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, 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.
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?
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.
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).