1920 to 1945: Making the Ethical Statement

The position of the vivisector that man is justified in inflicting any amount of pain on any number of animals, provided the results conduce – or may conduce – to the benefit of the human race is a monstrous one...How far is man justified in knowledge which must be obtained by such means?

– Asa French, NEAVS President, 1920-1933

Upon the death of Edward Clement in 1920, Asa French, lawyer and U.S. District Attorney, became president of the Society. Under French’s leadership the Society continued to expand its influence both in America and abroad. In 1921 the Society helped Californians with their campaign to abolish vivisection by means of an amendment to their state constitution. Although the measure was defeated by a well-organized medical lobby, one-third of California’s citizens voted to put the abolition issue on the ballot. In 1922 Vice President John Codman lectured at the Boston Public Library on “Vivisection and the Public Conscience” and on “Human Vivisection” in 1926 in Philadelphia.

The Society’s local outreach program

NEAVS Vice President John S. Codman, 1922

The Society’s local outreach program was far ahead of its time. Realizing the importance of preventive medicine, Vice President Codman admonished his many listeners that human health depends more on diet, fresh air, and sanitation than on serums and surgery or “cutting up cats and dogs.” Nonmembers and members alike enjoyed occasional vegetarian meals at the Society’s monthly meetings where they heard Dr. Viola Kimmel talk about the merits of a meatless diet and Chester Green talk about the new “Fur Fabrics and Fashion” (imitation fur). Actors George Arliss and Minnie Maddern Fiske were ardent supporters of the Society at this time, as was Lotti Lehmann, internationally acclaimed singer. Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose now world-famous museum in Boston bears her name, became a life member. Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of suffragette Lucy Stone, and William Lloyd Garrison III, grandson of the great abolitionist, also were members of the Society. And in a bygone age of grace and civility, member John Orth, former pupil of Franz Liszt in Weimar, played the grand piano for members at the close of meetings at Tremont Temple, after which tea was served by the hospitality committee.

NEAVS members enjoy tea after a meeting circa 1935

While anti-vivisectionists were increasing their activities throughout the country, the number of animals used in experiments was increasing dramatically. Animals were now used worldwide to test chemicals, food additives, drugs, and pesticides, and the Society soon learned it was in for the “long haul.” After attending the 1929 International Conference for the Investigation of Vivisection, Vice President Codman told members: “We are saddened that the end is seemingly as far away as our founding fathers thought...But let us not forget that upon us who follow and who are now in the vanguard rests the task of organizing victory...and of not growing weary in well-doing...and some day, God grant it be soon, victory will come.

George Farnum as president

George Farnum
NEAVS President George Farnum, 1933–1970

With the election of George Farnum as president in 1933 and the move to a sunny office at 6 Park St. on historic Beacon Hill, a new and significant era began for the Society despite the Great Depression. Farnum, a lawyer and former Assistant Attorney General of the United States under President Herbert Hoover, was one of the Society’s most dedicated presidents. On the sloping brick sidewalk of the Society’s new storefront office opposite the Boston Common members placed a table and a “bargain box” where passersby could buy books and pamphlets or pick up free literature. The “walk-ins” also needed educated, for some thought “only dead animals were used in vivisection” and others that “only guinea pigs were used for experiments.” Before long the Society’s three-member staff and five volunteers had distributed 32,000 pieces of literature. Although donations decreased during the Depression, membership increased and the Society soon had 93 requests for literature from 26 different states.

In 1933 the Society again brought before the legislature a bill to exclude dogs from vivisection in Massachusetts. At the hearings, committee members heckled Vice President John Codman to the extent that his testimony could hardly be heard. People were interested in protecting their own dogs from the vivisection laboratories but not dogs in general, noted President Farnum sadly.

In 1934 Modern Medicine observed in its editorial, “Hysterical Crusade”: “The anti-vivisectionists are again hoisting the banners of their hysterical crusade...Anti-vivisection bills will be brought before the legislative assemblies of 32 states...They are apparently indefatigable.” The publication was referring to anti-vivisectionists’ efforts to stop pound seizure, a law that allowed the medical establishment to take lost and abandoned dogs and cats from city pounds for experiments. Because of the intensity of the pound seizure issue, there were 25 anti-vivisection societies in the United States by 1934.

NEAVS office
The NEAVS office at 6 Park St., Boston

In 1935 President Farnum sent Joseph Strickland as an “investigative reporter” to visit medical schools, hospitals, and vivisection labs and report exactly what was taking place. Farnum noted: “To capture the attention of hard-hearted legislators, we must present evidence of what is going on now. If we can enlighten people as to what takes place in the laboratories we will have no further trouble.” As he was to learn later, however, the “hard-hearted legislators” would never change their minds, no matter what horrific animal experiments were described to them, if they perceived experiments would “lead to cures for human diseases.”

Vivisection practices uncovered

Strickland successfully spoke to Kiwanis, Rotary, and Lions Club members about the danger of “pet napping” and the activities of unethical animal officers who often sold dogs and cats to medical schools and vivisection laboratories. Reporting to the Society on the laboratories, he told members he observed all types of organs removed from cats and dogs that were then implanted in other animals. He witnessed a prominent Boston surgeon crush the gall bladders of dogs and then “debark” them so their cries of agony could not be heard. He observed “surgeons of wide reputation” induce ulcers, jaundice, blood-clotting, and chronic hypertension in dogs. Often, newly vivisected dogs – still unconscious – were left carelessly in isolation to recover without humans to attend their wounds or alleviate their pain. He watched a dog die of shock after being vivisected for a third time. He observed a pig with its intestines tied off in such a way as to deprive it of proper nourishment. The deliberate blockage, together with a starvation diet, was intended to cause pernicious anemia.

ad Strickland told members he began his investigations as an impartial observer. However, after witnessing constant “mutilation of animals” and talking with vivisectors, his attitude changed. “These men are not trying to find any cure for human ills," he said. "They are merely seeking distinction and recognition in their own fraternity by writing report[s] which will attract attention.” Strickland continued his investigations and talks until they came to an abrupt halt with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

During the 1930s, radio, the new means of communication, was utilized by both anti-vivisectionists and the medical establishment to further their causes. The local radio station at first denied the Society airtime due to the “painful nature” of its subject matter, but so many anti-vivisectionists protested the management finally reversed its decision. In 1937 Strickland gave a radio talk for the Society on “The Traffic in Stolen Pets,” and later that year famed dancer Irene Castle McLaughlin flew to Boston to talk on “The Evils of Vivisection.” She had already been crusading to repeal pound seizure in Chicago. “There is no more carefully guarded practice than that of vivisection," she said. "The secrecy surrounding vivisection is the only thing that keeps the public reconciled to its existence.”

NEAVS Magazine Cover
NEAVS magazine cover, December 1944

By 1941 the world had plunged into the darkness of World War II. One of the few rays of light to brighten these dark days was that vivisection had become a “depressed industry,” as vivisectors were put to work saving human lives instead of killing animals. As the war was a total effort in America, dogs as well as humans were drafted in the service of their country. Living Tissue reported: “The Coast Guard dogs will endure the cold rigors of Greenland and the panting heat of the Marianas, and will be hitting the beaches of Normandy...They will be on the landing barges wearing collars with campaign ribbons and down the ramps when the Yankees swarm upon the beaches of the Philippines...They will even have their own life jackets.”

The dogs’ incredible feats of bravery and their remarkable displays of intelligence in the war effort were often highlighted in the wartime issues of Living Tissue sent to servicemen all over the globe. In 1942 the Society placed an advertisement in Boston newspapers: “Dogs are valiantly aiding humanity in war service. Are YOU repaying that debt?” Tragically, the debt was not being repaid. In spite of the fact that “man’s best friend” performed superbly in the war effort, it would prove impossible for the rest of the century to pass legislation of any kind that would exclude dogs – bred to trust humans – from the most terrible medical experiments.

The 50th anniversary

Gov. Baxter
Governor Percival Baxter of Maine

The war years brought support from old and new friends. Former Governor Percival Baxter of Maine wrote: “Do not spare me in any way, for I desire your audiences to know just how I stand on the vivisection issue...Kindness is the noblest trait of human nature, cruelty the meanest and lowest...There is no cruelty as selfish and despicable as vivisection. It must be abolished.” Other allies were the Hearst publications, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Times Herald, although they were the exceptions among newspapers which were on the whole pro-vivisection.

In 1945 the Society celebrated its 50th anniversary at its 6 Park St. headquarters. Members were joyous the war had ended, as were all citizens, but President Farnum noted the Society’s opposition “was growing stronger, increasingly active and aggressive – They have succeeded in enlisting powerful allies, including outstanding educators and prominent churchmen, we note with sorrow and shame...Worst of all, [they have introduced] their demoralizing propaganda into our schools.” These pro-vivisection developments in mainstream America weighed heavily upon Farnum. He protested to Harvard President James Bryant Conant that stolen animals were being used at Harvard Medical School. Sidestepping the issue, Conant replied, “You are aware, of course, that it is impossible either to teach medicine or accomplish advances in medicine lacking animal experimentation – indeed if experiments upon animals were prohibited it would be impossible to teach medical students in the Medical School of Harvard University and it would be quite impossible to contemplate advancing medicine.”

In addition, Farnum was troubled high school science fairs used animals indiscriminately in painful experiments. He was also troubled by the rift that had developed between the humane societies and anti-vivisectionists. Anti-vivisectionists were routinely criticized by the humane societies for their “fanatical attacks” on the medical establishment and the humane societies were in turn criticized by anti-vivisectionists for their toleration of animal research. Millions were spent each year “fighting cancer” – most of it on animal research – yet cancer kept increasing, as did other chronic diseases of the industrialized world such as diabetes, arteriosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke.

To counter the effectiveness of the vivisector’s claim that human health demanded animal experiments, Farnum decided to step up the Society's advertising campaign. Since the press was muzzled on the issue of vivisection, the Society would take the issue to the public by placing advertisements in leading newspapers. Before long Farnum could announce, “membership is now recruited from every state in the union and articles from Living Tissue are being reproduced or quoted in every part of the English-speaking world.”