Susan Hamilton, “On the Cruelty to Animals Act, 15 August 1876”


The Cruelty to Animals Act (15 August 1876) was the world’s first legislation to regulate the use and treatment of live animals in scientific research. This essay overviews the passage and provisions of the legislation, approaching the Cruelty to Animal Act as a site through which to examine the place of animals in clashes between an experimental medical science insisting on its professional and self-regulating status and animal welfare pressure groups that claimed a public right to shape the direction of medical science’s activities.

British Coat of Arms

Figure 1: The Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Cruelty to Animals Act was the world’s first legislation to regulate the use and treatment of live animals in scientific research. Known as the Vivisection Act (or Vivisector’s Charter by those who opposed it), the history of its passage and the response to its administration opens a window onto nineteenth-century ideas about animals and the role of experimental science in medical research. Through an exploration of its provisions and administration, as well as the range of pressure-group tactics deployed by both proponents and detractors during the lead up to its passage and beyond, this essay approaches the Cruelty to Animal Act as a site through which to examine the place of animals in clashes between an experimental medical science insisting on its professional and self-regulating status and animal welfare pressure groups that claimed a public right to shape the direction of medical science’s activities.

Questions posed as the Act took shape and came into effect proved tenacious, occasioning extensive debate and indicating differences that were not to be eased, at least for anti-vivisectionists, for decades to come.  Amongst the many questions: What is the role of anesthesia in assessing pain? Are experiments under anesthesia still cruel? What kinds of animals require or deserve protection? Should an inspection system exist? Who can be an inspector? In answering questions like these, experimental science approached vivisection as a vitally modern scientific method that generated essential scientific knowledge. Control and regulation of its practice was fundamental to experimental science’s rising professional legitimacy and expert status. Anti-vivisectionists, however, answered such questions very differently. Rejecting medical science’s claims to expert self-regulation in the matter of animal welfare, anti-vivisectionists presented themselves as representatives of a broader public, all members of which were legitimate participants in the ethical evaluation and oversight of animal pain.

The Passage of the Act

In May 1875, two draft bills to regulate the use of living animals in scientific experiments were presented in the map iconHouses of Parliament, one to the House of Lords and one to the Commons. The first was presented to the House of Lords on 4 May 1875.  Known as Henniker’s Bill, it defined vivisection as “the cutting or wounding or treating with galvanism or other appliances, any living vertebrate animal for purposes of physiological research or demonstration, also the artificial production in any living vertebrate animal of painful disease for purposes of physiological research or demonstration.”[1] The draft Bill called for all vivisections to be performed at premises specifically registered for that purpose and to be open to inspection by the Home Secretary, and further required that anaesthetics be used in all experiments, excepting those undertaken by individuals with a personal license granted by the Home Secretary.  The draft Bill provided for fines up to £20 for violations. Henniker’s Bill had been drafted at the request of Frances Power Cobbe, who would emerge as the powerful leader of the largest anti-vivisectionist group in England, the Victoria Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection.[2]

The second draft Bill, presented by Lyon Playfair, was intended to head off Henniker’s Bill at the pass. It had been pulled together through the efforts of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and John Burdon Sanderson, a leading physiologist and one of the few scientists in England then regularly using living animals in his research.  (On Darwin, see Ian Duncan, “On Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle” and Cannon Schmitt, ““On the Publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, 1859″; on Huxley, see Jonathan Smith, “The Huxley-Wilberforce ‘Debate’ on Evolution, 30 June 1860.″) Presented on 12 May 1875, just days after Henniker’s, this draft Bill proposed the regulation of painful experiments on living animals and recommended the legalization of all painless experiments, including in this definition all those conducted under anaesthesia that were “for the purpose of scientific discovery, but for no other purpose.” Such painless experiments were to be removed from state regulation and the purview of Martin’s Act, the 1822 law that offered protection from cruel treatment to cattle and other large domestic animals. (On Martin’s Act, see Ivan Kreilkamp, “The Ass Got a Verdict: Martin’s Act and the Founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1822.″) The Playfair Bill also outlined a process for granting five-year licenses to perform painful experiments to enable long-term scientific research programs. Licenses for painful experiments undertaken without anesthesia could also be granted by the Home Secretary on several grounds: first, “for the purpose of new scientific discovery and for no other purpose,” second, when the use of anaesthesia interfered with the experiment, and, third, when pain and suffering were to be kept to an absolute minimum. Those granted a license under such terms would be required to keep records of all experiments performed or face various penalties, including fines up to £50 and three months imprisonment.[3] As David Feller points out, the Playfair Bill placed scientists under government supervision only in the case of painful experiments, and left the decision to apply for license “to the scientist’s judgment” (266).

Neither the Henniker nor the Playfair draft Bill passed into law. Controversial, representing diverse interests, and introduced by private members late in the Parliamentary session, the stand-off created by the Bills led to the establishment of a Royal Commission, the formation of the first formal anti-vivisection societies, and in due course the establishment of the powerful medical lobbying group, the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research (AAMR). The historian Richard D. French has argued that the two draft Bills shared much in common, despite significant differences, including provision for painful experiments under controlled conditions, and suggests that the differences “were more the product of two independent attacks on the same complex question, without benefit of precedent or any extensive experience with similar legislative problems, than they were of deep seated irreconcilable viewpoints on what was or was not permissible in the way of experiments upon living animals” (75).

Certainly, the legislation that received Royal Assent on 15 August 1876 brought together many of the key provisions outlined in the Henniker and Playfair Bills. The Home Secretary oversaw all licensing of experiments on living vertebrate animals, as well as the registering and periodical inspection of all premises for experimentation. Licenses were valid for one year and required the support of a president of one of eleven named medical or scientific bodies and a professor of medicine or medical science. Scientists could be granted licenses for experiments conducted without anaesthesia or for experiments conducted for demonstration purposes with anaesthesia under the same terms. Experiments were to have a medically useful end. No experiments were permitted before the public or for the purpose of improving manual dexterity. Experiments on dogs, cats, horses, mules and asses could be conducted without anaesthesia if the necessity of these animals to the success of the experiment could be shown. Curare, a substance that immobilized animals without de-sensitizing their nerves, was not defined as an anaesthetic under the Act. Penalties imposed for improper licensing were relatively mild: up to £50 for a first offence and up to £100 or three months imprisonment for a second and any subsequent offences. All prosecutions under the Act required the written permission of the Home Secretary.

The Act’s passage, however, did not foreclose public discussion of the legitimacy or necessity of vivisection. The Act, and the practices it regulated, continued to generate questions that engaged ethical, political, scientific, and legal expertise, and yielded profoundly different, often contingent, answers for the groups involved. Responses also drew upon each group’s past political practices as the high stakes of legislating vivisection became clear. The differences between research and demonstration, for example, were critical both for medical scientists and anti-vivisectionists. What is the purpose of demonstration in experimental physiology? Is it necessary to medical teaching? Is the spectacle of expertise that demonstrations provide crucial to the emerging discipline’s claim to scientific legitimacy? Anti-vivisectionists argued that vivisection for demonstration purposes was immoral for its potentially coarsening effect on lay and student audiences, a coarsening that could also yield an increase in the number of vivisections performed. The neat distinction between demonstration and research encoded in this anti-vivisection definition, however, belied the medical and scientific contention that experimentation by its nature is difficult to define. How could science distinguish between teaching demonstration and advancing knowledge? What counted as established knowledge in an emerging discipline?

Such concerns about scientific demonstrations had deep roots in the larger Victorian animal welfare movement, and were at the center of the first attempts to control experimental vivisection. In 1863, animal welfare advocates had publicly exposed the routine vivisection of horses, aimed at improving the manual dexterity of students, at the map iconprestigious veterinary college in Alfort, France, and called for the abolition of such teaching demonstrations in England.[4] Just one year before the draft vivisection Bills were presented, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) attempted to expose the limitations of the 1822 Martin’s Act, which outlawed cruelty to larger domestic animals like horses and cattle, by prosecuting scientists involved in a demonstration at the 1874 map iconBritish Medical Association meeting at map iconNorwich.

Similarly, concerns about animal pain, ranging from how to identify and classify it and whether it was ever permissible to inflict it at all, had a long history in both animal welfare and medical science. Those concerns drew attention to the debate over the use of anaesthesia in medical science, particularly the use of substances like curare, which immobilized animals without de-sensitizing nerves. Did anaesthesia legitimate the use of animals in scientific experiments? Are some animals, such as pets, more sensitive to pain than others? Are domestic animals more deserving of legislative protection? Should domestic pets like dogs and cats be exempted from all experimentation? What about animals whose relations to humans as service or food animals made them vulnerable to particular forms of maltreatment? Were all such distinctions the consequence of sentimentality or biased judgment?[5] Who should decide? Importantly, at the time of the draft bills and the Act that followed, when experimental physiology proposed to advance medicine through basic research, such questions were not the sole provenance of anti-vivisectionist or animal welfare groups. Medical and scientific practitioners queried the role of experimental research in therapeutic practice as well.

The quick proliferation of complex questions, briefly mapped here, indicates that the debate about the use of live animals in scientific research is not solely about the history and changing mandates of animal protection societies. It is also rooted in physiology’s rise to professional status and the changing place of vivisection in the establishment of physiology as a legitimate scientific discipline. The focus of anti-vivisection societies on animal pain is similarly caught up in changing attitudes to animals and emerging ideas about sentience and rights, as well as the impact and spread of changing medical technologies (like anaesthesia) that made pain avoidable and manageable. By examining the terms and venues of debate during this intense period, we can better understand the high stakes of vivisection legislation and assess the agitation around the use of live animals in scientific research that continued in the decades after the passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act.

Pain and Anesthetics

In the vivisection controversy, the status of the animal pain inflicted by experimental science is critical. For anti-vivisectionists, the infliction of pain on animals in the name of science was extensive, unethical, and clearly evident in scientific publications. Anti-vivisection periodicals like the Zoophilist (the journal of the Victoria Street Society) and the Home Chronicler routinely printed select details of experiments, culled from scientific publications and documenting painful procedures. The weekly Home Chronicler regularly reprinted details drawn from Reports of map iconSt. Bartholomew’s Hospital. A column titled “Dr. Wickham Legg’s Experiments on Cats,” for example, was repeatedly printed in the periodical, operating as a kind of ‘department’ in the paper alongside letters to the editors, news of meetings, and similar matter. For physiologists, the methods of experimental science were critical to establishing physiology as a legitimate science. Animal pain, though regrettable, was a necessary element in the experimental method and the medical benefits to humans that might ensue from experimentation. Importantly, at the time of the Cruelty to Animals Act, medical science could not claim a consensus on the medical benefits of a nascent experimental practice. Indeed, in the efforts to pull together what became Playfair’s Bill, scientists like Darwin, Huxley and Burdon Sanderson encountered substantial resistance amongst medical practitioners to supporting legislation that was based on their skepticism about the therapeutic claims for vivisection (French 72). That lack of consensus would be systematically exploited in anti-vivisectionist agitation for decades to come, and the presence of a medical doctor on the anti-vivisectionist platform—whether in person or in print—became a key marker of legitimacy for the movement.

In the debate over the ethics of animal pain, books like John Burdon Sanderson’s Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873) emerge as a critical touch stone. On the one hand, the book epitomizes the emerging discipline’s claim to legitimacy through its articulation of standards of practice. On the other, the book documents that same discipline’s resolve to professionalize in the face of animal suffering. Described as a “watershed in the transmission of Continental methods [of physiology] to British laboratories” (Richards 127), the Handbook laid the foundations for England’s claim to participate in research innovations sweeping through experimental science.[6] Though its circulation was likely limited, and Sanderson himself estimated that there were only about fifteen experimental physiologists in the country, the impact of its publication was considerable. Its title and introduction indicated its textbook status and outlined its practical purpose. As Sanderson wrote in the introduction:

This book is intended for beginners in physiological work. It is a book of methods, not a compendium of the science of physiology; and consequently claims a place rather in the laboratory than in the study . . . The practical purpose of the book has been strictly kept in view . . . [and] many subjects are omitted . . . either because they do not admit of experimental demonstration or because the experiments required are of too difficult or complicated a character to be either shown to a class or performed by a beginner. (vii)

Such comments suggested that the book was designed to be used by students beginning study of a new discipline, and produced in the expectation that numbers of such students would increase. To anti-vivisectionist readers, the book seemed evidence of the intended widespread evangelization and practice of vivisection. Most significantly, the Handbook made no explicit reference to anesthesia or how and when to use it in experiments. This absence was seized upon by anti-vivisectionists as proof that animal pain was inconsequential to experimental scientists, and so proof of the profession’s indifference to the welfare of animals. As Cobbe wrote many years later in her autobiography, Burdon Sanderson’s Handbook, “with minute directions for performing hundreds of operations, proved that the danger was not remote or theoretical; but already present and at our doors” (Life, vol. 2 569).

For physiologists, however, the book embodied the discipline’s professional status, offering a clear guide to its techniques; anti-vivisectionist fears were grounded in the ignorance of the non-expert. In his testimony to the 1875 Royal Commission, Burdon Sanderson asserted that anaesthesia was “a thing taken for granted” in his book, and explained the absence of a stated policy on pain control in terms of his intended audience:

we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft in writing it, and [. . .] did not guard against all possible misunderstandings of that sort. It is generally understood that we use anaesthetics whenever we can, and consequently that is a thing taken for granted. That ought to have been stated much more distinctly at the beginning in a general way; but it was not stated for the reason I have given. (Report, Question 2265)

For Burdon Sanderson, the Handbook was addressed to an audience of fellow professionals, those who belonged to his “craft.” The reception of the book by outsiders had played no role in his conception, yet quickly gave it a new and unexpected prominence. Importantly, such publications could circulate beyond intended professional audiences, as Cobbe’s critique of the Handbook makes clear. The exposure of the Handbook by anti-vivisectionists meant that experimental physiology would become increasingly aware of the ways in which specialized publications always participated in the full circuit of public communication, and would learn to exert some control over the ways in which scientific knowledge circulated to lay audiences. In these early days of agitation, Burdon Sanderson’s testimony to the Royal Commission did not prevent anti-vivisection organizations from exploring the potential impact that the lack of a stated pain policy in the book could have on students of physiology. Images of “beginners” in physiology carefully copying the experiments so fully explicated and illustrated in the Handbook would come to be a useful tool in anti-vivisectionist agitation.

Burdon Sanderson’s testimony also provides a rather tidier view of anaesthetics and their use in experiments than might be assumed by many at this time, and blurs the real debate circulating around their use both in scientific and anti-vivisectionist circles. The technological limitations of volatile anaesthetics, the usefulness and difficulties of curare (a substance that paralyses without anaesthetizing), and the importation of a Continental laboratory culture to England, were at the center of contemporary discussions of anesthesia.[7] Importantly, the Handbook makes no reference to anaesthetics in its pages but does make explicit reference to curare in its index. One anti-vivisectionist, George Hoggan, a retired navy officer and doctor of medicine, made his skepticism about anaesthetics, curare in particular, the core of his opposition to vivisection months before the debates over the Henniker and Playfair Bills began. After four months working with French physiologist Claude Bernard, Hoggan determined to expose what he saw as the dangers of Continental laboratory culture to an English audience. Media coverage of Hoggan’s letter to the daily Morning Post of 2 February 1875 was extensive. This much-reprinted letter established the darkness (metaphorical and seemingly literal) of the vivisection laboratory, the pathetic attempts of animals to escape, and the cruel indifference of the experimenter, as central truths of the anti-vivisection movement and raised fears that “English” men of science were contaminated by European cruelty. For Hoggan, anaesthetics offered animals no protection in such a laboratory culture. His later avowal, “I am inclined to look upon anaesthetics as the greatest curse to vivisectible animals” (“Anaesthetics” 690), gave anti-vivisectionists the material they needed to push for legislation and continued to be reprinted as the place of anaesthetics in the scientific laboratory remained under anti-vivisectionist attack.

Yet, anti-vivisectionist criticism of anesthetics should not obscure the concern with animal pain that marked English science, and the role of professional self-regulation in responding to that concern. In 1871, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) discussed a four-point code to regulate physiological experiments. Animal pain appears here to have been a kind of originating concern. The proposed code’s key points were: first, to use anesthesia whenever possible; second, teaching demonstrations involving live animals were either to be painless or must use anaesthesia; third, painful research experiments were to be performed solely by skilled people using proper instruments and laboratory facilities; and, fourth, veterinary education was not to use vivisection to improve manual dexterity. The proposed code shows that the emerging physiology profession was aware of the concern about animal pain amongst lay and medical audiences, and that its answer to that concern lay in the profession’s expert ability to self-regulate. Though the four point BAAS code formed the basis of the Playfair draft Bill’s provisions (Feller 266), the efficacy of professional self-regulation as a solution to animal pain was under constant dispute in the lead up to the Act, becoming a signature theme in pro- and anti-vivisection arguments. Interestingly, Burdon Sanderson’s Handbook makes no explicit reference to the BAAS’s four rules for experimentation.

Demonstration and Expertise

If animal pain is central to the vivisection controversy, so too is concern about the place of teaching demonstrations and the use of live animals to improve manual dexterity. Prior to the passage of the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, animal welfare groups tested the limits of the existing 1822 Martin’s Act for its efficacy in regulating vivisection. With John Colam, Secretary of the RSPCA leading the charge, British animal welfare used the 1874 meeting of the British Medical Association at Norwich to demonstrate the need for new legislation. Invited to the August 1874 BMA meeting to lecture on the effects of alcohol, French physiologist Eugene Magnan demonstrated the induction of epilepsy in dogs by intravenous injection of alcohol and absinthe. Audience reaction was immediate: medical members disrupted the demonstration, with the President of the Royal College of Surgeons in map iconIreland cutting the restraints of one of the dogs and calling the county magistrates. The subsequent RSPCA enquiry led to charges of wanton cruelty under Martin’s Act leveled at Magnan and the English scientists who had arranged the demonstration. Though the resulting trial in December 1874 did not find against the three English colleagues, concluding that they had not participated in the demonstration though they had arranged it, the legal wrangle successfully established the limits of protection offered to animals under Martin’s Act.

The Norwich trial is a significant episode in nineteenth-century animal welfare, and its importance was quickly channelled for political action. Press coverage of the trial indicated substantial public interest in vivisection, including consideration of the value of painful demonstrations of established scientific knowledge. British Medical Journal, for example, noted that the effects of alcohol and absinthe on people were well known. One month after the trial, Frances Power Cobbe called for the RSPCA to organize against vivisection, providing more than six hundred names in support of her call including those of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, Robert Browning, Benjamin Jowett, and the Archbishops of York and Westminster. Her memorial–as the petition was termed–was published in the RSPCA journal Animal World, targeted medical and scientific claims to expertise in the matter of vivisection, and characterized English physiology as a “dilettantism of discovery” in which “the ambition for scientific notoriety,” not the mitigation of the sufferings of humanity, was a significant motivation for experiments (“Memorial” 38). Cobbe also articulates what would become a powerful question in anti-vivisectionist literature: if Magnan felt able to demonstrate at Norwich in full view of press and public, what will others feel free to do in unseen private laboratories? The cruelty of the “working hands” of the physiologist became a rallying cry in later anti-vivisectionist material. What are the self-regulating “experts” up to?

Cobbe’s memorial established a separate anti-vivisection movement and galvanized the medical and scientific groups that formed a key constituency in the RSPCA to protest against any emerging anti-vivisectionist tendency in the organization. As Brian Harrison argues, the RSPCA was never a single-issue humanitarian organization, and had often encouraged the set up of specialized splinter groups (such as the Battersea Dogs’ Home) as one way of managing the competing, often conflicting, mandates that were articulated under the large RSPCA umbrella (105). Though the organization agreed to head-up a fact-finding committee, Cobbe was disappointed to find the group assembled “were not the men to take the lead in such a movement and make a bold stand against the claims of science” (Life 577-78).  When the President of the RSPCA repudiated Cobbe’s memorial and her efforts to organise in the pages of the Times, the need for a separate anti-vivisection movement was clear.

Royal Commission and Legislation

Three weeks after the initial submission of the Henniker draft Bill, and after calls from the established press as well as medical press papers such as the Lancet, a Royal Commission was established on 24 May 1875. The commission’s mandate included determining the extent of vivisection in Great Britain, measuring the cruelty involved in those experiments, and generating proposals for regulating vivisection that addressed concerns to guard against the abuse of animals alongside support for the appropriate conduct of scientific research. The membership of the Commission balanced public lay opinion, animal welfare interests, and scientific interests. The commissioners met between 5 July and 15 December 1875, examining fifty-three witnesses, including RSPCA secretary John Colam, George Jesse (founder of the Society for the Abolition of Vivisection), George Hoggan, and the physiologists John Burdon Sanderson, and Emmanuel Klein.

The historian of the vivisection controversy, Richard French, draws attention to the unevenness of testimony to the Commission. Some witnesses, including anti-vivisectionist George Jesse, were simply unimpressive. Others revealed the continuing unease over the place of the experimental method in the medical profession. French notes the able criticism of experiments by John Colam and other medical witnesses with animal welfare interests, but suggests that these were outweighed by the testimony of eminent medical men, including Joseph Lister, Sir James Paget, and Sir William Gull, who testified to the medical value of physiological experiments and eased concerns that practitioners had no concern for the pain and suffering of the animals involved (91-106).

As with the Norwich trial, press coverage of the Royal Commission in established and pressure-group titles reveals the fault lines in how the two sides thought about animal pain and defined cruelty and how both groups thought to convey those differences to a lay and/or non-partisan public. Located directly over that fault line, the French physiologist Emmanuel Klein was the pivotal witness questioned by the Commissioners. Reproduced extensively in all sectors of the press, Klein’s answers to Commissioners’ questions revealed a scientist so spectacularly uncaring about the animals he worked with that some measure of regulation was deemed necessary. French suggests that the Commission would not have recommended any regulation of experiments on living animals without his testimony (103). Certainly, Klein’s extraordinary testimony furnished endless copy for the anti-vivisectionist press long after the Royal Commission had completed its work and the Cruelty to Animals Act received Royal Assent. One of the authors of the Handbook, Lecturer in Histology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Assistant Professor at the Brown Institute, Klein and his impeccable credentials confirmed lay fears that the profession was not ready to self-regulate. His testimony, in which he claimed to anaesthetize animals only to protect himself from scratches, was denounced by proponents of physiology, but the damage was done. Writing seven months after the commission had ended its work, Royal Commissioner and scientist T. H. Huxley stormed: “[Klein] has done more for our enemies than they could have done by their joint efforts, without him, by his wantonly and mischievously brutal talk” (qtd. in French 105). The image of a scientist whose awareness of physical pain was limited entirely to his own was boon to anti-vivisectionist arguments about the unconstrained professional aspirations of physiology and evidence of the need for external regulation of the profession.

The Royal Commission submitted its report on 8 January 1876, endorsing the creation of an administrative structure to oversee regulations. It recommended that experiments for veterinary purposes be included in forthcoming legislation, and that cold-blooded animals be protected by any legislative provisions. Significantly, given media coverage of the Norwich trial, it asserted that demonstrations of experiments under anesthesia were important for medical education and were not inherently demoralizing. It agreed with animal welfare arguments that curare was not an anesthetic. Perhaps most importantly, the commissioners declined to limit experiments to those with definable therapeutic ends, noting the difficulty of assessing experiments in this way. The commissioner who had been appointed to represent anti-vivisectionists, Richard Holt Hutton, issued a short “minority” report, appended to the Report itself, calling for the prohibition of all experiments involving dogs and cats. He argued that the use of such pets encouraged their theft, and that they possessed a heightened sensibility to pain as a result of their domestication. Vivisecting such creatures, “which we have trained up in habits of obedience to man and of confidence in him” (Report xxii), was a form of treachery. Such animals, he concluded, were “creatures bound to us by special ties [and] may well and safely be permitted special privileges” (Report xxiii). Holt’s attention to pets articulates what was already a key line in anti-vivisection materials. Magazines such as the Home Chronicler and the Zoophilist regularly featured stories of pets captured by and rescued from vivisectionist clutches, and promoted the special claims to human protection that such animals were understood to possess.[8]

Despite the minority report, the Victoria Street Society (founded in late 1875 during the sitting of the Commission) and the medical press endorsed many of the Royal Commissioners’ majority findings. Other groups, most notably the RSPCA, were more critical, wondering why laboratory attendants had not been called to offer testimony about laboratory conditions and expressing concern about the lack of attention to the question of sources for obtaining animals. Following the release of the report, renewed agitation in the form of press editorials, public petitions, and calls for regulation from churches, the government introduced legislation to the House of Lords on 15 May 1876. This initial proposal included regulation and enforcement for infrastructure along the lines of the Bill proposed by the RSPCA, which had been submitted directly to the Commission. In this draft legislation, painful experiments were to be conducted only by licensed individuals, the license to be granted by the Home Secretary. Premises too were to be licensed and periodically inspected. All experiments conducted without anesthesia and all demonstrations using anesthesia also required further approval by the head of various named medical and scientific bodies. Importantly, the draft legislation required all experiments to have medically useful ends, and dogs and cats were to be entirely protected by the Bill. The Bill was championed by a variety of anti-vivisection interests, including Richard Holt Hutton’s Spectator and Cobbe’s Victoria Street Society. The RSPCA was also cautiously supportive. Anti-vivisection groups that had called for abolition not regulation, including the London Anti-Vivisection Society (founded 10 June 1876) and the International Association for the Total Suppression of Vivisection (founded 21 June 1876) and other supporters of abolition presented 805 petitions to the House of Commons as debate over the draft bill continued through the summer.

The renewed agitation and press attention also served to perfect the tactics of the medical science lobbies. With the rising public push to regulate vivisection, the medical science group, now considerably well organized, successfully argued that the proposed Bill endangered physiological research in Great Britain, and were able to influence the proposed legislation profoundly. Accordingly, the legislation that received Royal Assent on 15 August 1876 both mandated licenses for experiments on living vertebrate animals, to be granted through the Home Secretary, and incorporated medical professional oversight of the process. All licenses were valid for one year, and required the support of one of eleven named medical or scientific bodies as well as a professor of medicine or medical science. Experiments conducted without anesthesia and those conducted for demonstration purposes were licensed under the same terms. Premises also required licenses and were subject to periodic inspection. All experiments were to have a medically useful end, and none could be performed before the public or for the purpose of improving manual dexterity. Domestic and pet animals were also specified in the legislation, though not as protected animals as Hutton’s minority report had recommended. Instead, dogs, cats, horses, mules and asses were included as experimental subjects, though experiments conducted without anesthesia were permitted only if the necessity of these animals to the success of the experiment was evident. Curare was not defined as an anesthetic under the Act. Penalties were imposed for improper licensing, up to £50 for a first offence and up to £100 or three-months imprisonment for second and subsequent offences. All prosecutions under the Act required the written permission of the Home Secretary.

Medical and Scientific Activism

The passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act did not end the vivisection controversy, though it marks an important shift in the communication strategies of those involved. In particular, the passage of the Act identified the importance of promoting self-regulation in the experimental science profession and indicated the limited value of public education as a political strategy for science. The establishment of professional societies, such as the Physiological Society (founded in 1876) and the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research (AAMR, founded in 1882), has commonly been approached as a marker of a professional group’s climb to social legitimacy. Within this narrative, vivisection has often been interpreted as a tool in professionalization. The history of such groups in the vivisection debate, however, suggests that the narrative is less uniform than the story of professionalization might permit. As historians of medicine and science have shown, nineteenth-century medical and scientific communities were not unanimously supportive in their initial response to Continental methods of experimental science. In this context, it is important to note that groups like the AAMR set out to function explicitly as pressure groups and based many of their tactics on those of medical science lobbies during the Act’s passage.

The Physiological Society was founded in the summer of 1876, just as the Cruelty to Animals legislation was in negotiation, to promote and protect physiology by fostering the exchange of research between scientists, and by scrutinizing the operation of the Act passed that year, an activity in which they were joined by anti-vivisection organizations. Collecting data on the processing of license applications, especially refusals and delays, the group set out to document the dampening effect of legislation on the science. It also determined on a course of silence in public debates of the vivisection question, strategizing that the agitation would wither if confrontational exchanges with anti-vivisectionists were avoided. Within five years, the policy of silence was momentarily replaced with a press strategy that yielded a series of articles, written by Samuel Wilks, James Paget and Richard Owen, outlining the argument for vivisection that appeared in late 1881 in the Nineteenth Century, a powerful “open platform” periodical that marketed itself as a site for the exchange of controversial ideas. Anti-vivisectionists Richard Holt Hutton, Anna Kingsford and Vernon Lee published retorts to the series in the Nineteenth Century the following year. After this contained burst onto the public scene, the Physiological Society returned to its earlier policy of silence on anti-vivisection.

The discretion of the Physiological Society is also characteristic of the AAMR, which quickly came to adopt public silence as its key strategy for promoting self-regulation. Originally formed in 1882 in response to the prosecution of leading English physiologist David Ferrier, whose experiments on cerebral localization in monkeys were charged with a contravention of his license under the Act, the AAMR would emerge as an enormously influential lobby group. The details of Ferrier’s prosecution tell us something about how both physiologists and anti-vivisectionists saw their respective activist roles. Ferrier’s experiments came to light because of coverage of the August 1881 meeting of the International Medical Congress, a prestigious conference which met in London that year and was well covered by the press. Comparing the Lancet and British Medical Journal reports of a key debate between Ferrier and German physiologist Friedrich Goltz with Home Office details on experimental licenses, Frances Power Cobbe concluded that Ferrier did not have the correct licenses for the “brain mangling” experiments described. The Victoria Street Society launched a prosecution. Though it failed, the effects of press coverage on experimental science and anti-vivisection were once again considerable. For Victoria Street, the failed prosecution established the unworkability of the legislation, the need for its rewriting, and the untrustworthiness of physiologists. This analysis became the society’s rallying point, and formed the basis for its public communications and its activities. From this point, anti-vivisection turned increasingly towards a policy of total abolition, though growing dissent and debate of basic policy–regulation or abolition–would prove divisive and harmful for the movement as a whole. For physiologists, the Ferrier prosecution proved the vulnerability of experimenters to the “inexpert” eye of anti-vivisectionists and the dangers of lay persons’ judgments of scientific methods. The medical science professions revisited, and embraced anew, the strategic value of silence on vivisection. The AAMR introduced two new objectives: to educate the public about the value of experimental science and to apply pressure on the Home Office and its administration of the Act. The first objective was short-lived, realized in the publication of a brisk series of pamphlets published between 1882 and 1885. Small and unadorned in appearance, these pamphlets ranged from eight to thirty-two pages in length, and addressed the utility of vivisection, implicitly connecting scientific utility to moral decency.

The second objective proved more enduring and underlines the strategic priority of political alliances over public education for the AAMR. By 1885, interest in public education as a key strategy was substantially replaced by a concentration on representing experimental science to government, particularly the Home Secretary who oversaw the Act. Experimental science began by claiming its expert status, insisting on public assent to its contention that its activities and publications could only be understood and evaluated by itself. Through the 1880s, the AAMR identified one “lay” group with which it could communicate effectively–the government as represented by the Home Secretary–and focused its energies on dialogue with the government office in charge of the Cruelty to Animals legislation. Success was swift. By 1883, the AAMR was discreetly involved in the daily administration of the Cruelty to Animals Act, reviewing license applications, the certification of physiologists and their experiments, and passing along their recommendations to the Home Secretary. Under this arrangement, licenses increased one-hundred fold in a twenty-year period. Though the arrangement was under constant attack by the anti-vivisection societies, it proved impervious to the charges of impropriety and intrigue they launched, and lasted until 1913 when a second Royal Commission on Vivisection was called. That Commission institutionalized the existing alliance between the AAMR and the Home Office with some small adjustments. The AAMR’s success in gaining access to the administration of the Cruelty to Animals Act testifies to the power of physiology’s claim for professional self-regulation and their tactical separation of administrative and activist agendas.

* * * * *

In a pocket-sized tract, Cruelty to Animals: Suggestions, Acts of Parliament, Prosecution, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals cautions readers that the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act was so complex that “its provisions can hardly be applied by the police; much less by individuals” (qtd. in Ritvo 160). The Act was indeed complicated. In decades to come, anti-vivisection societies would comb carefully through Home Office returns in search of actionable discrepancies, and reactions to the increasingly widespread experimental research practice would occasionally burst onto the public scene. Anti-vivisectionists would also change their tactics, discovering less paper-bound ways to hold experimental science to account. Women like Louisa Lind-af-Hageby, a Swedish anti-vivisectionist and student at the map iconLondon School of Medicine for Women, achieved medical expertise in order to challenge vivisection on its own scientific terms. Witnessing the sufferings of a terrier, used repeatedly in vivisection experiments at a map iconUniversity College physiology laboratory during her training in 1903, Lind-af-Hageby published her findings in The Shambles of Science with fellow medical student, Liese Schartau. The legal and political fall-outs from that publication are many and complex. map icon Most prominently, the publication spurred the donation of a drinking fountain, known as the Old Brown Dog, to Battersea Council, which readily erected it on 15 September 1906 in local recreation grounds. Its inscription proved the source of serious clashes between medical students, labor unionists, suffragettes, and anti-vivisections, the most tumultuous of which became known as the Old Brown Dog riots of 1907. The inscription read:

In Memory of the Brown Terrier Dog Done to Death in the Laboratories of University College in February, 1903, after having endured Vivisection extending over more than Two Months and having been handed from one Vivisector to Another Till Death came to his Release. Also in Memory of the 232 dogs Vivisected at the same place during the year 1902. Men and Women of England, how long shall these Things be? (Lansbury 14)[9]

Though the statue was surreptitiously removed in 1910, the many reverberations from the Old Brown Dog riots included the establishment of a second Royal Commission in 1912. A second Brown Dog statue was erected in Battersea Park in 1985, donated by the National Anti-Vivisection Society and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Bearing the original 1906 inscription, the statue records the persistence of British anti-vivisectionists and the enduring conflict that is the vivisection controversy:

This monument replaces the original memorial of the brown dog erected by public subscription in Latchmere Recreation Ground, Battersea in 1906. The sufferings of the brown dog at the hands of the vivisectors generated much protest and mass demonstrations. It represented the revulsion of the people of London to vivisection and animal experimentation. This new monument is dedicated to the continuing struggle to end these practices. After much controversy the former monument was removed in the early hours of 10 March 1910. This was the result of a decision taken by the then Battersea Metropolitan Borough Council, the previous council having supported the erection of the memorial.

Animal experimentation is one of the greatest moral issues of our time and should have no place in a civilized society. In 1903, 19,084 animals suffered and died in British laboratories. During 1984, 3,497,355 animals were burned, blinded, irradiated, poisoned and subjected to countless other horrifyingly cruel experiments in Great Britain.[10]

published February 2013

Susan Hamilton is Professor and Chair of the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She is the author of Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Feminism (Palgrave Macmillan) and editor of Animal Welfare and Anti-Vivisection, 1870–1910 (Routledge), Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Nineteenth-Century Writing by Women on Women (Broadview), and co-editor (with Jan Schroeder) of Women’s Education in Britain, 1840-1900 (Routledge). This essay is a revised version of the introduction to Animal Welfare and Anti-Vivisection.


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Philip Howell, “June 1859/December 1860: The Dog Show and the Dogs’ Home”

Ivan Kreilkamp, “The Ass Got a Verdict: Martin’s Act and the Founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1822″

Mario Ortiz-Robles, “Animal Acts: 1822, 1835, 1849, 1850, 1854, 1876, 1900″


[1] For the full text of the Henniker draft bill, see the Report of the Royal Commission, Appendix 3, Section 6.

[2] Cobbe describes the negotiations that would lead to Henniker’s draft bill in her autobiography, Life of Frances Power Cobbe, by Herself, volume 2, 581.

[3] For the full text of the draft Playfair Bill, see the Report of the Royal Commission, Appendix 3, section 7.

[4] In her Life, Cobbe states that the coverage of the treatment of horses at Alfort led her to consider the ethics of human/animal relations, and to publish “The Rights of Man and the Claims of Brutes” in 1863, which was, she says, “so far as I know, the first effort made to deal with the moral questions involved in the torture of animals,” (562-63).

[5] For a discussion of the place of sentiment in scientists’ self-representations, see White.

[6] The experimental method was strongly linked to the European continent (hence the “Continental” method), particularly to the French physiologist Claude Bernard.  See Warner for a study of the influence of the radical empiricism of the Paris Clinical School on American medical culture.

[7] For a broad discussion of anesthetics and professionalism, see Pernick. For an examination of representations of bodily pain, see Bending.

[8] See Mangum and Kreilkamp for studies of other ways in which domestic pets occupied distinctive places in the Victorian cultural imaginary.

[9] For a full discussion of the Old Brown Dog Riots, see Lansbury and Kean.  Inscription qtd. in Lansbury, 14.

[10] Inscription from author’s notes and photographs of second Brown Dog statue.