Letter icon
Letter 9799

Darwin, C. R. to Litchfield, H. E. (Darwin, H. E.)

4 Jan [1875]


Describes his views on vivisection. Cannot sign petition of F. P. Cobbe, with its attack on Rudolf Virchow.


Jan 4th

My dear H.

Your letter has led me to think over vivisectionf2 (I wishsome new word like Anæs-section could be invented) forsome hours, & I will jot down my conclusions, which will appearvery unsatisfactory to you.— I have long thought physiology oneof the grandest of sciences, sure sooner, or more probably later,greatly to benefit mankind; but judging from all other sciences, thebenefits will accrue only indirectly in the search for abstract truth.It is certain that physiology can progress only by experiments onliving animals— Therefore the proposal to limit research to pointsof which we can now see the bearings in regard to health &c, I lookat as puerile. I thought at first it wd be good to limit vivisectionto public laboratories; but I have heard only of those in London &Cambridge & I think Oxford; but probably there may be a few others.Therefore only men living in a few great towns could carry oninvestigation, & this I shd consider a great evil. If private men,were permitted to work in their own Houses, & required a license,I do not see who is to determine whether any particular man shd.receive one. It is young unknown men who are the most likelyto do good work.— I wd gladly punish severely anyone whooperated on an animal not rendered insensible, if the experimentmade this possible; but here again I do not see that a magistrate orjury cd. possibly determine such a point. Therefore I conclude, if(as is likely) some experiments have been tried too often, or anæstheticshave not been used, when they could been, the cure must bein the improvement of humanitarian feelings.—

Under this point of view I have rejoiced at the present agitation.f3If stringent laws are passed, & this is likely seeing how unscientificthe H. of Commons is & that the gentlemen of England are humane, aslong as their sports are not considered, which entail a hundred orthousand fold more suffering than the experiments of physiologists—if such laws are passed, the result will assuredly be that physiologywhich has been until within the last few years at a stand still inEngland, will languish or quite cease. It will then be carriedon solely on the continent; & there will be so many the fewerworkers on this grand subject, & this I shd. greatly regret.—

By the way F. Balfour, who has worked for 2 or 3 years inthe Lab. at Cambridge, declares to George that he has neverseen an experiment, except with animals rendered insensible.f4 No doubtthe names of Doctors will have great weight with the H. of Commons,but very many practioners neither know nor care anythingabout the progress of knowledge.

I cannot at present see my way to sign any petition, without hearingwhat physiologists thought wd be its effect & then judging for myself.I certainly could not sign the paper sent me by Miss Cobbe, withits monstrous (as it seems to me) attack on Virchow for experimentingon the Trichinæ.—f5

I am tired & so no more. | Yours affectionately | Ch Darwin

P.S. After what I have said about Balfour I must add that I havethis minute heard from Frank, that Klein in the case of frogsdoes not always use anæsthetics, when he could do so & this isatrocious.f6

DAR 185: 36



The year is established by the reference to Frances Power Cobbe’smemorial against vivisection (see n. 3, below).
Henrietta’s letter has not been found.
In December 1874, Frances Power Cobbe had begun to circulate amemorial to be delivered to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals asking it to bring a bill beforeParliament to restrict vivisection (Cobbe 1904, pp. 628–9). Theprincipal paragraphs of the memorial are reproduced in Cobbe 1904, pp. 633–5. The memorial was presented on 25 January 1875 (Cobbe 1904, p.635). See also The Times, 26 January 1875, p. 7.
Francis Maitland Balfour and George Howard Darwin were both fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.
The memorial mentioned Rudolf Carl Virchow’sexperiments infecting rabbits with trichiniasis (alsocalled trichinosis), a parasitic disease (Cobbe 1904, p. 634).
Francis Darwin had become acquainted with Edward Emanuel Klein while he was studying medicine in London (see, for example, Correspondence vol. 21, letter from Francis Darwin, [1873]).
Maximized viewPrint letter