Tag Archives: animals in history

Horses and humans in the history of neurology

Towards the end of the 19th century, there was increasing interest in comparative pathology, comparative neurology or – let’s use this one for simplicity’s sake – comparative neuro-pathology. This was the idea that, by studying the brain and nervous system of an animal, one could extrapolate the knowledge gained in such investigation to human subjects. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, for example, published its first issue in 1891. In an era captivated by evolutionary theory, an animal’s brain offered to reveal something of cerebral development, demonstrating ‘by what steps the lower faculties of animals may have passed by natural process of development into the higher faculties of man’. The use of animals in scientific research at this time has previously been discussed on this blog by Mike Finn, who highlighted popular responses to the cerebral localisation work of David Ferrier (often using monkeys or cats), whilst Liz Gray has examined the work of William Lauder Lindsay, who was interested in the ‘psychopathology’ of animals.

From C. Watson, 'The Pathogenesis of Tabes and Allied Conditions in the Cord' (1901).

From C. Watson, ‘The Pathogenesis of Tabes and Allied Conditions in the Cord’ (1901). The horse’s hind legs assume an unusual position and the right rear knee joint is prominent.

Animals might also be used to reveal something of the nature of neurological disorders which had distinct physical symptoms. In 1901, Chalmers Watson of the Scottish Asylums tried to advance existing knowledge about tabes, a degenerative condition of the spinal cord: ‘If the etiology of tabes were accurately determined,’ he said, ‘a large and important chapter in neurology could be written’. In setting about this task, Watson presented a clinical case study not of a human patient, but of a horse. He had seen a horse that exhibited tabes-like symptoms, with an unusual gait and prominent knee-joint that recalled the Charcot’s knee seen in humans. The horse went on to suffer a seizure, afterwards developing the signs of ‘Stringhalt’. Stringhalt is a condition affecting horses in which the hind legs flex whilst walking. It may be most marked when the animal is frightened, turns, or has to back up slowly. (You can see a video of a horse with the condition here.)

In ‘On “Stringhalt” and “Shivering” in Horses’, Watson presented his horse much as one would present a human case study, setting out the animal’s age, appearance, and occupation:

The subject was a light-legged, well-bred horse, 15½ hands, aged 15 years or more, that had been able for work up to three months before the date at which he came under observation. His work was light, that of going in a fishmonger’s cart in a level country. His owner informed me that the animal had occasionally been off work for a few days or so from “lameness.”

Detail from a Muybridge study of a horse and its rider. © Wellcome Library, London.

Detail from a Muybridge study of a horse and its rider. © Wellcome Library, London.

Watson had earlier presented a cinematograph film of this horse to a meeting of the British Medical Association, which documented the animal’s unusual movement (and which also recalls the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge). The horse’s physical symptoms – ‘spastic movements of the hind limbs’, elevated and quivering tail, inco-ordination – were observed for a few days by Watson, at the end of which the case took a rather different course than that of a human case study: ‘the animal was shot’.

Watson was particularly keen to conduct a post-mortem on the horse in the hope that the pathological appearances found would reveal something about the progress of disease. The advantage of using animals was that their ‘tissues … [exhibited] evidence of nervous disease … at an early stage of the morbid process when the pathological picture [was] as yet unobscured by the secondary and non-essential changes which so frequently complicate[d] the picture in the human subject’. The post-mortem and subsequent microscopical examinations led Watson to conclude the horse’s Stringhalt had been caused by ‘a chronic interstitial neuritis with secondary degeneration of the nerve fibres in the main nerves of the hind limbs’, with the ‘shivering’ symptoms explained by nerve fibre degeneration.

Appearance of the (human) spinal cord in advanced tabes. This was interestingly presented beneath the photograph of the horse in Watson's 'Pathogenesis of Tabes' article.

Appearance of the (human) spinal cord in advanced tabes. This was interestingly presented directly beneath the photograph of the horse in Watson’s ‘Pathogenesis of Tabes’ article.

Whilst Watson recognised the difficulty of formulating any general conclusions from a single case, he considered his findings to be of interest to both the veterinary and human sciences. He concluded that the post-mortem exam both threw light upon ‘common diseases of the horse’, and held some ‘suggestive lessons for the student of pathological processes in the human subject’. On the latter point, he pointed to the importance of vascular lesions (such as thickened blood vessels) in the horse, suggesting this might also be at the root of tabes in human subjects. He further suggested a possible cause for such changes, ‘toxaemia, probably of bacterial origin’, reflecting the interest in bacteriological matters that ran through much of his work. (Watson’s obituary demonstrates that his interests in bacteriology and animals often complemented one another: ‘in [his] later years [he] devoted himself to rearing cattle for [the] production of pure and safe milk’.)

By using animal case studies, then, investigators could make deductions about neurological development, but also neurological disease. Such studies reveal the often surprising scope of asylum-based research at this time, with Watson thanking the President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and referencing publications such as the Veterinary Record in his research. In addressing degenerative conditions like tabes, animals offered doctors and pathologists a way in to uncovering the ‘truth’ of diseases that caused many asylums to fill up with chronic (human) cases.


C. Watson, ‘The Pathogenesis of Tabes and Allied Conditions in the Cord’, BMJ (1 Jun. 1901).

C. Watson, ‘Cinematograph and Lantern Demonstration upon Nervous Diseases in the Lower Animals’, BMJ (27 Sept. 1902).

C. Watson, ‘On “Stringhalt” and “Shivering” in Horses. A Study in Comparative Neuro-pathology’, Brain 26 (1903).

(Anti)Vivisection and the Asylum

As previous articles on this blog have highlighted, animals occasionally played an important part in asylum research in the nineteenth century. Their behaviours could be observed as part of the growing programme of comparative psychology, and they could be used to study the physiological or psychological effects of new drugs. They were also crucial in the development of cerebral localisation theory, being the experimental subjects of various stimulation and ablation procedures which aimed to locate different mental functions in distinct regions of the brain cortex. Tests on dogs, cats, monkeys, rabbits, etc, were a surrogate for human experimentation, and the results of animal studies were transferred to an understanding of the human brain.

David Ferrier. © Wellcome Images.

David Ferrier, a Scottish physician who began his animal research in the laboratory of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in 1873, became the leader of cerebral localisation studies in Britain. His ideas were quickly accepted by most of the scientific community, but they were still highly contentious, and Ferrier, at the front of this programme, became the focus of various criticisms. His evidence was critiqued, and his work was attacked on its principles too. Cerebral localisation was not just reductive of empirical explanation, but reductive of the human soul. His “new phrenology,” as it was termed by its critics, was seen by some as an attempt to remove God from an understanding of the human mind.

In 1875, Frances Power Cobbe wrote that “the prevalent materialistic belief that the secrets of the Mind can be best explored in matter, undoubtedly account in no small matter for the vehemence of the new pursuit of original physiological investigations.” Cobbe, who founded the Victoria Street Society and was the single most influential figure of the anti-vivisection movement in Britain, saw experimental brain studies as unquestionably linked with materialism and the rise of animal experimentation. She believed in an independent, God-given mind, which the new cerebral localisation reduced to simple reflexive machinery. In the most macabre fashion, experimenters showed that volitional acts were not reliant on a conscious, immaterial mind: cats clawed and macaques kicked simply by stimulating a small region of the animals’ brain.

Frances Power Cobbe. © Wellcome Images.

Following a period of petitioning and canvassing, anti-vivisection protestors led by Cobbe succeeded in prompting a Royal Commission into vivisection in 1875. In the House of Commons, the MP James Maden Holt argued that Ferrier’s experiments manifested “a refinement of cruelty which renders the operator… quite unfit to be trusted with the care of an animal, much less of a human being.” He pointed out that “[w]hen it comes to the knowledge of the public that these are the practices of a medical man who has free access to the lunatic asylums of the West Riding, public indignation will know no bounds.” Anti-vivisection campaigners voiced the concern that allowing animal testing was a slippery slope that might eventually lead to human experimentation in asylums or other medical institutions. They had reason to worry. Across the Atlantic, an Ohio physician named Roberts Bartholow had already replicated Ferrier’s electrical stimulations on Mary Rafferty, a young cancer patient under his care at the city’s Medical College.

In 1876, Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act (which lasted for 110 years). Under the Act, vivisection could continue, but only for original, useful purposes, with a license from the Home Secretary. Anti-vivisection campaigners saw the Act as a concession to the scientific lobby, and so whilst trying to alter the Act, they also sought to prosecute individuals under the new laws in place. Their main target was Ferrier. In a well-documented session of the 1881 International Medical Congress in London, Ferrier had presented a monkey which had its left motor cortex removed, leaving it with no voluntary control of its right-sided limbs. He was then summoned to court for operating on animals without an appropriate license, though the case was soon thrown out when it was revealed that Ferrier’s assistant had actually conducted all the experiments, and was in possession of a full license. Cobbe’s prosecution failed, and the scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Anti-vivisection campaigners turned to reflect on their movement, and to repeat to their audiences the potential tragedies that lurked in a country that did not seriously resist animal experimentation. The incidence of such operations would undoubtedly continue to rise, and scientists would push the boundaries of decency further. Indeed, in a society openly tolerant of testing on animals, surely it was only a matter of time before scientists turned to other humans as their test material?

Front cover of Heart and Science. © Andrew Gasson.

Ferrier, localization and vivisection became topics for several prominent novels of the time. In Heart and Science (1883), written in response to Ferrier’s 1881 trial, Wilkie Collins tried to “drag the scientific English Savage from his shelter behind the medical interests of humanity.” H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), showed how vivisected animals, which jabber and are kept in conditions similar to asylum patients (at least in the imagination of the public), eventually turn on their tormentor. And in Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker drew attention to the way modern psychology construed humans as automata devoid of a soul. Dr. Seward, an asylum superintendent in the novel, wrote that had he “the secret of one such mind – did I hold the key to the fancy of even one lunatic – I might advance my own branch of science to a pitch compared with which Burdon-Sanderson’s physiology or Ferrier’s brain knowledge would be as nothing.” Asylum patients were perfect material for experimental investigations.

As Richard French has shown, anti-vivisectionism in the nineteenth century was part of a broader public movement against the creeping power of scientific and medical authority, alongside other crusades like the early anti-vaccination campaigns or protests against the Contagious Diseases Acts. The worry of potentially being experimented upon like vivisected animals also had a resonance with criticisms of asylums, which were remote, foreboding and obscure institutions, whose working practices were mostly misunderstood and often dreaded. Alienism – the profession of treating the insane – was as foreign to most men and women as were the grotesque experimental practices of Dr Moreau. Through Ferrier, and his work at the West Riding, vivisection and asylums became well associated, in the scientific community, and the public mind too.

Further Reading

R.D. French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

S.L. Star, Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific Certainty (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989).

A. Stiles, Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Animals and the Asylum: A comparative approach to the science of mind

This week’s post comes from Liz Gray, who is currently undertaking doctoral research at QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions. Liz also blogs about her work at Tales of Animals Past.

William Lauder Lindsay. © Natural History Museum

During the second half of the 19thcentury the discipline of comparative psychology was a mixture of methods and approaches. Anthropologists, physiologists, and alienists all used the title for their studies of the mind in man and animals. Scottish naturalist-physician and alienist William Lauder Lindsay (1829-1880) had his own interpretation: the study of mind in the lower animals, in particular the mind in a diseased state.

His theory was that the lower animals and man shared a ‘community of disease’ – that physically and mentally all animals (including man) could be affected by the same pathologies. Having begun his experimental career investigating the transmission of cholera between humans and dogs, a topic to which he returned on many occasions, by 1870 he had turned his attention to psychopathology.

The study of the animal mind offered the chance to garner an insight into the human mind, in particular the diseased or insane mind:

‘…their study [morbid mental phenomena] in other and lower animals by the physician or veterinarian, naturalist or comparative psychologist, cannot fail to bring to light many data of the highest interest to man’s knowledge of human insanity.’

By the 1870s this was not a unique idea. In 1873 James Crichton-Browne invited David Ferrier to use laboratory space at the West Riding Asylum, providing him with a variety of animal subjects (pigeons, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs), for his investigations into the pathology of epilepsy. French physiologist and neurologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard also explored the artificial production of epilepsy in small mammals.

What set Lindsay apart from the physiological approach was his method of investigation, and his interest in a moral and mental,  rather than physical, hierarchy of species. Darwinian morality of the 19th century placed the intellectual, upper-class white man at the ‘top of the tree’. In mental and moral terms, dogs (man’s most loyal companion) were ranked below men; women were equal or lower to dogs. Children, ‘savages’ and the mentally ill all occupied lower rungs on this particular evolutionary scale.

One of Crichton-Browne’s photographs of a West Riding patient. © Wellcome Images

Whilst conducting his research for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin was struck by the notion that ‘the insane ought to be studied, as they are liable to the strongest passions, and give uncontrolled vent to them.’ He was put in touch with Crichton-Browne, who provided him with ‘copious notes and descriptions’ based on his observations of his own patients. Although the photographs of these patients were not included in the final book, the information they provided were integral to Darwin’s views on the subject of emotional expression. (The Expression of the Emotions is often referred to as a founding text of comparative psychology, even though he doesn’t use the terminology).

Observation of behaviour and expression were the tools that Lindsay and others utilised in their studies – methods of the naturalist rather than the physiologist. What enabled Lindsay to draw comparisons between his patients at the James Murray Royal Asylum in Perth and the animals he observed, was his experience of the insane and ‘idiotic’ who were unable to communicate verbally. In these cases changes in behaviour, facial expression, and vocal noises were seen as indications of mental disturbance. Herbert Major (a contemporary of Crichton-Browne’s, who also worked at the West Riding Asylum) provided Lindsay with a case study where the same could be seen in animals:

‘…a case of association of irritability of temper, with loss of memory and diminished intelligence, including failure to recognise her master, coincidently with the development of fits, apparently of an epileptic character, and with partial paralysis of the limbs, all in an old terrier bitch, these conditions, moreover, being coincident with senile atrophy or degeneration of the brain.’

Head of a dog, from Charles Bell’s Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806). © Wellcome Images

Animals acted as experimental models of disease, as well as providing insights into behaviour and expression as diagnostic tools for mental disease and derangement. Lindsay took this approach one step further. By interpreting these links as evidence of a ‘community of disease’, he turned towards possible environmental factors that could influence the mind.

One of the simplest experiments of Lindsay seems to have been inspired by the saying, ‘Like a red rag to a bull’. By changing the colour of the light in the sleeping rooms of some of his patients, he studied the reaction of the mind to different colours. He was unconvinced by the anecdotal animal evidence of reactions to colour, and his human experiments produced ‘negative conclusions’.

A snarling dog from Darwin’s Expression of Emotions. © Wellcome Images

Metrological data can be found in the medical reports of Perth asylum for a period of almost 5 years. It was used to analyse changes in both the behaviour and physical health of patients. Climatic changes seemed to have little effect on the types of mental disease at the asylum, and physical effects mirrored  the health of the more general population of Perthshire. But the observation of climate was part of a wider area of interest in the causes of mental disease.  Lindsay was well-travelled and wrote papers on the etiology of mental illness around the world. One such study focused on the impact of the colder climate experienced in Norway, Iceland, and other Arctic countries. People and animals, in particular dogs, were affected by both the climate and latitude of these countries. They suffered predominantly from depression and melancholia as a result of the low levels of sunlight, solitude due to sparse populations, and the monotonous scenery.

For Lindsay, the science of comparative psychology was located within the asylum and the research opportunities it offered. His explanations of animal behaviour with their anthropomorphic basis were used in his ideas of human mental disease. Animals were introduced into the asylum as scientific subjects, but not objects of physical experimentation. The asylum patient was seen as an equally valid object for research, although carefully designed as part of the moral treatment approach.

– Liz Gray

Further reading

Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London: J. Murray, 1872).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘Community of Disease in Man and Other Animals’, British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review 53 (1874).

W. Lauder Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals in Health and Disease, 2 vols. (London: C.K. Paul, 1879).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘On Insanity and Lunatic Asylums in Norway: Being the Narrative of a Visit made in the Summer of 1857′,  Journal of Psychology Medicine 11 (1858).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘The Causes of Insanity in Arctic Countries’, British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review 14 (1870).

Robert J. Richards,  Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).