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Vivisection - Battle Lines Are Drawn

experiments century anesthesia antivivisectionists

Around the turn of the eighteenth century, both vivisectionists and their critics gained momentum. English physicist Robert Boyle's experiments with animals in a vacuum chamber were hailed at the time for their contribution to the understanding of breathing and the function of the lungs. But also in England, the literary figures Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson all condemned the practice of vivisection and live animal experiments as cruel. Johnson suggested that medical students who learned to become insensitive to the suffering of animals in experiments would also become insensitive to human pain—an argument that continues to this day.

But it was the nineteenth century that saw many of today's attitudes forming. The medical advances of this era, derived at least in part from animal experiments, were profound, including widespread use of vaccination (first discovered at the end of the eighteenth century); the understanding of microorganisms as a cause of disease; the use of sterile procedures in surgery; the discovery of the diphtheria antitoxin, which could be used to save patients with that often fatal disease; and the discovery of anesthesia.

This last discovery, however, did not have as great an effect on the vivisection debate as might have been expected. For one thing, antivivisectionists argued that researchers were not using anesthesia as often as they should; they also began to argue that anesthesia was only being given at low levels, to prevent the animal from struggling, rather than the higher levels necessary to control pain. Again, these arguments are repeated today.

A major confrontation between pro-vivisection physicians and antivivisectionists came to a head in turn of the century America. This conflict was sometimes bitter, calling to mind more recent events in the debate. Antivivisectionists were accused of using out of date and misleading pictures of animals in experimental devices to garner sympathy for their cause; they also planted spies in laboratories to expose vivisectionist practices. The fight came to a head at the U.S. Senate hearings of 1896 and 1900, where testimony by some of the world's greatest medical researchers led to the defeat of a bill to regulate vivisection in the District of Columbia.


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