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1945-1970: Science the Secular God

We cannot have peace among men whose hearts find delight in killing any living thing.
– Rachel Carson, 'Silent Spring' (1962)

In the post-World War II world sympathetic doctors were silenced on the subject of vivisection. Testifying before Congress, Boston’s Dr. Channing Frothingham charged: “These bureaucrats at the Journal of the American Medical Association have repeatedly refused to permit the publication in their journal points of view at variance with those of the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association (AMA)...This policy of suppression of the minority opinion has been maintained for many years.”

In 1947 the Society introduced a bill to exempt dogs and cats in Massachusetts from vivisection. Not a single humane society in Massachusetts supported its efforts, thus exposing the shocking rift that had developed between anti-vivisectionists and the humane societies. However, a second bill that would have allowed transferring animals in shelters to laboratories, the Nolan-Miles pound seizure bill (sponsored by the Massachusetts Medical Society, Tufts, Harvard, and Boston University), was defeated shortly after, helped in large part by the Society’s intense advertising campaign and the powerful editorials that appeared in the Hearst newspapers.

That same year the Society published C. S. Lewis’s powerful philosophical essay, “Vivisection,” which President Farnum urged Lewis to write after reading his book, The Problem of Pain. In “Vivisection” Lewis observed: “Man is simply the cleverest of anthropoids. All the grounds on which a Christian might defend vivisection are thus cut from under our feet...We sacrifice other species to our own not because our own has any metaphysical privilege over others but simply because it is ours. It may be very natural to have this loyalty to our own species, but let us hear no more from the naturalists about the ‘sentimentality’ of anti-vivisectionists” – an observation which anticipates Peter Singer’s critique of “speciesism.”

The conflict intensified when a special commission, set up by Governor Robert Bradford in 1949 to “investigate the question of vivisection,” concluded in its report, “The commission believes that...no anti-vivisection legislation should be enacted.” President Farnum deplored the “un-American editorial policy of those who mold public opinion,” citing the many pro-vivisection articles in Reader’s Digest, Ladies’ Home Journal, the New York Times, and Collier’s and the dearth of anti-vivisection articles that he correctly attributed to routine rejection by editors. However, a poll taken in 1949 by the Philadelphia Bulletin observed that 40% of the population opposed vivisection. As Dr. Howard Crum had written in the New York Journal American (a Hearst paper) in 1948: “These scientists will not admit that the public is against vivisection. They say only that the public must be saved from itself.

By the end of World War II an uneasy peace had settled over the country. The Atomic Age had become a reality and the Cold War had begun. More ominous for animals was the formation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1948 which had begun as a single “Laboratory of Hygiene” in 1887 with a modest budget of about three hundred dollars. By 1952, however, the NIH had become the largest funding agency in the country for biomedical research. In 1955 the federal government allotted $138 million for biomedical research; by 1965 the amount had escalated to $1.2 billion, by 1984 to $6 billion, and by 1999 to $15.6 billion.

Under President Johnson a dramatic increase in “basic research” took place as the NIH put its main efforts into understanding the underlying mechanism of disease rather than searching for direct cures or preventions of diseases. This “basic research” – knowledge for its own sake without any direct relevance to human health – made the demand for laboratory animals soar into the millions each year. Medical schools across the country became the major recipients of the NIH’s “basic research” policy and routinely trained thousands of students each year in how to do painful experiments on living, feeling creatures, and to think of those animals as mere research “tools.” Few students protested.

The biological inquisition

The 1950s were also dark and discouraging days for the Society. “Our opposition grows stronger, increasingly active and aggressive,” wrote Farnum. Dr. Walter Cannon of Harvard Medical School had earlier characterized anti-vivisectionists as one of the three greatest “enemies of society,” the other two being those who practiced forms of healing not affiliated with the American Medical Association (such as chiropractic, homeopathy, prevention, and mind/body healing) and those who were anti-vaccinationists. The government and universities officially sanctioned vivisection, and the medical establishment successfully silenced opposing viewpoints in the media.

Living Tissue Magazine
1950s NEAVS Living Tissue magazine

Without any qualms about the morality of their actions, each year the country’s most educated men and women offered the lives of millions of healthy animals on the altar of biomedical research. Author John Cowper Powys called it the “Biological Inquisition” and wrote, “Torturing animals to prolong human life has separated us from the most important thing life has produced – the human conscience.” Why was vivisection so entrenched? Dr. M. Beddow Bayly of the Royal College of Surgeons observed there were four reasons: tradition, vested interests, commercial exploitation, and pressure of mass opinion.

But cracks were beginning to appear in the wall of silence surrounding vivisection. In 1952 Dr. Robert Gesell, professor of physiology at the University of Michigan, himself a vivisectionist, charged in a startling attack on his colleagues during an address before the American Physiological Society:

“The National Society for Medical Research (NSMR) has had but one idea since its organization, namely to provide an ever inexhaustible number of animals to an ever-growing crowd of career scientists with but little biological background and scant interest in the future of man...Consider what we are doing in the name of science and the issue will become clear. We are drowning and suffocating unanesthetized animals in the name of science...We are producing frustration ulcers in experimental animals under shocking conditions in the name of science...We are observing animals for weeks, months, even years under infamous conditions in the name of science...With the aid of the halo supplied by the faith of the American people in medical science, the NSMR converts sanctuaries of mercy into animal pounds at the beck and call of experimental laboratories, regardless of how the animals are to be used.”

Another important turning point for animals came in the turbulent decade of the 1960s in the midst of the movements for women’s rights, civil rights, environmentalism, and the Vietnam war protests. In 1962 Rachel Carson courageously attacked the chemical companies in her landmark book, Silent Spring, claiming that the indiscriminate use of poisons such as DDT was causing wholesale destruction of wildlife and its habitat. In her book she boldly argued: “The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” Carson’s book did much to awaken the public to the idea that all nature is interrelated and that all living creatures have intrinsic value apart from their utilitarian value to humans.

Rachel Carson dedicated her book to philosopher and humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. Schweitzer’s philosophy, “Reverence for Life,” was often highlighted in Society publications and supported members' convictions that animals deserved ethical consideration. To Schweitzer, “A man is truly ethical when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow man.” In The Philosophy of Civilization Schweitzer wrote: “Ethics in our Western World has hitherto been largely limited to the relations of man to man. But that is a limited ethics. We need a boundless ethics which will include the animals.” This, of course, was the ethical bedrock of the Society. In 1962 the Society’s publication, Living Tissue, became Reverence for Life in honor of Dr. Schweitzer.

Reverence for life

Reverence for Life
NEAVS publication named in honor of Albert Schweitzer’s philosophy

In 1966, after years of hard work by animal protection advocates, Congress passed the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, the first federal law that addressed the care and treatment of laboratory animals. The American Medical Association fought the bill, calling supporters “humaniacs.” In 1970, the law was amended and became the Animal Welfare Act. These laws set specific standards for the housing, feeding, and handling of animals in laboratories, but, unfortunately, did not prohibit any kind of painful experiments on the animals.

Cleveland Amory, soon to become honorary vice president of the Society, wrote Farnum a letter of appreciation for his support of the bill, and later that year Farnum was presented with the “American Humanitarian of the Year” award by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS.) The award was well-deserved and it helped heal the terrible divide that had developed over the years between anti-vivisectionists and the humane societies.

George Farum
George Farnum and loyal friend

In 1970, the Society celebrated its 75th anniversary. Farnum was pleased to report in 1969, 73 advertisements were placed in metropolitan Boston newspapers that "reached one million readers each week.” Even physicians were responding. “Your advertisement in the Boston Globe finally ‘did it,’” wrote Alonzo Shadman, MD. “Enclosed is my check to carry on your good work. In my opinion experimentation on animals has produced little if any knowledge by which the medical establishment has been able to help suffering humanity.” Physician John Ames wrote, “I enroll as a member of your society because I had seen a picture of a dog in the Boston Herald and the inhumane treatment to which it has been subjected...Kindness to animals must be taught to our students early in life.”

Like the founders of the Society, George Farnum was a moralist who fought vivisection by appealing to the hearts and consciences of men and women. Aware that anti-vivisectionists were often ridiculed, Farnum had insisted that the battle be fought on high moral ground in order to gain the respect of the public. Upon his death in 1970, an era came to a close.

From 1970 onward, the battles were transferred to the courts and the legislatures and spearheaded by lawyers and lobbyists who, in the new climate of activism and “rights” that began in the 1960s, would attack vivisection on grounds that it was scientifically unsound, misleading, and inaccurate. They would make the case that alternatives to animals were available for experiments. And they would challenge the ultimate myth of the biomedical establishment that without animal experiments medical progress would come to a grinding halt.