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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin and vivisection


Frances Power Cobbe
Frances Power Cobbe, Fom: Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, Published: 1894
Wellcome Library, London

Darwin played an important role in the controversy over vivisection that broke out in late 1874. Public debate was sparked when the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals brought charges against a French physiologist who had performed vivisection on dogs at the British Medical Association congress in Norwich. The prosecution was unsuccessful, but it gave rise to a series of campaigns to increase public awareness about experiments on live animals in Britain.

In December 1874, Darwin was asked to sign a memorial by the writer and social reformer Frances Power Cobbe. It called upon the RSPCA to investigate the nature and scope of vivisections performed in physiology laboratories and teaching hospitals, and to draft legislation that would protect animals from suffering. Darwin was sympathetic to the cause, but found some of Cobbe’s rhetoric inflammatory, and he strongly objected to her criticism of the eminent physiologist Rudolf Virchow. He explained his position to his daughter Henrietta: ‘I certainly could not sign the paper sent me by Miss Cobbe, with its monstrous (as it seems to me) attack on Virchow for experimenting on the Trichinae’ (letter to H. E. Litchfield, 4 January [1875]). Darwin also worried that any bill passed by a House of Commons largely ignorant of science might halt the progress of physiology. He reiterated these concerns in a letter to Thomas Henry Huxley ten days later, urging him to work with other physiologists to present their own petition (letter to T. H. Huxley, 14 January 1875).

In the event, Darwin became closely involved with the drafting of alternative legislation. Over the course of several months, he wrote dozens of letters to leading experimenters, physicians, surgeons, and public officials, and drew on his own family circle for assistance in preparing a bill for Parliament.

Darwin almost never involved himself in public controversy and so the extent of his activity in the vivisection affair is surprising. His own research on animals relied primarily on comparative anatomy, including dissection, and natural-historical observation. But he had drawn extensively on the work of physiologists in his study of emotional expression, and in his most recent research on insectivorous plants. Indeed, some of Darwin’s plant experiments, such as applying toxic substances to the common sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, were analogous to those performed on living animals. Such work had drawn him into close contact with England’s leading physiologists, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, Thomas Lauder Brunton, Michael Foster, and Edward Emanuel Klein, all of whom made extensive use of vivisection. This group had also jointly authored The handbook for the physiological laboratory (Klein et al. 1873), which became a focus of criticism in the debates because it described a wide range of vivisection procedures for use in teaching, and because it failed to mention anaesthetics.

Darwin’s indebtedness and allegiance to physiologists was matched, however, by his deep affection for animals and antipathy to cruelty. Darwin’s fondness for animals, especially dogs, is evident in his letters. Referring to his beloved terrier Polly, he wrote, ‘I most heartily subscribe to what you say about the qualities of Dogs, I have one whom I love with all my heart’ (Correspondence vol. 19, letter to ?, 19 May [1871]). As a magistrate in Down, he had acted to prevent harm to work animals by local farmers and their staff (see Correspondence vol. 14, letter to a local landowner, [1866?]). A regular subscriber to the RSPCA, he had campaigned with his wife Emma against the use of steel traps on game preserves. The couple jointly authored an appeal that was circulated to landowners with the premise that ‘an English gentleman would not himself give a moment’s unnecessary pain to any living creature, and would instinctively exert himself to put an end to any suffering before his eyes’.

Darwin was clearly disturbed by the prospect of animals suffering for science. In a letter to E. Ray Lankester, he wrote: ‘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’ (Correspondence vol. 19, letter to E. R. Lankester, 22 March [1871]). In the same year, Darwin had published Descent of man, which argued for intellectual and emotional continuity between humans and animals, and suggested that some animals possessed social sympathies akin to conscience. Darwin even described an animal enduring a painful experiment as an example of its tender and sympathetic nature: ‘everyone 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’ (Descent 1: 40).

 Vivisection was a sensitive subject within Darwin’s family. In his letter of 14 January 1875 to Huxley, Darwin mentioned the effect that Cobbe’s campaign and other critical writings on vivisection were having on ‘sensible & independant people (eg my brother & the Litchfields)’. Cobbe was an acquaintance of the Darwins, and part of a network of reformers and philanthropists that included Darwin’s brother, Erasmus, and his cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood. After Darwin refused to sign Cobbe’s memorial, Emma wrote to her privately, trying to explain her husband’s position, and voicing her own sympathies for the cause: ‘I do trust and believe that some good will be done, and that you will be rewarded for all the painful horrors you have had to read and consider. You have got such capital signatures that I do not know whether you would care for insignificant ones (men of course) or I might get one or two’ (letter from Emma Darwin to F. P. Cobbe, 14 January [1875]).

In the course of the public debate, Emma wrote a letter to a London newspaper renewing her appeal for humane animal traps, and drawing a parallel between the pain suffered by animals on hunting preserves and in laboratories: ‘If it is held that it is degrading to our physiologists to make, and to our medical students to witness, operations upon living animals under anaesthetics, what ought it to be to the gamekeeper who, night after night, prepares and sets instruments of torture’ (Emma Darwin (1904) 2: 201).

Darwin’s many contacts placed him in a strong position to act as an intermediary between different professional groups and interests. In drafting the bill on vivisection, he consulted with Huxley and Burdon Sanderson, with legal experts Godfrey Lushington and William Shaen, with leading medical men, such as James Paget, and with the influential politician Edward Henry Stanley, the earl of Derby. The resulting document went through many stages. Burdon Sanderson first drew up a memorandum in February that was to serve as the basis for a petition, and gave it to Huxley (letter from J. S. Burdon Sanderson, 12 February 1875). Darwin was in London from 31 March to 12 April, and during this period the draft went through several revisions. Darwin discussed the matter with Huxley, who produced a new sketch for a petition (letter from T. H. Huxley, [4 April 1875]). This was evidently passed back to Burdon Sanderson, who drafted a memorial, sending it to Darwin on 7 April (letter from J. S. Burdon Sanderson, 7 April [1875]), and circulating it to others in order to gather signatures. More alterations were made (letter from J. S. Burdon Sanderson, 10 April 1875), and another version was prepared with the legal assistance of Lushington and Darwin’s son-in-law Richard Buckley Litchfield.

On 11 April, Darwin learned that a bill based on Cobbe’s memorial had already been prepared for the House of Lords (see letter to J. S. Burdon Sanderson, [11 April 1875]). He was still unsure whether his own proposal should take the form of a bill or a petition that could be presented by a delegation of leading men to a government minister. Before he returned to Down, however, it was decided to draft a formal bill. Litchfield drew up a sketch that was approved by Huxley, Burdon Sanderson, and John Simon, a London pathologist and public health officer. Support was then sought from some ‘half dozen eminent scientific men’. Darwin sent a copy to Joseph Dalton Hooker requesting his approval as president of the Royal Society of London (letter to J. D. Hooker, 14 April [1875]). The next day he wrote to Stanley (Lord Derby), outlining the main points of the bill and asking for his counsel: ‘we wd do whatever else you think best’ (letter to E. H. Stanley, 15 April 1875). After further consultations, a second draft of the bill was prepared, and printed on 24 April. Burdon Sanderson and Huxley suggested approaching Lyon Playfair, an eminent chemist and MP for Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities, to present the bill in Parliament. The final bill was submitted by Playfair on 12 May.  

The Darwin Archive (DAR)  in Cambridge University Library contains documents that show the progress of the vivisection bill from the original handwritten petition, to the first and revised drafts of the proposed legislation, to the final bill as presented in the House of Commons. Some of the documents contain marginal notes and revisions in Litchfield’s hand. The changes made to the original proposal were substantial, and reflect extensive discussions and negotiations between different parties, some of which are evident in Darwin’s correspondence in April and May 1875.

The initial petition (DAR 139.17: 19) asserted the crucial role of vivisection for physiological and medical knowledge. It objected to the needless infliction of pain on animals, and invited legislation to prevent such cruelty, appending a report on vivisection prepared by a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1871 that outlined principles for regulating animal experiments. A handwritten copy of this report is in DAR 139.17: 18, and is reproduced below. The petition contained a lengthy paragraph on the treatment of animals in human society, the pain and death they suffered as a result of their use for human food, for clothing, as beasts of burden, and as sport; this discussion did not appear in later documents.

 A first sketch of the bill (DAR 139.17: 22) was printed for circulation in the second week of April, but is undated. It stipulated that vivisection might be performed only with a licence granted by the home secretary, and a certificate signed by the heads of various scientific and medical institutions. Licences could be issued for up to five years and were renewable. According to the proposed bill, vivisection for teaching purposes might be performed only using anaesthetics; whereas vivisection with the aim of new discovery might be performed without anaesthetics when necessary, provided that all possible measures were taken to minimise suffering. The penalty for unlawful vivisection was a fine of at most L50, with imprisonment for up to one month for any subsequent offence.  

The revised sketch and final bill are in DAR 139.17: 22–3. They are not reproduced here as the main changes were in the order of the clauses. In the revised sketch, dated 24 April 1875, the penalty for unlawful vivisection was increased to a fine of L50 or imprisonment for up to three months for each offence. This version also contained notes in Litchfield’s hand for an alternative title and preamble, which had been suggested by John Lubbock:  

 A Bill entitled An Act for the restriction of the making of experiments on animals for scientific purposes  
 Alternative Preamble – Whereas the useless infliction of pain on animals should as far as possible be prevented, and it is therefore expedient to prohibit the making of painful experiments on animals for scientific purposes except by duly qualified persons and under such restrictions and conditions as are hereafter specified:— (DAR 139.17: 22, p. 2)

The final bill presented in Parliament contained one additional change: the reference to the use of vivisection for teaching purposes was removed. This was reflected in the title and opening clauses, in which the reference to ‘scientific purposes’ was replaced with the more specific, ‘scientific discovery’:

 A Bill to Prevent abuse and cruelty in Experiments on Animals made for the purposes of scientific discovery  
 Whereas it is expedient to prevent cruelty and abuse in the experiments made on living animals for the purposes of promoting discoveries in the sciences of medicine, surgery, anatomy, and physiology … Any person, for the purpose of new scientific discovery, but for no other purpose, shall be permitted to make an experiment on a live animal … (Report of the Royal Commission on vivisection, Appendix III, p. 338)

Huxley and Burdon Sanderson both expressed their dismay at this alteration (letter from T. H. Huxley, 19 May 1875, letter from J. S. Burdon Sanderson, 23 May [1875]). Huxley complained that he would now be banned from using frogs to demonstrate fundamental physiological processes. Darwin wrote to Playfair about the changes, but Playfair insisted that Burdon Sanderson had approved of the final version, and that only minor corrections had been made (letter to Lyon Playfair, 26 May 1875, and letter from Lyon Playfair, 27 May 1875). In his testimony before the Royal Commission (see below), Darwin described the bill as having been ‘accidently altered’.

The Playfair bill was not the only one before Parliament. On 5 May, Lord Hartismere (John Major Henniker-Major) had submitted a legislative proposal on vivisection to the House of Lords. This measure had been initiated by Cobbe and was based on her original memorial to the RSPCA. The main difference between this bill and the physiologists’ bill was the provision for inspection: vivisection was to be confined to premises that were registered with the home secretary, and open to inspectors appointed under the Anatomy Act. Licences were to cost L10 and the period of licensing was much shorter (six months); however, the penalties were less severe (a L20 fine and no imprisonment). In contrast to the Playfair bill, the Henniker bill permitted vivisection for teaching, and defined vivisection as experimentation on a living vertebrate animal (Report of the Royal Commission on vivisection, Appendix III, pp. 337–8).

In the event, neither of the bills was passed. Debate was forestalled when the home secretary, Richard Cross, announced on 24 May that a Royal Commission would be appointed to investigate and report on the matter (Hansard Parliamentary Debates, 3d ser., vol. 224 (1875), col. 794). A Royal Commission was a standard governmental procedure, introduced in the early Victorian period as a means of gathering evidence and testimony on a complex issue prior to legislation. The commission was composed of persons of different interests and expertise. It included Huxley, a professor of surgery, John Erichsen, and several critics of vivisection, including the chair, Edward Cardwell, a vice-president of the RSPCA. The commission met between 5 June and 15 December 1875, examining fifty-three witnesses, whose testimony was presented in full in the final report.

Darwin was asked to appear before the commission on 3 November. He worried that his health would fail or that he would be too nervous. His testimony to the Commission was the briefest of any witness, is reproduced here. His last remark, that inflicting pain unnecessarily on an animal deserved ‘detestation and abhorrence’ was quoted in the committee’s final summary (Report of the Royal Commission on vivisection, p. x), and appeared repeatedly in the press. By this time, vivisection had become a substantial public controversy, and radical groups had formed promoting the total abolition of the practice. Legislation was passed in August 1876 allowing vivisection for original research and teaching under certain conditions, but the bill left many parties unsatisfied and controversy continued. Physiologists and a portion of the medical profession mounted a more organised defence. Darwin followed the debate with interest, but did not play such an active role again. 

About this article

Taken from 'Darwin and vivisection', F. Burkhardt et al. eds, The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 23 (1875), Appendix VI, pp. 579–84.

Volumes of the Correspondence are available from Cambridge University Press