Animal Experimentation: Facts & History

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson, learn facts about animal experimentation, including its history, its supporters and opponents, and some specific laws regarding animal cruelty and management.

The History of Animal Experimentation

Cologne, eye shadow, antibiotics, heart surgery, and so much more. What do they all have in common? They wouldn't be around or safe to use if it weren't for animal experimentation, a practice going back centuries. Let's explore the history of animal experimentation.

Ancient and Medieval Times

Ever since ancient times, experimentation on humans for study was considered taboo by most cultures. Instead, we used and continue to use other animal species, such as dogs, primates, rodents, and so forth, as models instead.

Vivisection is surgery on live animals to aid the understanding of anatomy and physiology. It's been performed at least as far back as the 6th century BCE. Unlike vivisection in many cases today, where the animal is rendered senseless to pain and even consciousness, vivisection back then was performed on animals who were very much aware, suffering horrific physical and psychological pain.

Ancient physicians who performed such procedures between the 6th and 3rd century BCE include:

  • Alcmaeon of Croton
  • Aristotle
  • Pergamon
  • Erasistratus
  • Heophilus

The latter two are notable because they also performed vivisection on convicted criminals. While most ancients had no qualms about vivisection, there was a school of ancient thought, called the Empiric school, which rejected vivisection, partly because they believed it to be a cruel venture.

Not long after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity in Europe, animal experimentation rarely occurred. There was no need to pursue scientific and medical knowledge when people were more concerned with the afterlife than their own life and believed in supernatural, as opposed to scientific, causes for disease and healing.

Early-Modern Times

It was only during the Renaissance that animal experimentation re-emerged. Flemish anatomist Vesalius (1514-1564) began to perform experiments on live animals in order to gain a better understanding of the human body.

During the age of Enlightenment, famous philosopher René Descartes erroneously described animals as mere machines, to paraphrase his work. While many even in his day thought this to be absurd, and some claim that his statements have been misinterpreted, it nonetheless gave scientists the perfect justification to perform painful experiments on live animals.

During this time, many philosophers from Baruch Spinoza to John Locke argued for and against, respectively, the use of animals for experimentation.

Regardless of philosophical musings, the 18th and especially 19th centuries yielded important scientific gains in:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Neurology
  • Pathology, the study of diseases

Interestingly, just as animal experimentation was beginning to yield significant gains in the later part of the 19th century, a growing anti-vivisectionist movement was arising, especially in Britain.

A couple of extremely harsh experiments helped spur the movement. French physiologist François Magendie nailed down a dog by its paws, then began to dissect its facial nerves and left it overnight for further dissection the next day. Scientist Claude Bernard was also known for cruel experiments, slow-cooking animals alive in ovens to help understand how the body regulated its temperature.

These two examples, among a plethora of others, helped the anti-vivisection movement to gain steam (and included members like Bernard's wife who divorced him in disgust). Frances Power Cobbe founded the National Anti-Vivisection Society and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

Frances Power Cobbe founded anti-vivisection organizations
frances cobbe

In Great Britain, an 1876 amendment to the 1849 Cruelty to Animals Act regulated the use of animals for scientific purposes and required the use of anesthesia, drugs that subdue sensation and/or consciousness (discovered in 1846).

This was the first legislation to regulate animal experimentation and would be the only one for 50 years to come until other, namely Western nations, began passing similar bills.

Modern Times

The 20th century brought major advancements to the understanding of the human body thanks to animal experimentation. We began to delve into hormones, vitamins, vaccines, cancer and cancer treatments, etc that saved human and non-human animal lives, and also allowed for a better, higher quality life.

In fact, animal experimentation became mandatory in some cases. After an untested drug called DEG was responsible for killing over a hundred people, the U.S. passed the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, requiring animals to be tested before marketing drugs.

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