen's evidence. The result was the Anatomy Act of 1832, which made unclaimed corpses of hospital patients available for dissection. By the end of the century, as medicine slowly became respectable, it became more common for people to donate their bodies to research.

The Growth of Animal Experimentation

The seventeenth century and the scientific revolution are often identified with the birth of modern science. Institutionalized disciplines, specialized professions, and distinct methods of study, particularly in laboratories, however, began in the nineteenth century. This is especially true of physiology. For many of its first disciples, animal experimentation was the only method for discovering how the body functioned. The most famous and eloquent spokesman for this view was the French physiologist Claude Bernard (1813–1878).

The Explosion of Animal Experimentation

Animal experimentation was soon established in the new physiology departments that were created in nineteenth-century universities, first in Germany, then in the rest of Europe, and finally in North America. It was originally used as a new research method, but by the end of the century it was regarded as an indispensable tool for teaching medical students, with larger and larger numbers of animals used.

By this time the introduction of anesthesia (ether in 1846, chloroform in 1847) had rendered many experiments painless. What were to be seen as the great advances in physiological understanding were dependent on vivisection. These included the localization of brain function, the discovery of hormones, and the elucidation of the origin of the heartbeat. More generally, an understanding of the body's integrative mechanisms was achieved. Inspired by the success of physiology, clinicians began to produce experimental lesions in animals to model human disease. The most famous of these was an experimental lesion of the motor cortex of a monkey's brain, resulting in hemiplegia (loss of motor function in the arm and leg on the opposite side).

Bacteriology and Routine Testing

After physiology, modern laboratory bacteriology, established in the 1880s, was the nineteenth-century science that revolutionized medicine. A great deal of early research work was based on attempts to produce human-like diseases in animals by injecting them with virulent bacteria. Later, as bacteriology became established, animals, especially rats, became essential to routine laboratory diagnosis. After the development of antisera (serums containing antibodies) horses were widely employed for raising these antibacterial agents. In other words, by the beginning of the twentieth century animals were widely used for bacteriological research but also routinely employed in hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry.


Although distinctly different, dissection and vivisection have often been closely associated, particularly in educational institutions. In the late nineteenth century the sciences took an increasingly prominent role in education.

In Britain, scientists such as biologist T.H. Huxley (1825–1895) promoted the importance of biology teaching in schools. Huxley wanted schoolteachers to be taught not only by lecture and demonstration but also by practical experience. Soon, reformers wanted older children to learn biology by dissection. This was to blur the ethical line between vivisection and dissection. Traditionally medical dissection was carried out on humans who had died of natural causes; educational dissection was carried out on animals specifically killed (and often bred) for that purpose.

In the twentieth century dissection of the frog immediately after its death (usually by administering chloroform) had become mandatory in biological study for 16–18 year olds in North America and Europe. Thousands of earthworms, cockroaches, and many other invertebrates were sacrificed for similar purposes. At universities, in physiology, biology, and similar courses in the life sciences, animal dissection was carried out by students, but vivisection experiments, often on cats, were also used as demonstrations or performed by students divided into small groups. In the 1960s incalculable numbers of vertebrate animals wound up in educational laboratories. In those days of immense scientific optimism, scarcely a word of protest, even when uttered, was heard.

CLAUDE BERNARD (1813–1878)

In 1835 Claude Bernard (1813–1878), born in the Beaujolais, and later a young failed author of romantic plays, enrolled in the Paris medical faculty, where anatomy, post-mortem, and clinical medicine were revered. Outside of the school a small number of men were attempting to construct animal experimentation as the basis of medicine. The greatest of these was experimental physiologist François Magendie (1783–1855), an extremely gifted operator and skeptic.

Magendie believed that physiological knowledge had to be completely rebuilt by empirical collection of fact derived from experiment, and that physiologists had been deceived by reliance on anatomy. Between 1839 and 1844 Bernard worked as an assistant to Magendie at the Collège de France in Paris.

Bernard also became a highly skilled and inventive vivisector. A whole string of discoveries are credited to him, most famously that the liver stores glucose as glycogen, which is released again as needed into the bloodstream as glucose. In 1865 he published his vision of a new science and a new medicine, Introduction à la médecine expérimentale (An introduction to the study of experimental medicine), which effectively gave Magendie's quest for a new physiology a philosophical basis. Bernard claimed that animal experimenters could discover regular laws of bodily function because events in the body were just as determined as the sorts of things studied by chemists and physicists. This was also a claim that physiology was a science as distinct as any other. Further it was a claim that until medicine was based upon knowledge of the body's law-like behavior, medicine itself could never be a science. Many disagreed with Bernard's view at the time, but it has since become an unquestioned assumption.


Today scientists who dissect living things dislike the word vivisection and prefer animal experiment. Their opponents hurl the term back. In the nineteenth century both sides used this term, one offensively the other defensively.

In the nineteenth century, like today, there is no single antivivisection position. The positions have been variously underwritten by religious, rationalist, and utilitarian principles. All the strands entwined with antivivisection have long histories, but it was only in the late nineteenth century that they were brought together in different ways by organized groups of people and made overtly political (that is, they were seeking, amongst other things, legislative action). The origins of the modern antivivisection movement undoubtedly lay in opposition to laboratory medicine. A useful, but not infallible, guide to the antivivisection debates is the question of animal pain, which is one of the few recurrent themes in the literature. But even pain has not consistently been the grounds on which a call for the abolition of animal experiment has been made.

Antivivisection had two major waves in the twentieth century, although it never disappeared in between. The first ran from the late nineteenth century until World War I; the second phase began in the 1970s. The end of the first phase was brought about in part by the perceived success of laboratory medicine in helping to bring about victory over Germany and its allies in 1918 (typhoid vaccine, for example, was seemingly very effective). It is harder to give a precise explanation for the beginning of the second, but the key is probably resistance to exploitation and discrimination in general.

Animal rights and antivivisection agitation burgeoned alongside the civil rights and feminist movements and a general dissatisfaction with industrial capitalism of which “big science” was seen to be a part. The first phase was most prominent in Great Britain and then the United States. The second phase at first involved the developed world and is now global. Paradoxically, leaving aside the issue of animal experimentation, the two waves of antivivisection have more differences than similarities.

To take one example; in late nineteenth-century Britain, the aristocracy and gentry kept many animals and were well known for their kindness to them (more

so than to their tenantry according to political radicals). Many members of this class were very sympathetic to the antivivisection cause. In the current phase, this same class, because some of them defend hunting, is identified as an enemy by many animal rights activists. The later in turn, of course, by no means endear themselves to all animal lovers.

British Antivivisectionists

Very important to understanding the background of the antivivisection movement is the increasing sense the Victorians had of cruelty to animals. This went along with, for instance, abolitionism and concern about cruelty to children. In the nineteenth century societies were formed that agitated for legislation to protect street horses and ban cockfights. Occasionally worries about vivisection were expressed.

The rise of experimental medicine raised massively the concern about cruelty to animals and produced a new and increasingly militant antivivisection movement. One of the major leaders of this movement was Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) a philanthropist, journalist, and feminist who campaigned for legislation to limit vivisection. Her effectiveness is testified to by her enrolment of figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the great English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892).

Generalizations about the antivivisection movement are very difficult to make. Roughly speaking, it might be said to have been a political voice raising concerns by those classes in Victorian society worried by the growing power of the scientific professional elite. Thus it embraced aristocratic Tories and the radical working class. Women, an obviously marginal section of society, were particularly prominent in the movement. Other groups, such as temperance reformers, were also very visible

These various groups were also significant supporters of antivaccination campaigns. Vaccination against smallpox was depicted by many as a sort of animal experiment, this time on humans. After massive lobbying by scientists and the antivivisection faction, Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Its requirements were basically those of registration and licensing of people and places carrying out animal experiments. It looked on paper as if the antivivisectionists got their way, but in reality, scientists and medical professionals effectively controlled licensing and animal experiments mushroomed. Antivivisection activity continued unabated until the World War I. The conflict was too deeply symptomatic of the changes in Victorian and Edwardian society for it to be silenced by an act of Parliament.

American Antivivisection

The situation in America was similar to that in Britain but differed in detail. A significant animal protection movement was first organized by Henry Bergh (1811–1888), who came from a wealthy New York shipbuilding family. In 1866 he founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Bergh's society also campaigned against animal experiments, although the thrust of its work was the protection of livestock. Not until 1883 was a specific antivivisection society founded in the United States. This was owing to the efforts of Caroline Earle White (1833–1916), a wealthy Quaker attorney and abolitionist. White admired Frances Power Cobbe, who encouraged her activities.

The American antivivisection movement shares many features with the British one, notably the prominence of relatively powerless groups within it, especially women, and a nonviolent campaign for legislation. There was a crucial difference between Britain and America however. Experimental medicine came to the United States later than to Britain, and when it did it was far more geographically dispersed and mainly institutionalized at the wealthy East Coast universities. Further, by the time the antivivisection movement was fully organized, the medical profession was proclaiming the wondrous powers of bacteriology as demonstrated, for instance, by diphtheria antiserum.

Legislation in Britain was enacted primarily with physiologists in mind who, in truth, had no tangible public rewards to offer, only promises of the potential medical benefit of their discipline. Neither state nor federal laws were passed in America before World War I. Prosecutions against animal experimenters were brought under state laws against animal cruelty. By 1914 (the outbreak of war in Europe) a portentous split had begun to open up among those who deemed themselves the custodians of animal welfare. Many animal protectionists had begun to side with medical researchers as a number of antivivisection groups became increasingly militant in tone.

Between the Wars

In the two decades between the wars, the use of laboratory animals for research and diagnostic purposes and drug production increased. Medical research was still a relatively limited affair in these years though. Governments showed little interest, and it was only through the activities of philanthropic organizations, notably the Rockefeller Foundation of New York, that medical research expanded. Antivivisection agitation continued during this time but was either less strident or perhaps less notice was taken of it because of the many major crises that punctuated this period.

One feature of opposition to animal experimentation during these years needs attention, however. In Nazi Germany after 1933, opposition to it became government policy. It was vehemently hated by Hitler and his National Socialist party. Denunciation of it fit with an ideology of back to the soil, the brotherhood of (Aryan) man and animals and the following of nature's dictates (Hitler was a vegetarian).

Nazi experiments on humans confirmed for them that the victims of these outrages were less than animals. It is said German neo-Nazis use the slogan “Stop animal experiments—use Turks instead.” The point here is that a variety of political and religious positions can embrace vegetarianism, antivivisection, or belief in animal rights (Buddhism is a good alternative example to fascism; its rule of vegetarianism and opposition to animal experiment is based on a belief in reincarnation). There is, therefore, no necessary or essential connection between views on animal experimentation and political or religious ideas about the actual or most desirable social order.

Post World War II

Western medicine enjoyed a golden age from 1945 to 1970. It rode high in public esteem and research flourished, heavily funded by governments. Most research was conducted in laboratories away from the public eye, but ironically in one sphere public concern promoted animal experiments. In the 1950s and 1960s, pressure to protect the consumer from such things as food and color additives, environmental pollutants, the side effects of drugs and so forth became substantial. Animal testing before marketing became mandatory in various areas. In America, for example, in 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act. This gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to require testing of potentially harmful substances. Paradoxically, by this time public pressure was beginning to be applied to cosmetics companies to stop animal testing.

The passing of the golden age of modern medicine was manifested in many ways including the resurgence of the antivivisection movement in the form of a new animal rights movement. Although, as noted, this by no means encompasses all modern animal rights positions, works by two serious philosophers helped crystallize inchoate opinion into organized movements. Animal rights were first given intellectual credence by Australian bioethicist Peter Singer (1946–) in 1975 in Animal Liberation. Singer's comparatively moderate views were given a more radical twist by American philosopher Tom Regan (1937–) in 1983 in The Case for Animal Rights. Regan developed a philosophy of animal rights that proclaimed an animal's right to exist free of human predation. Thus he advocated total abolition of all forms of animal use.

Animal rights is sometimes a term used very loosely. But not by any means do all animal lovers or animal welfare groups believe in animal rights in the sense described by Regan. By the 1980s, those who were prepared to negotiate over the animal experiment issue, whether scientists or antivivisection campaigners, were creating forums to do this. For instance in 1981, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) was established. It works with scientists and animal welfare groups to find methods to replace the use of laboratory animals in experiments, reduce the number of animals tested, and to refine some tests deemed essential in order to eliminate pain and distress to the animal.

Modern Cultural Connections

Fragmented though the Victorian animal rights movement was, it looks completely united compared to the diversity of positions visible today. To take one comparison, some groups, besides campaigning for the abolition of animal experimentation, also demand that the keeping of domestic pets be outlawed on the grounds that it is unnatural. It is hard to see how this position would find sympathy with the millions of animal and pet lovers who might (like their Victorian forebears) be friendly to the animal rights and antivivisection cause. Broadly speaking this is because the first group holds its views on a political theory of rights and the second on a view of animal pain. There is a further factor, however, which will increasingly affect the vivisection debate—the rise of Islam as a powerful force in world politics. Some scholars of the Qur'an argue that vivisection, if it will alleviate human suffering, has limited justification. For the most part though, it seems the majority of Muslims believe that Islam prohibits animal experiment.

Militant concern with vivisection has political roots. Worries about dissection for educational purposes probably date to the same postwar era as the antivivisection movement, but their origins probably lie in the rather more everyday ecological consciousness that dates from those days. From the 1970s genuine concern with killing animals for educational purposes grew among schoolchildren, university students, and teachers of all sorts. The release of the frogs by the pupils in the movie ET (1982) embodied this new sentiment when it eloquently posed the question: “How do you learn about life by killing something living?” Gradually various authorities began to hear these voices as articulating serious concerns. By 2002, six American states (California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island) had passed laws allowing students to opt out of dissection. Today a vast range of educational films portraying dissection are available. Virtual dissection, using computers, is now possible.

It is impossible to know how far the development of alternative methods of research and testing today has been provoked by antivivisection movements and how much it is the product of scientists' own wishes to dispense with the use of animals. Nevertheless there certainly has been progress in this direction. A major line of enquiry has been into in vitro culture, the growth of tissues outside the body. To take a simple example, for some time now the action of new drugs has been tested on in vitro cells where once they would have been taken straight to animal testing. To take a more frontline case: in vitro technology is being used at Oxford university to study human diseases, notably genetic diseases of mitochondria (specialized subcellular elements that create most of the energy needed by the body to support life and growth). Failure of mitochondrial function involves all metabolically active tissues, especially brain, skeletal muscle, heart, and liver. Mitochondrial diseases are usually seen in infancy and are associated with degenerative changes in the brain. These changes are being studied using embryonic stem cells in culture. Stem cells with specific defective mitochondrial proteins are used to model the changes observed in patients.

Another research technique being developed is computer modeling, or “in silico” screening, of human organs and systems. This project promises to permit prediction of the action of untried drugs on the body even down to the molecular level. It is hoped it will do the same for the effects of disease. Computer modeling of the heart was developed in the 1960s. Supercomputers are now being employed to create the first virtual organ; the virtual heart. The virtual heart can simulate functions such as blood flow and cardiac rhythm. Again, such simulations can be used to study the possible side effects of untested drugs.


From the Roman world to the nineteenth century, dissection was viewed by some with disgust and disapproval. In the same period, scarcely a voice was raised against animal experimentation. Today, the latter produces deep social divisions, but human dissection in medical schools scarcely raises an eyebrow. In the case of human dissection in the Western world, the move to a secular society or a religious one that accepts secular values has annulled the controversy. Vivisection, however, is now a global issue and if there is to be a resolution, religious and secular values, some of which themselves seem completely incommensurable, will have to be accommodated or eclipsed.

Primary Source Connection

The following article was written by Brad Knicker-bocker, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor. Founded in 1908, the Christian Science Monitor is an international newspaper based in Boston, Massachusetts. The article highlights both the increasing lengths taken by animal rights activists to get their message across, and the increasing prosecution efforts made by officials when activists break the law.


New Jersey guilty verdict puts focus on extremists' tactics that Congress is trying to curb

Animal-rights activists around the country—at least the most extreme—are becoming increasingly militant. And law enforcement officials and lawmakers are stepping up efforts to combat those who break the law.

These interconnected trends came to a head in New Jersey last week when an animal rights group and six of its members were convicted of inciting violence in their campaign to shut down a company that uses animals to test drugs and other consumer products.

The group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), claims its actions constitute free speech. But federal prosecutors and the jury in a Trenton, N.J., courtroom called it harassment, stalking, and conspiracy—the first such conviction under the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act. The lab, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), the largest of its kind in the world, is based in Britain and New Jersey.

Antivivisectionists and other animal-rights proponents have been organized in the US since at least the mid—19th century. But recently, their most extreme members have become more aggressive.

Much of the focus for animal-rights supporters is on companies that produce animal products (mainly meat and fur). In their sights, too, are universities, hospitals, and other institutions that kill animals for medical research or product development. And they have been targeting anyone who does business with animal testers—financial institutions, contractors, and service providers, some with only a tenuous connection.

Activists' tactics include vandalism, personal warnings by e-mail and phone message, and other threats directed at family members—what's called “tertiary targeting.”

“There really isn't a week that goes by that I don't hear about an incident,” says Jacquie Calnan, president of Americans for Medical Progress in Alexandria, Va., which represents universities, pharmaceutical and biomedical corporations, and research organizations.

Most of those engaged in medical science say animal testing is crucial to find cures for disease and new devices meant to keep people healthy.

“Virtually every human being in the country has benefited from animal research,” says John Young, a lab animal veterinarian and director of comparative medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

For example, recent research (including the human genome project) established that mice and humans are virtually identical in their genetic makeup. Specially bred mice are used to investigate ways to treat human diseases.

US research facilities use more than 1 million animals every year: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, monkeys, sheep, and other farm animals. Add in mice and rats (more than 90 percent of all lab animals), and the total jumps to nearly 30 million, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

While most such animals eventually are killed, supporters of such research say avoiding animal suffering is a major consideration in their work.

“I don't know of a scientist or veterinarian who is not committed to the welfare of the animals,” says Dr. Young.

Members of SHAC, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), strongly disagree. In some cases, they've infiltrated research labs to produce photos and videos that show otherwise.

“It's clear that if you look at the science we have much better ways of testing drugs to see whether they're going to be toxic or helpful in human beings,” says Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon in Canoga Park, Calif.

“Unfortunately, the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] is still requiring animal testing, but they're way behind the science on this issue,” says Dr. Vlasak, who's also a spokesman for radical animal rights activists that often announce their “direct actions” anonymously. “The scientific alternatives are out there.”

That's a minority view in the medical community, and it is one that many lawmakers oppose.

Members of the US House and Senate are sponsoring the “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.” It would toughen the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act by imposing penalties for veiled threats to individuals and families, economic disruption or damage, and “tertiary targeting.”

Along with the recent indictment of ALF activists charged with arson and other crimes in Oregon and other parts of the West, the convictions in New Jersey are a setback for extremist animal-rights activists.

Still, the crackdown by the FBI and other police agencies has not slowed activists' efforts. One anonymous group just launched a website listing the home addresses of 2,000 employees from 30 companies doing business with Huntingdon Life Sciences.

“From CEOs to lowly sales reps, from Alabama to Hawaii, we've sniffed them out,” activists are told. “Visit them often, and make the message clear: when you contract with HLS, you get us!”

Brad Knickerbocker

knickerbocker, brad. “crackdown on animal-rights activists.” christian science monitor. march 7, 2006.

See Also Biomedicine and Health: Antibiotics and Antiseptics; Biomedicine and Health: Embryology; Biomedicine and Health: Human Gross Anatomy; Biomedicine and Health: Physiology; Biomedicine and Health: The Brain and Nervous System.



French, Richard D. Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Landsbury, Coral. The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Lederer, Susan E. Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America before the Second World War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. 2nd ed. London: Phoenix, 2001.

Richardson, Ruth. A Short History of Anatomy and Physiology from the Greeks to Harvey. New York: Dover, 1957.

Rupke, Nicolaas A., ed. Vivisection in Historical Perspective. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: Towards an End to Man's Inhumanity to Animals. Wellingborough, Northants: Thorsons, 1983.

Turner, James. Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain and Humanity in the Victorian Period. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.


Knickerbocker, Brad. “Crackdown on Animal-Rights Activists.” Christian Science Monitor. March 7, 2006.

Web Sites

Internet FAQ Archives. “Animal Rights Myths FAQ v 1.2” (accessed May 8, 2008).

Johns Hopkins University. Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. (accessed on May 8, 2008).

Rutgers University School of Law. “Animal Rights Law Project.” resource.html?itemid=200509122132040.52177(accessed December 19, 2007).

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. (accessed May 8, 2008).

Christopher Lawrence

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