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Darwin Correspondence Project

To T. H. Huxley   14 January 1875

Down Beckenham | Kent

Jan 14. 75

My dear Huxley

I received some time ago a foolish paper from Miss Cobbe about vivisection which I did not sign, & this morning I have received a duplicate asking for my signature, which I shall refuse.1 But I see the paper is now signed by many powerful names, including some doctors.2 It is to be presented to the House of Lords by the Archbishop of York—3 No doubt you have seen the papers, otherwise I would lend them to you. Other papers are likewise in circulation, & from what I see of their effect on sensible & independant people (eg my brother & the Litchfields),4 I fully believe that the House of Commons, being thoroughly unscientific, will pass some stringent law, enough to check or quite stop the revival of Physiology in this country. I am sure you will agree with me that this will be a great misfortune. A pamphlet by Miss Cobbe also makes me think (though the evidence is not quite sufficient) that many demonstrated truths causing great suffering are uselessly repeated;5 & I have reason to believe that experiments are made on animals without the use of anaesthetics, when they could be used, & this I look at as simply atrocious. Though the promoters of the present movement are flagratly unjust towards physiologists, this is no reason why they and all biologists should not do what can be done to save suffering. I think that if they were to present a petition to the House of Commons, signed by eminent physiologists & biologists, praying for reasonable legislation on the subject,—they would not only do direct good, but this would be by far the best way to counteract the passionate appeals of the promoters of the present movement. You know the report of Br Assocn at Liverpool (1870) signed by B. Sanderson, Flower, Humphry & others.6 This I should think would be an excellent model, & I for one should rejoice to sign a petition to the House that this Report should be enforced as far as possible by Law. Regulations known to be passed in conformity with the judgement of eminent physiologists could hardly fail to have at least a moral effect in all Physiological Laboratories in England; & this would be a grand result, I am sure that you will forgive me for troubling you on this subject on the chance of my doing any good. As you live in London & see other Physiologists you could easily gather whether they take at all the same view of the subject as I do. If nothing is done I look at the noble science of Physiology as doomed to death in this country. This letter is very badly expressed but I hope is intelligible.


No copy of Frances Power Cobbe’s paper has been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL. In December 1874, she 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 to restrict vivisection before Parliament (Cobbe 1904, pp. 628–9). The principal paragraphs of the memorial are reproduced in Cobbe 1904, pp. 633–5.
According to Cobbe, seventy-eight medical men signed the petition, including William Fergusson, a sergeant-surgeon to the queen (Cobbe 1904, pp. 629, 633).
William Thomson, the archbishop of York, had signed Cobbe’s petition to the RSPCA, but he was not one of the party who presented it to the RSPCA on 25 January 1875, and the RSPCA did not present the petition to Parliament (Cobbe 1904, pp. 629, 635.)
Erasmus Alvey Darwin, CD’s daughter Henrietta Emma Litchfield, and her husband, Richard Buckley Litchfield. See letter to H. E. Litchfield, 4 January [1875].
Cobbe’s memorial was circulated with two pamphlets written by Cobbe, Reasons for interference and Need of a bill (Cobbe 1904, p. 629).
In 1870, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Liverpool, the general committee asked the biology section to draw up a statement of their views on physiological experiments, and to consider whether any steps could be taken to reduce the suffering caused to animals (Report of the 40th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1870): lxii). The subcommittee appointed to fulfill this request reported at the 1871 meeting. They concluded that anaesthetics ought to be used whenever possible, and that painful experiments should not be used to demonstrate already established facts, should not be performed by unskilled persons, and should not be used for training. The report was signed by six men, including John Scott Burdon Sanderson and William Henry Flower. George Murray Humphry was a member of the subcommittee. (Report of the 41st Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1870): 144.)


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


Is alarmed by the petitions against vivisection that are being circulated. Believes there is scope for reasonable legislation and would like to see eminent physiologists prepare a petition so that the science could be protected and animals saved from needless suffering.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Thomas Henry Huxley
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 97: C37–8
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9817,” accessed on 9 December 2021,

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