Ethical Evolution

The history of medicine owes a debt to animals
Ethical Evolution Illustration

Illustration by Long Lam

Barely a century has passed since Louis Pasteur developed a vaccination for rabies. Since then, scientists have discovered treatments for some of the worst human scourges: smallpox, tuberculosis, polio and influenza. Much of their success can be traced to experiments on animals under circumstances that would shock us today.

Pasteur learned about rabies by infecting guinea pigs, rabbits and dogs with the invariably fatal disease. In the 20th century, the search for a polio vaccine took the lives of millions of monkeys (rhesus macaques). AIDS researchers still rely on monkeys to understand how the immune system responds to HIV and why some (sooty mangabeys) harbor the virus but never develop the disease.

In her book, Experimenting with Humans and Animals, From Galen to Animal Rights (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), Anita Guerrini tells the story of the scientists whose achievements transformed medical care and of the controversies that erupted around the use of animals for science. “It’s about how this theme traces through the Western tradition and enters into the history of medicine,” says Guerrini, a historian and Horning Professor in the Humanities at Oregon State University.

Everyday Cruelty

Advances in medical knowledge and the debate over human and animal rights go back to ancient Greece and Rome. They surface again in 17th century England, a time “when dancing bears, bears fighting with dogs, cockfighting and all manner of cat torture were commonplace, and everyday cruelty to animals was the rule rather than the exception,” writes Guerrini.

Scientists such as William Harvey, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke experimented on insects, rabbits, birds, fish, deer and dogs (Harvey even dissected the dead bodies of his wife’s dearly loved parrot and his own father) in the name of science. Harvey’s success in describing the circulatory system “brought animal experimentation into the forefront as a scientific method,” Guerrini adds.

Guerrini traces the philosophical roots of arguments for and against vivisection (the cutting of live animals) and of the trade-off between suffering and knowledge. For example, Rene Descartes argued that animals lack souls and can’t suffer in the way that humans can, but few accepted this argument.

England passed the first national law to regulate animal research in 1876. It took the United States 90 years to follow suit with the Animal Welfare Act. “Up to then, we had always trusted scientists to do the right thing,” Guerrini says. In 1985, universities and other organizations were required to establish institutional animal care and use committees (IACUC) to enforce higher standards of inspection and care. Those years also saw the rise of citizen activism through groups such as the Animal Liberation Front and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Before coming to Oregon State in 2008, Guerrini served on the IACUC at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is now a member of OSU’s IACUC.

In her own research, Guerrini is completing a book on anatomical research in pre-French Revolution Paris and looking at urban animals in pre-modern Paris and London.

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