The Primate Diaries

The Primate Diaries

Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.

Charles Darwin and the Vivisection Outrage


Author's Note: The following originally appeared at The Dispersal of Darwin.

"Darwin" by Nathaniel Gold

     "Darwin" by Nathaniel Gold

According to the British Medical Journal the alleged crime resembled a crucifixion. The victims had been strapped to boards, backs down, and with their legs cinched outwards. In the stifling August heat their heavy breathing was made only more intense by a suffocating fear. The accused was described as wearing a white apron "that was afterwards covered with blood" as he approached one of the individuals he had selected for his experiment. Their mouth was tied shut, but when the blade entered the thin, pink flesh of his inner thigh the cries of agony were simply too much to bear.

Experienced medical men in attendance, including some of the nineteenth century's top surgeons, were outraged and demanded that the animal's torture cease. Thomas Joliffe Tufnell, President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, denounced the demonstration as a "cruel proceeding" and stormed to the operating table to cut the dog loose.

Other physiologists objected to the interruption with one insisting, "That dog is insensible; he is not suffering anything."

But Tufnell held firm, "The dog is struggling hard to get free. I am a sportsman as well as a surgeon, and I will never see a dog bullied." However, a vote was taken among the assembled members of the British Medical Association and the demonstration was allowed to continue.

A tube was then forced into the conscious animal's femoral artery, the white hair of his belly stained red as the arterial pressure caused blood to spurt from the incision. Into the tube the accused injected pure alcohol. The result, continued the Journal, "was an immediate struggle, which almost immediately subsided. The animal became dead drunk."

"Now, you see he's insensible," a physician snidely remarked to Tufnell.

"Yes," Tufnell replied, "and he'll never be sensible again, for he will die."

Spattered with gore from the comatose animal, the accused, Dr. Eugene Magnan of Paris, insisted he would be quite well by that evening. The dog soon died. Magnan then turned to the second animal, opening the same artery as before but injecting absinthe into the wound. According to witnesses:

The animal struggled much, cried as far as it was able, showed other symptoms of great suffering, and ultimately--not long after the injection--had a fit of epilepsy.

This had been the point of Magnan's August 13, 1874 demonstration: the physiological effects of alcohol and absinthe on the animal nervous system. It had been made possible by four physicians based in Norwich, England, all of whom now stood trial for actions taken that did "unlawfully illtreat, abuse, and torture certain animals." Dr. Eugene Magnan, also listed as a defendant, was not present in the courtroom since he had fled the country back to France. Because it could not be proven that the four English physicians had been actively involved in the demonstration the charges were ultimately dismissed, though the court ruled that the case against them was proper and required them to pay all legal costs. However, in the court of public opinion they were guilty as charged.

Animal experimentation, or vivisection as it was known in the nineteenth century, had already been practiced for centuries (William Harvey's famous dissections of deer in the 1620s had revealed the heart's role in the circulatory system) but with the rise of scientific medicine more animal subjects were being "put to the blade" in the name of science. The physician George Hoggan described his own experience taking part in some of these dissections with dogs:

Hundreds of times I have seen when an animal writhed in pain, and thereby deranged the tissues, during a deliberate dissection; instead of being soothed, it would receive a slap and an angry order to be quiet and behave itself. . . Even when roughly grasped and thrown on the torture-trough, a low, complaining whine at such treatment would be all the protest made, and they would continue to lick the hand which bound them till their mouths were fixed in the gag.

Darwin was well aware that these kinds of experiments took place, even using a similar example in his 1871 book The Descent of Man:

[E]veryone has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.

As one of the most celebrated biologists in England, Darwin was both a supporter of experimental physiology and was passionate about protecting animals from cruelty. As a local magistrate he regularly came across cases of cruelty to farm animals and, according to his biographer Janet Browne, "was inexorable in imposing fines and punishment." In 1853 he waged a "private vendetta" against a Mr. Ainslie for cruelty to his carthorses, threatening to "have him up before a magistrate & his ploughman also." According to his son, Francis Darwin, the man who many saw as advocating "might is right" was as disgusted by animal cruelty as he was by the human cruelty he experienced in slave holding societies:

The remembrance of screams, or other sounds heard in Brazil, when he was powerless to interfere with what he believed to be the torture of a slave, haunted him for years, especially at night. In smaller matters, where he could interfere, he did so vigorously. He returned one day from his walk pale and faint from having seen a horse ill-used, and from the agitation of violently remonstrating with the man. On another occasion he saw a horse-breaker teaching his son to ride, the little boy was frightened and the man was rough; my father stopped, and jumping out of the carriage reproved the man in no measured terms.

This sympathy extended to animals used in experimentation, as Darwin wrote to the Oxford zoologist Ray Lankester in 1871:

You ask about my opinion on vivisection. I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigations on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word about it, else I shall not sleep to-night.

However, Darwin did not take his own advice and, after the media uproar following Magnan's demonstration and the ensuing court case, the notoriously reclusive naturalist spearheaded a campaign to regulate how vivisection was conducted in England.

The year 1875 was a milestone for British animal rights activism. Building off the popular outrage over Magnan, the author, feminist, and animal rights campaigner Frances Power Cobbe formed the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (and, later, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which continues to this day). With the assistance of sympathetic members of Parliament, Cobbe drafted a bill that would require regular inspections of physiological labs engaged in vivisection. Darwin heard of this activity through his daughter, Henrietta Litchfield, who was passionate about animal rights and had sent her father Cobbe's petition to sign. Her letter had Darwin contemplating the issue "for some hours" and he delivered a considered and thoughtful response:

I conclude, if (as is likely) some experiments have been tried too often, or anesthetics have not been used when they could have been, the cure must be in the improvement of humanitarian feelings. Under this point of view I have rejoiced at the present agitation.

However, despite his conflicts over vivisection, Darwin's opinion of the bill was that it would do little to protect animals and, at the same time, would result in a chilling effect on science:

[I]f such laws are passed, the result will assuredly be that physiology, which has been until within the last few years at a standstill in England, will languish or quite cease. . . I cannot at present see my way to sign any petition, without hearing what physiologists thought would be its effect, and then judging for myself.

Four months later Darwin, who rarely took any active role in politics, was in the midst of a political campaign to introduce his own bill to Parliament. As he wrote to his close friend Joseph Hooker, then-President of the Royal Society, "I worked all the time in London on the vivisection question . . . The object is to protect animals, and at the same time not to injure Physiology," and he had already enlisted the support of "some half-dozen eminent scientific men."

While protecting the scientific enterprise was an important aspect of what became known as the Playfair bill (after Dr. Lyon Playfair, the liberal member of Parliament who introduced the legislation), Darwin's personal background advocating against animal cruelty and the fact that his son-in-law, Robert Litchfield, was the one who helped Darwin write the bill, it suggests that animal rights was just as much a part of Darwin's concern. In fact, the Playfair bill went beyond Cobbe's in the protection of animals by including the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) guidelines that required anesthetic in all experiments, including for teaching purposes. As historian David Allen Feller wrote in 2009 in his account of the 1875 antivivisection controversy:

Under the BAAS guidelines, not only was anesthesia required in experiments whenever possible, but an entire class of experiments, those conducted for mere demonstration purposes without any new scientific discovery in mind, were outlawed. This was not so under the [Cobbe] bill, which did not distinguish between classroom and purely scientific experiments. Inclusion of this provision of the BAAS guidelines was clearly intended by Darwin from the outset of his work on the bill. Darwin wrote to Burdon Sanderson and Huxley that he thought the BAAS guidelines would be the best compromise, and Darwin specifically noted the inclusion of a ban on the use of live animals for the purpose of demonstrative teaching.

Darwin is widely known for never taking part in any public discussions or debates on his theory of natural selection (leaving that to trusted friends such as Thomas Henry Huxley). His poor health and hatred of travel kept him at his estate in the countryside throughout most of his life. And yet, on the question of vivisection, Darwin not only traveled to London to help draft the Playfair bill, he returned when asked to testify by the Royal Commission when investigating the use of vivisection. During the questioning Darwin again insisted that experimentation on animals was important for the development of medical science. However, on the question of experiments carried out without anesthetic or ones inflicting pain unnecessarily, Darwin stated unequivocally that, "It deserves detestation and abhorrence."

Those words became the basis upon which the Royal Commission recommended that vivisection be regulated. After quoting Darwin's view in their report to the Queen, they went on to state:

This principle is accepted generally by the very highly educated men whose lives are devoted either to scientific investigation and education, or to the mitigation or the removal of the sufferings of their fellow creatures.

The following year The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 was passed by Parliament and signed into law.

Charles Darwin's advocacy for animal rights has more than mere historical interest. Today it is commonplace for scientists, particularly those who work with animal models in their research, to oppose animal rights legislation as being fundamentally anti-science. However, as Darwin himself has demonstrated, it is possible (even necessary) for the pro-science position to be concerned with animal welfare. Being pro-science does not mean being pro-cruelty.

There are currently some very good laws in place throughout England, Europe, and the United States that protect animals from unnecessary suffering in the pursuit of medical knowledge. However, the differences between countries continue to raise concerns about how much suffering should be permitted in animal research. Last year saw the use of chimpanzees in medical experimentation banned throughout the European Union. At the same time, there are nearly 1,000 chimps used by federal researchers in the United States for vaccine, hepatitis C, and HIV research. Year after year legislation to ban the practice fails to gain support in Congress.

Ironically enough, many of the worst abusers of animals in the nineteenth century came from continental Europe, a region that is now the leader in animal rights legislation. If there is any justice in Eugene Magnan escaping prosecution for his actions 135 years ago, it may be that public outrage over his "demonstration" sparked a movement that, today, would provide him with no safe haven. There is little doubt that animal experimentation has resulted in some necessary medical breakthroughs. But, as in the nineteenth century controversy, Darwin's own struggle with this research is something we would do well to remember.


"Prosecution At Norwich. Experiments On Animals," The British Medical Journal Vol. 2, No. 728 (Dec. 12, 1874), pp. 751-754.

Browne, J. (2002). Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Feller, D. (2009). Dog fight: Darwin as animal advocate in the antivivisection controversy of 1875 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 40 (4), 265-271 DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2009.09.004

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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