Vivisection is the exploitation of living animals for experiments concerning the phenomena of life...Such experiments may range from procedures which are practically painless, to those involving distress, exhaustion, starvation, baking, burning, suffocation, poisoning, inoculation with disease, every kind of mutilation, and long-protracted agony and death.
– Albert Leffingwell, MD, 'An Ethical Problem' (1914)
There will come a time when the world will look back to modern vivisection in the name of science as they now do the burning at the stake in the name of religion.
– Henry J. Bigelow, MD, 'Surgical Anaesthesia: Addresses, and other papers' (1894)
The founding of NEAVS goes back to an event which took place at Harvard University in 1871. For animals it was an ominous event. In that year Professor Henry Bowditch, wishing to bring Harvard up to date with the latest European methods of studying physiology, established one of the first vivisection laboratories in the country at Harvard's new medical school. While Harvard President Eliot was very pleased with the new laboratory, Professor Henry Bigelow, famed surgeon at the medical school and the Massachusetts General Hospital, was not.
So deeply troubled was Dr. Bigelow at what he had seen in the new facility that he decided to appeal to Edward Clement, editor-in-chief of the prestigious Boston Evening Transcript. Closing the door of Clement's office carefully so that he could not be overheard, Dr. Bigelow said, "Do you know what they are doing at Harvard Medical School?" He told Mr. Clement about the new "scientific medicine" which used live animals in experiments. When the interview was over, Mr. Clement was convinced that the charge against Harvard was a serious one. Soon forceful editorials against vivisection began to appear in the Transcript, Boston's foremost newspaper; and the Transcript's readers, shocked at what they read, were determined to take a stand against this new "scientific medicine."
One of these determined persons was Joseph Greene of Dorchester, Massachusetts. In 1890 he had entered a contest sponsored by George Angell and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) and had won $250 for his essay, "Why I am Against Vivisection." Shortly afterwards, Greene approached Boston lawyer Philip Peabody, one of the judges in the contest, with the idea of starting an anti-vivisection society in New England. It was to be modeled after the Illinois Anti-Vivisection Society recently founded by Mrs. Fairchild Allen, a woman for whom Greene had the greatest admiration.
Before long, Greene had successfully recruited a group of Boston's most prominent citizens who gathered at Peabody's home at 18 Richfield Street, Dorchester, on March 30, 1895, to form the New England Anti-Vivisection Society. On September 12, 1895, the Society was incorporated at the Hotel Pelham in Boston and opened its first office at 179A Tremont Street. Philip Peabody became the Society's first president.
Peabody was a lawyer by profession but had also been trained as a physician and had firsthand knowledge of the notorious vivisection laboratories in Europe, especially those in France and Germany. In October 1895, the Society published Peabody's book, The Experiences of Two American Anti-Vivisectionists in Various Countries, in which he and physiologist Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll attested to the accuracy of what Dr. Bigelow had written: "There is little of what is called the 'horrors' of vivisection which is not grounded in truth." Peabody and the Society were convinced that once the public had knowledge of these "horrors" vivisection would never become widespread in America. Within a month the Society had two hundred members.
Like Dr. Bigelow, the Society's founders and early officers were prominent members of Boston society and activists of their day. Author Abby Morton Diaz had taught at Brook Farm, the famed utopian community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and was active in the women's suffrage movement. Margaret Sunderland Cooper was the daughter of La Roy Sunderland, ardent antislavery pioneer. Edward Clement, the Society's president from 1911 to 1920, was the editor-in-chief of the Boston Evening Transcript. John Sturgis Codman, vice president and treasurer of the Society in the 1920s, was an industrialist, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and cofounder of the Boston chapter of the Henry George School of Social Science at which he taught.
The Society's clearly stated goal from the beginning was "to expose and oppose secret or painful experiments upon living animals, lunatics, paupers or criminals." Members believed that once educated citizens had knowledge of these painful and secret experiments, they would demand legislation to regulate and then prohibit vivisection.
Fired with their mission, the Society's members could be found as early as 1898 leafleting on the Boston Common on Sunday afternoons at the corner of Charles and Beacon Streets, not far from where America's first subway station had just been built. "They drew a large and attentive audience [and] not all of this seed can fall on unreceptive ground," observed Joseph Greene. In 1898, Mrs. Sarah Field, a director of the Society, gave a talk on "Rights of Animals" at the monthly meeting of the Women's Suffrage League at the first Unitarian Church in Somerville. (The term, "rights" was not novel at this time, as the English Socialist, Henry Salt, friend of the ardent anti-vivisectionist, George Bernard Shaw, had published a book entitled Animals' Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress as early as 1892.)
In 1899, anti-vivisectionist Arthur Westcott arrived from England to bolster the Society's fledgling efforts with three lectures: "The Cruelties of Vivisection," "The Inoculation Craze," and "Pasteur as Chemist and Physiologist." In 1901, Dr. John F. Codman, the Society's president, announced that the Society had distributed fifty-thousand anti-vivisection pamphlets that year.
The Society's first official publication was called the Quarterly. In 1898 it was renamed the Monthly and in 1900 the Animals' Defender. The Society's early publications often addressed a wide spectrum of animal abuses that presaged the modern animal-rights movement. In an article, "Why We Are Anti-Everything" (1902), Editor Joseph Greene wrote that, although the Society's charter directed members' energies to fight vivisection, "We are [also] anti-eating of flesh, caging of animals, blood sports, horse racing and millinery with feathers."
The Society's members were urged to attend the Audubon Society's fashion show at Boston's Vendome Hotel in 1898 where beautiful "featherless Easter hats" would be modeled, and they were admonished to "Take home your Christmas parcels so poor overworked horses won't have to make deliveries in the evening." Those who wrote against blood sports in the Animals' Defender targeted President Theodore Roosevelt's big game hunting. Physicians often addressed a wide spectrum of health issues: the link between diet and disease, the importance of holistic healing, the mind/body relationship, and the unreliability of extrapolating the results of animal experiments to humans.
For almost a decade after the turn of the century, however, dark days loomed over the Society's activities. Its legislative efforts in 1900 and 1905 to restrict vivisection in Massachusetts failed. William James, Harvard's illustrious philosopher and physiologist, was sympathetic with their efforts: "The rights of the helpless—even thought they be brutes—must be protected [and] the individual vivisector must be responsible to some authority which he fears." Although almost one hundred doctors, clergymen, and other prominent citizens endorsed the bill filed in 1900, it failed due to the strenuous opposition of the well-organized and well-funded medical lobby which included physicians, public health officials, and professors from Wellesley College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard Medical School.
These "benefactors of society," as they called themselves, had convinced the public by the turn of the century that animal experiments were necessary to improve public health and find cures for diseases. Anti-vivisectionists attending the hearings wondered why there was not a public outcry against such horrible cruelty to animals. On this point Dr. Bigelow had been very clear: "It is because of the confidence the general public [now] places in the average scientist." Was this confidence justified? "No," said Dr. Bigelow. "The more eminent the vivisectionist, the more indifferent he usually is to inflicting pain. . . It should not for a moment be supposed that the cultivation of the intellect leads a man to shrink from inflicting pain." But when President Eliot of Harvard testified at the hearings, "I should not feel like putting any limit to the service [vivisection] of animals if it means saving the life of one child," the battle to restrict vivisection in Massachusetts came to a discouraging halt. Commenting on President Eliot's remark, the Washington Times editorialized, "It is but a step from this idea to the notion that the civilized man has a right to torture the savage and use him in experiments in vivisection if necessary."
The Society also had financial problems. When a crisis threatened its very existence in 1902, George T. Angell, founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and an ardent anti-vivisectionist, wrote to the Society's indefatigable Joseph Greene, "I would rather give you fifty dollars out of my own pocket than have you abandon it [anti-vivisection]." In spite of Angell's help, the Society had only one hundred dollars in its treasury in 1905, causing treasurer John Means to lament, "It is a misfortune that so good a cause has not yet inspired some humane person to make a substantial bequest." The apparently desperate situation at the Society led Dr. S. A. Knopf to report in the Medical News that same year, "The New England Anti-Vivisection Society appears to be drawing its last useless breaths, and that without the use of any anesthetic, strange as it may seem . . . . The soul of the anti-vivisection movement is probably dead, killed by facts and common sense." But Dr. Knopf had miscalculated.
When Edward Clement, the brilliant former editor-in-chief of the Boston Evening Transcript, became the Society's president in 1911, both memberships and bequests increased dramatically. Clement brought a well-known and honored name to the Society, as well as a penetrating mind which had been sharpened by years of discussion and writing on anti-vivisection. He also understood the power of the media in educating the public and framing the issues. In 1913, he served as the presiding officer at the newly formed International Anti-Vivisection Congress in Washington, D.C., and was also president of the Interstate Conference for the Investigation of Vivisection while president of the Society.
The "substantial bequest" which treasurer John Means had desperately needed in 1905 was realized when Caroline Ewen left the Society fifteen thousand dollars in 1915, thus making possible the creation and publication of a bold new magazine that year which President Clement called Living Tissue. The magazine exists, said Clement, "To oppose the contention of the vivisectors, 'implied or expressed' as Professor William James put it, 'that it is nobody's business what happens to an animal, so long as the individual who is handling it can plead that to increase science is his aim.'" Its brilliant and informative articles were sent to leading educators, physicians, and editors throughout the country. Copies also went to public libraries, the YMCA, and the Salvation Army, always with the goal of educating more and more of the citizenry about the evils of vivisection and to "crystalize public opinion into legislation."
In the first edition of Living Tissue Clement wrote:
With no reflection on any and with charity and sympathy for all, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society points to the fact that it is the one and only anti-cruelty animal organization in the New England states making an open and avowed opposition to vivisection its primary and specific object. It consciously sacrifices in adopting this course both the contributions and the popularity gained by other anti-cruelty organizations.
Members were discouraged when the Society's bill to exempt dogs from vivisection in Massachusetts failed in 1916. But Clement cautioned against impatience. Although vivisection had become the accepted method of instruction in every leading college or university in the country by 1918, he reminded members that victory over vivisection would grow slowly because "an idea has to be presented over and over again until it finds lodgment in the human mind," citing the antislavery and the women's suffrage movements as two other examples of difficult battles for social justice.
In 1917, the Society placed New York physician Albert Leffingwell's critique of vivisection, An Ethical Problem, in 111 public libraries in Massachusetts. With great prescience Leffingwell predicted that preventive medicine would be medical science's great gift to humankind and that it would be accomplished without the "crime" of vivisection. In An Ethical Problem he wrote: "It is not through the torment of living creatures, nor through the limitless sacrifice of laboratory victims . . . that medical science will yet achieve for humanity its great boon—the prevention of diseases. . . . Although the fight will be a long one, reform will come and will triumph like (1) agitation against slavery (2) torment of criminals (3) burning of heretics."
In 1920, the Society celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in its headquarters at "Tremont Temple," an office building near the Parker House hotel. Members thought their best accomplishments had been outreach to other groups, publications, distribution of literature to libraries and other organizations, and filing legislation. President Clement told members, "Although efforts have been made to enlarge the scope of our work, the majority votes that we keep in one line—opposition to vivisection." He reminded members again, "The most fruitful of the Society's activities is the work of educating the public, which is always and everywhere the basis for legislation."
Clement's dedication and determination kept the spirit of the Society alive, while the ever increasing number of bequests kept the office functioning and the literature widely distributed. By 1920, the Society could announce a yearly return of $1,918.74 from its investments. By 1921, the Boston Evening Transcript noted, "The 'antis' [anti-vivisectionists] have become a force to be reckoned with." This recognition was due mainly to Clement's exceptional leadership, his wide circle of friends, and his ability to produce a publication with brilliant incisive attacks against the vivisectors-many of whom were his friends.