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Darwin Correspondence Project

To H. E. Litchfield   4 January [1875]1

Jan 4th

My dear H.

Your letter has led me to think over vivisection2 (I wish some new word like Anæs-section could be invented) for some hours, & I will jot down my conclusions, which will appear very unsatisfactory to you.— I have long thought physiology one of the grandest of sciences, sure sooner, or more probably later, greatly to benefit mankind; but judging from all other sciences, the benefits will accrue only indirectly in the search for abstract truth. It is certain that physiology can progress only by experiments on living animals— Therefore the proposal to limit research to points of which we can now see the bearings in regard to health &c, I look at as puerile. I thought at first it wd be good to limit vivisection to 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 on investigation, & 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 likely to do good work.— I wd gladly punish severely anyone who operated on an animal not rendered insensible, if the experiment made this possible; but here again I do not see that a magistrate or jury cd. possibly determine such a point. Therefore I conclude, if (as is likely) some experiments have been tried too often, or anæsthetics have not been used, when they could been, the cure must be in the improvement of humanitarian feelings.—

Under this point of view I have rejoiced at the present agitation.3 If stringent laws are passed, & this is likely seeing how unscientific the H. of Commons is & that the gentlemen of England are humane, as long as their sports are not considered, which entail a hundred or thousand fold more suffering than the experiments of physiologists— if such laws are passed, the result will assuredly be that physiology which has been until within the last few years at a stand still in England, will languish or quite cease. It will then be carried on solely on the continent; & there will be so many the fewer workers on this grand subject, & this I shd. greatly regret.—

By the way F. Balfour, who has worked for 2 or 3 years in the Lab. at Cambridge, declares to George that he has never seen an experiment, except with animals rendered insensible.4 No doubt the names of Doctors will have great weight with the H. of Commons, but very many practioners neither know nor care anything about the progress of knowledge.

I cannot at present see my way to sign any petition, without hearing what physiologists thought wd be its effect & then judging for myself. 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 Trichinæ.—5

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

P.S. After what I have said about Balfour I must add that I have this minute heard from Frank, that Klein in the case of frogs does not always use anæsthetics, when he could do so & this is atrocious.6


The year is established by the reference to Frances Power Cobbe’s memorial against vivisection (see n. 3, below).
Henrietta’s letter has not been found.
In December 1874, Frances Power Cobbe had begun to circulate a memorial to be delivered to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals asking it to bring a bill before Parliament to restrict vivisection (Cobbe 1904, pp. 628–9). The principal 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’s experiments infecting rabbits with trichiniasis (also called 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]).


Cobbe, Frances Power. 1904. Life of Frances Power Cobbe as told by herself. Posthumous edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.


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

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Henrietta Emma Darwin/Henrietta Emma Litchfield
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 185: 36
Physical description
ALS 7pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9799,” accessed on 20 August 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 23