The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR.

When we worry about cruelty to animals, we’re often thinking not only of their suffering but also of the potential dangers to human society posed by animal abusers. As A. W. H. Bates, a coroner’s pathologist and scholar of animal ethics, writes, this was particularly true in nineteenth-century England, when some people were horrified at the notion that the doctors who cared for their families might also torture dogs.

JSTOR Daily Membership AdJSTOR Daily Membership Ad

Bates writes that efforts to address animal cruelty in British Parliament began in the first years of the nineteenth century. The growing London elite found the treatment of livestock disturbing. They also viewed the poor condition of these animals as signs of unfeelingness or active cruelty among the working class. Lawmakers debated whether viciousness toward animals led to violence against humans. But, at first, these concerns were directed only against the poor.

In 1824, scientific vivisection became the subject of similar scrutiny. That year, French physiologist François Magendie gave a public demonstration of cutting apart a live greyhound, which he allegedly nailed to a table, at an anatomy school in London. While British doctors also performed vivisections at that time, they were more popular among continental Europeans. Magendie’s actions stirred up an outcry based partly on anti-French sentiments.

British doctors generally decried Magendie’s demonstration as unnecessary and therefore cruel—and also as a damaging stain on their profession. But they still defended vivisection as acceptable if the experiments yielded valuable results.

Bates writes that concerns about vivisection grew over the decades. Opponents warned that the practice could make researchers and physicians callous toward all living creatures. In 1844, the Protestant Magazine printed a “caution to parents” to avoid any doctor who practiced it. And Queen Victoria herself privately referred to vivisection as “one of the worst signs of wickedness in human nature.”

The National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), formed in 1875, blamed vivisection for an apparently increasing interest among scientists in experimenting on human beings, including condemned criminals and paupers.

Bates argues that the debate over vivisection reflected a continuing interest within the world of medicine in Aristotelian virtue ethics. While British society at this time was generally more attuned to utilitarian or deontological ethics, which focus on whether an action is right or wrong, the medical field concerned itself with the moral character of individual practitioners. This meant balancing qualities such as tenderness and resolution, for the purpose of carrying out difficult but necessary procedures without becoming inured to suffering.

Following this logic, some physiologists presented their work as an act of sacrifice, in one case writing that the process sometimes “so shatters them, that it requires all their power of will to carry the process through to the accomplishment of the aim.”

Ultimately, the battle over vivisection faded from public awareness largely because of shifting professional norms. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, animal experimentation increasingly became a specialization of dedicated physiologists rather than practicing doctors, freeing patients and parents from worries about their own physicians’ moral bearings.

Support JSTOR Daily! Join our membership program on Patreon today.


JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 30–44
University of Illinois Press in partnership with the Ferrater Mora Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics