Animal rights activism and medicine 100 years ago

There is a rather interesting book, Animal Experimentation and Medical Progress by William Williams Keen, published in 1914, which describes some of the incidents in the animal research debate during the early 1900s.  What is  striking about this book is that it illustrates very clearly how little (if at all) the arguments and tactics of animal rights proponents have changed over the last 100 years.

Consider the kind of letters that scientists received because of their work with animals:


Sometimes, animal rights activists also felt it was also important in making their point to include other members of the scientist’s family in their missives.

letterThe language is nearly identical to the anonymous emails or web-postings attacking scientists today.

A century ago those opposed to the use of animals in medical research were already using deceptive, calumnious imagery, suggesting animals underwent surgical procedures without anesthetic,  which evoked the following, unanimous response from the English Royal Commission:


And a hundred years ago, the scientific  community was already expressing  disbelief and regret at the lack of understanding of the work, and the activists’ willful ignorance of those that denied its benefits —

faseb_v2Scientists were not alone in their outrage.  One hundred years ago medical professionals from all over the world were prompted to issue a  statement at the International Medical Congress supporting animal research:


Of course, Charles Darwin himself, had these famous words to offer some 30 years earlier:

Fortunately, some things have in fact changed over the last 100 years.

Back then we did not have antibiotics, nor vaccinations for terrible childhood diseases.  We do today.  Vaccines that save more than 3 millions people per year, and prevent millions of others from suffering from disease and permanent disabilities.

Back then X-rays machines were just being created, the machines were bulky and access was extremely difficult.  Today X-rays, doppler ultrasound, positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, are all widely available providing some of the most useful diagnostic tools.

1901 Bayer Heroin ad

Back then Heroin was used in children’s syrup to treat cough and bloodletting was still used to treat fever and inflammation. Today, effective pain relievers and anti-inflammatories are widely available in the pharmacy at the corner.

Back then premature babies almost invariably died.  Today, the development of lung surfactants is saving the lives of babies across the world every day.

And the list of the benefits of animal research goes on and on…

Perhaps it can all be summarized by the fact that that back then life expectancy in the US was 52 years.  Today, we are living an average of 80 years.  In other words, in merely 3 generations, we increased our life expectancy by 60%.  This is time we all now enjoy with our loved ones, children and grandchildren.  Thanks to science.  Thanks to scientists. Thanks to responsible, animal research.

That is why one cannot help but keep repeating Darwin’s famous words “…he who retards the progress of physiology is committing a crime against mankind.”

11 thoughts on “Animal rights activism and medicine 100 years ago

  1. While I’m sure your fantasy land data, Darwin quotes, and tales of “progress,” are a big hit with the hacks and half-wits, I am less than impressed when un-evolved humans offer speciesism based theories to justify the enslavement, torture and murder of our fellow living beings.

    Animal testing is lazy science at it’s best, and barbaric, torture at it’s worst.
    Undercover investigations have repeatedly exposed the horrific cruelty the animals in “research” labs are forced to endure. There are numerous videos (that have been authenticated as actual, unaltered recordings) available to the public, which more than contradict your claims humane treatment, plotting activists and exaggerated cruelty.

    There isn’t any legitimate proof or data proving that animal research is beneficial and/or relative to humans!! None, zero, nada! Scientists/Vivisectors have been acting out their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fantasy on defenseless animals because they are the perfect victims! Unable to speak for themselves, or tell anyone about the abuse!
    The reason why scientists/vivisectors conduct “research” on animals and not humans is BECAUSE IT’S UNIMAGINABLE TORTURE!!!!!! No human on earth would willingly subject themselves to the horrors of vivisection.

    BUT, feel free to prove me wrong! Just post the details: name of the vivisection lab where you will be a volunteer test subject for the duration of your life, and and a few words on the joys of enslavement, perks of vivisection and/ or the sunny side of being treated as inanimate object. 👍

    1. I think progress is fairly important to all those who wish to avoid suffering for themselves and their loves ones. Also to describe work to prolong life as “un-evolved” shows some serious misunderstandings of Darwinian natural selection.

      How on earth is it lazy? Do they do it while sitting on the sofa? Do they say “I can’t be bothered to use an alternative method despite the fact I am legally mandated to wherever possible”? No, it’s science used where other methods are not appropriate

      There have been a small number of exposes showing unacceptable things, though none I know of are unedited, they cut down 200 hours of almost-entirely-uninteresting footage into 2-4 minutes of something. You could do the same in your average hospital. We need to try and prevent thing happening, but it’s far from widespread.

      Evidence? The proof is in the pudding:

      1. With all due respect, “Darwinian natural selection” does not serve as my moral compass. Speciesism has created a world in which humans can easily justify cruelty. Evidence? Would you like it? Would you feel pain? Would it be okay if I sliced and diced you up for the greater good? Take your lab coat off for a second, and put yourself in the animals cage! Or watch the documentary Earthlings for f*ck sake! You might learn something.

        “Our speciesism is an anthropocentric bias without any reasonable foundation. It would be completely arbitrary to give special consideration to a being simply because of its species membership.”

      2. @Melissa

        Certainly Natural Selection is not a system of morality – I was simply refuting the previous commenter’s point about calling such work “un-evolved”. Speciesism hasn’t created anything, it is a result of a world where humans have such a greater cognitive capacity than other species. Neither it is it arbitrary, it’s based on understandings of concepts like “The Golden Rule”.

        I recommend reading:

  2. Both Animal Rights and anti Vivisection were born in the Socialist Fabian Society in the United Kingdom. They were involved in many of what they felt were societies’ ills and animal rights was but one. Medicine advances was very suspect as was vaccinations in the UK. People in society were beginning to eat more meat and this was more of the habit of the elite society and was resented by those leaders of the Fabian Society. They were called “blood lickers”.The elite were also resented for wearing furs, feathers in their hats as a show of the eliteness. Those early Fabians visited the USA to speak of anti vivisection and to speak of starting vegetarian societies in the USA as they did in the UK.

  3. Excellent article, and the closing paragraph is so appropriate to what the “animal rights” *true believer* philosophy is all about–sociopathic, anti-human. Per Darwin: “…he who retards the progress of physiology is committing a crime against mankind.”

  4. Thank you Dario for uncovering the history of opposition to animal research and for reminding us of the humanity of scientists and the larger Good that they serve. That Good is called Love: for family, for fellow man and for all societies.

Comments are closed.