Crash course in medical history

Opponents of animal research often portray two of the pioneers of experimental physiology, François Magendie (1783-1855) and his student Claude Bernard (1813-1878), as deranged, vicious, and sadistic individuals who derived pleasure in harming animals. Moral philosophers Peter Singer and Lori Gruen convey this sort of message in their book “Animal Liberation: A graphic guide”.

Portrayal of Claude Bernard in Singer and Gruen's book

Portrayal of Claude Bernard in Singer and Gruen’s book

A quick look at how Claude Bernard’s face is portrayed in their book is sufficient to get a sense of Singer and Gruen’s feelings towards scientists who engage in animal research. The peculiar use of quotes around ‘experiment’ in the caption suggests they believe the work did not qualify as legitimate scientific research, nor that it could contribute any benefits to mankind. Such view fails to consider the historical context of their experiments.  In particular, one could ask how were human patients treated by their physicians of the time.

Here is a brief summary of 19th century medicine —

The theory of counter-irritation was in vogue. To counter-irritate basically meant causing additional wounds to the patient as a form of treatment. One technique involved inserting inflamed limbs were into giant anthills. More convenient was produce large blisters by means of a fire iron or acid. In 1824, an article in the Lancet by Dr. Abernathy suggested that a 1 foot square blister was probably a bit too large — several small blisters were indicated instead.  A third method of counter-irritation involved making a saw-shaped wound and inserting dried peas or beans into it. The doctor would then ensure the wound remained open, keeping it from healing, from weeks to months, replacing the peas and/or beans as necessary.

Leeches were used in vast quantities and for many purposes.  Physicians would lower leeches down patient’s throats.  Hundreds of them would be used to bleed a man’s testicle over days. Leeches were also applied to the vagina to relieve “sexual excitement” and, not to discard other orifices, doctors would push them up the anus. It was noted that during these procedures there was always a possibility that some of the leeches would get lost inside the patient body which, according to the physicians of the time, resulted in  “very annoying accidents”.

What about mental disease? A common treatment involved psychiatrists spinning patients in centrifuge-like machines a hundred of times per minute. This is how unruly patients came to understand the authority of the doctor, with one of them asserting that the more lively his intimidation towards the apparatus the more charitable the effects of the therapy.”  


Benjamin Rush’s tranquilizer chair

Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers and signatories of the Declaration of Independence, adopted some of these same methods and developed them further.  He would pour acid on his patients backs and cut them with knives to allow the discharge “form the neighborhood of the brain”.  Rush also developed the famous “tranquilizer chair” where patients were restrained for up to entire days — the chair had a convenient hole for defecation at the bottom.

Bloodletting was used to treat a number of ailments.  It also often led to death.  One famous incident involves George Washington, who in 1799 suffered from a bad sore throat and died shortly after a visit by three different doctors who, altogether, took about half of his blood volume. The famous medical journal The Lancet derives its name from the tool used in these procedures.

Given Singer and Gruen’s depiction of animal research one must also ask — How did human surgeries look back then?  By all accounts they were the most excruciating, traumatic and dangerous experience for patients.  As an example, the novelist Fanny Burney recounted part of her experience with a mastectomy as follows:

I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead & M. Dubois placed me upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast cutting through veins arteries flesh nerves I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still? so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. I concluded the operation was over Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered Again all description would be baffled yet again all was not over, Dr. Larry rested but his own hand, & — Oh heaven! I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone scraping it!

Ms Burney was lucky to have survived to describe her experiences.  Most surgeries taking place in surgical theaters simply ended up in death.

The above were some of the common practices of medicine a mere 200 years ago. Magendie was one among the main critics of the dominant medical theories (humorism and vitalism) and the use of unproven methods on human patients. On the use of animals in research he said at a meeting [] I beg my honorable colleague to observe that I experiment on animals precisely because I do not wish to experiment on men.  That is what he felt about medicine — it was nothing short of human experimentation.

In the introductory pages of his Journal de Physiologie Expérimentale Magandie, he added:

“What subject is indeed more fertile in gross errors and absurd beliefs than that of health and disease? Consider the painful disquietude you would produce in the minds of the majority of men if you said to them:There are no such things as rheumatismal humour, gouty humour, scabby virus, venereal virus, and so forth.  Those things which are so designated are imaginary things, which the human mind has created to hide from itself its own ignorance.’   The chances are that you would be taken for a lunatic just as it but recently befell those who maintained that the sun was immovable and the earth turned.”

Any honest reading of medical history has to give credit to the experimental physiologists who put medicine in the right track to become what it is today. The handful of physicians and psychiatrists that speak against animal research should remember that from Hippocrates to the early 19th century, their profession caused more harm than good to their patients.  They ought to be reminded that it was the work of the experimental physiologists that turn this around.  Charles Darwin acknowledged this fact when he wrote:

[] I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals, and I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind.

As experimental medicine advanced, so did our ability to treat the potential pain and suffering animals may experience in research.  Animal welfare laws were established. Today, the vast majority of animals participating in research benefit from the use of modern anesthetics and analgesics. The public and our representatives recognize that responsible, regulated animal research has continued to produce new therapies and cures through the years — benefiting humans and non-human animals alike. Stopping the work and depriving future generations of new advances would be immoral.

3 responses to “Crash course in medical history

  1. Pingback: The peaceful but insidious tactics of AR groups in Portugal | EARA

  2. Pingback: Insidious tactics of animal rights groups in Portugal | Speaking of Research

  3. Nuno H. Franco

    Great piece.

    For another “crash-course” on this topic, allow me to suggest my paper “Animal Experiments in Biomedical Research: A Historical Perspective”. Although it’s a scholarly article (with more than 200 references), it was purposely written in such a way that it is understandable to a broad, lay, audience. You can find it here: