Meditation on a Stick

At St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, in June of 1877, a physiologist called W. Bruce Clark was planning to carry out “some experiments as to the nature of shock”. Since he wanted to use animals for the purpose, he now, under the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, had to apply for a licence to do so.

“Injuries”, Bruce Clark accordingly proposed, would be “inflicted by means of blows on the abdomen, and on other parts of the body with a view to determine as far as possible which portion of the body is most susceptible to shock.” He must have been asked for further particulars, because he wrote again to say, with a vagueness which can’t have done much for his cause, “I have thought of using a stick for the purpose”. But he added, reassuringly, “I do not imagine that the animal would suffer much if any pain in most cases.” The records of his application are not complete, and it’s not clear what species of animal Bruce Clark had chosen for his project. However, his supervisor in the Barts laboratory was Thomas Lauder Brunton, designer of the ‘Brunton Holder’ for restraining rabbits and dogs, and I think it likely that Bruce Clark meant to use dogs.

This application was forwarded to Henry Acland who, as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, was a ‘certifier’ under the 1876 Act. It won’t have been a welcome duty for Acland. Although the revival of science studies at Oxford during the 1850s and 60s had been very largely his own personal achievement, he felt unhappy about the direction they were now taking. He saw the university’s medical students becoming “a professional class or clique by themselves”, separated from the arts studies which might be doing something to humanize or proportion their knowledge. Medicine itself was separating, as a laboratory science, from the practice of healing, so that Acland himself now seemed old-fashioned because, though a university academic, he still worked as a doctor in Oxford. And vivisection was especially portentous: Acland uneasily called it “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”. He himself had never practised vivisection, but he had been required to watch, in his own student days, “experiments of a revolting and grave nature”. Yet he believed that its part in medical progress had been established, and he therefore accepted it, however reluctantly. So here he was, inspecting Bruce Clark’s application, no doubt with some aversion.

There was now a correspondence about the case between Acland and Sir Prescott Hewett, who as President of the Royal College of Surgeons was a fellow certifier. Sir Prescott pointed out that cases of shock were common in such hospitals as St Bartholomew’s, where, therefore, “better and truer results are to be got out of careful clinical researches.” He also argued that “in experiments upon animals, the most interesting cases nowadays, of shock, and the most perplexing, taking them in all their phases railway accidents would be altogether left out.” So he was taking seriously the requirement of the 1876 Act that animal research should be permitted only if its purpose was to provide “knowledge useful for saving or prolonging life or alleviating suffering”. It’s true that you could apply for a special certificate to escape that condition, as you could for most of the Act’s other requirements. That was the Act’s essential absurdity and betrayal. But these particular papers do suggest that the 1876 Act, for all its weaknesses, did some good. A year before, Bruce Clark might have experimented away with that stick, or with whatever else he “thought of”, without superior restraint of any sort, perhaps indeed had been doing so.

As I’ve said, the papers are incomplete, and I don’t know if he got his licence. But of course those were merely the early and improvising days of such studies. And just as Lauder Brunton’s ‘holder’ and all the other devices for restraining reluctant animals are evidence of the rise and systematization of animal research in general, so the study of shock, as it progressed, sophisticated upon Bruce Clark’s stick.

One later student of shock was the Canadian physiologist James Collip, working at McGill University. Collip, so far from being policed at Oxford University, received an honorary degree there (mainly for his earlier work on diabetes and insulin). In the laboratories of his Institute of Endocrinology during the 1930s and 40s – so reported his colleague R.L.Noble – the “bizarre combination of topics” under review included “traumatic shock, motion sickness, exercise, blood preservation” and “chemical lung irritants”, and for these various purposes there were “many odd pieces of apparatus”. I think that by “odd” Noble meant ‘curious, ingenious’ rather than stray or jumbled. Certainly the apparatus for studying motion sickness had that merit if absolutely no other.

Among the rest was one product of a collaboration between James Collip and Noble himself: the Noble-Collip Drum. This was something like a washing machine, the drum part being 16’’ in diameter and 7’’ deep, with shelves having much the same function as those in a washing machine, and revolving at up to 50 revolutions per minute. According to data published by Noble and Collip, 300 revolutions produced 8% mortality in rats of approximately 150 grams weight, working upward by degrees to the 800 revolutions which killed them all. But apparently it’s all right: a more thorough follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ reported, as an aside, that (much as Bruce Clark had airily predicted for his own animals) “the rats gave no sign of pain.”

At about this same time, a device for producing shock specifically in dogs was devised by the pioneer cardiac surgeon Alfred Blalock. The story of this man’s collaboration with his assistant Vivien Thomas was made famous in an article by Katie McCabe published in the Washingtonian (August 1989), and subsequently by a film based on that article and titled Something the Lord Made (2004). Thomas, for all his brilliance and originality as a surgeon, was for a long time classified and paid as a hospital janitor, since no other recognition was available to him as a black man in the U.S.A. of the time. Blalock himself had a rather mixed part in this injustice, but in time the skill and indispensability of Thomas produced a more or less happy end to the story. Meanwhile both men pursued their research in their so-called “dog lab”, no doubt putting the ‘Blalock Press’ to good use (I’ll refrain from describing this savage device). Thomas also ran an informal veterinary surgery for the Johns Hopkins faculty staff’s pets, especially their dogs, which is where his research expertise lay. Katie McCabe saw nothing gruesome in this situation, nor did she comment on the way the human caste system was thus passed on into the animal kingdom.

Both the Noble-Collip Drum and the Blalock Press were devised in the early 1940s. It was a time when the study of trauma had special urgency, throughout the world. Desperate measures might well be countenanced. That, of course, was a defence offered at the Nuremberg Medical Trials a few years later, and certainly if you wish to fast-track medical research, human subjects provide by far the most efficient scientific evidence. Some of those who were acquitted at Nuremberg, or who escaped trial altogether, subsequently brought exactly that sort of scientific evidence with them into American universities and other research institutions. And that rather spoils the ‘war-time exigencies’ justification. For the truth is that ever since 1945 the alternative to war has in practice been not peace but fear of war and preparations for war. The contribution which the ex-Nazi scientists were uniquely qualified to make to those preparations is very largely what they were valued for in post-war U.S.A.

A British instance of this same outlook has been cited elsewhere in this blog. When, in 2002, a House of Lords Committee was examining the operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, some account was given of the work being done by the weapons research facility at Porton Down. Contemplating the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, a minister for Defence said, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.”

I guess that it’s partly in order to take advantage of this attitude that medical research itself has so often been represented in military imagery. President Nixon’s ‘War on Cancer’ of 1971 is one instance. The old Research Defence Society’s name may hint at the same thinking; certainly its journal did more than hint, with the name Conquest. But then the French pioneer and evangelist of vivisection Claude Bernard had established the warlike self-image of the practice nearly from the first: “Le souffle de la science modern, qui anime la physiologie, est éminemment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

So we don’t need war or even fear of war to justify desperate measures. If we choose to see and practise it so, research itself is already a war – and we’ve just now been taking a glance at an item or two in its armoury. I don’t know about the Blalock Press, but certainly the Noble-Collip Drum is still in use, alongside countless other such contrivances. For this barbarous tradition of attitude and practice in the science of healing, Bruce Clark, armed with his stick, makes a very proper icon.


Notes and references:

The correspondence about Bruce Clark’s application is in the Bodleian Library, MS Acland d.98. Acland’s observations on professionalism come from his 1890 book Oxford and Modern Medicine, and on vivisection from the evidence which he gave to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO 1876).

R.L.Noble’s account of Collip’s laboratory comes from the Canadian Medical Association Journal vol.93 (26), December 1965, pp.1356-64. The follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ was reported in the American Journal of Physiology vol.139, May 1943, pp.123-28.

The article about Blalock and Thomas in the Washingtonian is made available online at

For the Nuremberg Trials, see P.J.Weindling, Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). The story of former Nazi scientists in the U.S.A. is told by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Co., 2014).

Evidence to the House of Lords Committee as quoted was given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, on Tuesday 30 April, 2002. Something more is said about his evidence in this blog at 6 November, 2016: see

Claude Bernard wrote Introduction à l’étude de la medicine expérimentale (Baillière et fils 1865). His laboratory in Paris was the European model for experimental physiology at the time. Many British students spent study-time there, including John Scott Burdon Sanderson, subsequently Oxford’s first professor of Physiology. The particular quotation appears as epigraph to John Vyvyan’s account of vivisection in the twentieth century, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971).  






Unlocking the Cage

cage-portraitUnlocking the Cage is a documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A.Pennebaker, film-makers known best for Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the U.K., and The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. It follows the advocate Steven Wise as he attempts to make non-human animals, specifically chimpanzees, ‘visible’ to the U.S. courts: that is, to have them recognized as legal persons with a right to freedom. It’s a sort of court drama, then. An early scene shows Steven Wise passing under the giant architectural lettering ROBERT ABRAMS BUILDING FOR LAW AND JUSTICE. Law and justice: a giant institution and the giant ideal fruit of it, and, attempting to get the one to yield the other, this small (but not slight) David-figure, Steven Wise.

The law-question is certainly a momentous and fascinating one: for more on this aspect of Wise’s project, see an earlier VERO post, ‘Let my people go! Animals and the Law’ (linked in the notes below). But the film humanizes it as a sort of quest or modern pilgrimage, in which the court appearances are only the brief though cumulative crises. In between is the journeying: on freeways and country tracks, to and from airports, up and down courtroom stairs, along pavements and corridors, often with weighty boxes of documentation, like the “great burden” of sin that John Bunyan has his pilgrim carry.

These journeys join up the elements of Wise’s campaign: the courts and the chimpanzees. One set of chimpanzees he has to search out at their various lock-ups: a remote trailer-park, a shabby zoo, a home menagerie (“kind of creepy”), a smart and secretive university research lab. “We’re all ready to cry”, Wise says after one of theseMerlin.jpg excursions. And it’s not just a dismal present and uncertain future weighing on these animals: they’re adults, aging nearly as slowly as humans do, and they drag behind them strange and shocking histories of misuse, mainly as ‘entertainment’. Some die in the course of the film (“Captivity is killing these guys”). The other set of chimpanzees is found in dedicated sanctuaries, enjoying what can be afforded to them in America of freedom, and it’s this sort of freedom that Wise claims as a right in law for the imprisoned ones. Corresponding to these different situations, and responsible for them, there’s a range of distinctive human primate types, from shifty deal-makers to pioneering ethologists.

The third element in Wise’s journeying is the courts, to which these clips of heaven and hell are to be brought for consideration. The judges are attentive, quizzical, suspicious of a proposition so new to the law. Wise tells them it isn’t new: it’s there, implicit in the hundreds-of-years old writ of habeas corpus, a writ which orders the detainer to ‘produce the body’ of the detainee in court and justify the detention. At any rate it certainly isn’t new for Wise himself. As he treads the pavement towards yet another courtroom, and a colleague asks him what he’s thinking about, he says, “stuff I’ve been thinking about for thirty years”.

Those thirty years show in Wise’s face not as professional polish (even his suit and tie never make him look unhomely), but as a history of moral and intellectual activity: pocked stevewise-tekoand striated, but full of indefeasible humour and goodwill – morally a profoundly reassuring face. He’s likewise plain-speaking and unrhetorical both in court and outside it, as ready to summarize a case in the short minutes allowed by a judge, as to field challenges in a news studio, or to steer a joke genially his way on a TV comedy show.

Yes, all his “petitioners” are chimpanzees, but this is only the start of the campaign: “There’s going to be a lot of battles in the war. But it’s time to begin.” And at this stage, Wise’s key concept is autonomy: the capacity to know and direct one’s own life, a capacity which the writ of habeas corpus is especially fitted to address. This is a capacity which one might argue all animals possess in some form as their natural birthright (except perhaps ants and social bees), and Wise himself makes no exclusions. But chimpanzees show it with special clarity, and in fact Wise’s case is backed by affidavits on the subject provided by renowned primatologists: that’s some of what’s in the boxes.

In the film, we see aspects of that expert evidence, notably the easy communications between chimpanzees and their human students or carers. If these seem artificial (as indeed they must be), there’s the unprompted and astonishing sight of Koko the gorilla turning away from his favourite video, plainly moved and unable to watch a painful scene in which a mother says goodbye to her child at a railway station. The gorilla compassionates the humans. Am I dreaming, or is this a glimpse of a squandered moral kingdom? As the poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, and it is this one.”

Back in Wise’s untidy office, the book-spines indicate the ethical background to his quest: Free Men All, Lincoln, The Dred Scott Case, Slave Nation. His key precedent for the use he means to make of habeas corpus is the decision of Lord Justice Mansfield, in London in 1772, on just such a writ served on behalf of the slave James Somerset. Mansfield’s ruling fixed, from then on, the illegality of slavery in England. But this ‘dreaded comparison’ (the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s short book about animal and human slaveries) is not liked by the judges when Wise uses it: “move in a different direction”, Justice Karen Peters warningly advises him. This same advice to keep off the slavery theme was given Wise during a BBC radio discussion, on which occasion he imperturbably replied, “My people were enslaved by Pharaoh a long time ago, and I understand it.” It’s a conclusive answer, but not one that can be used to correct judges, many of whom are evidently still uneasy about Darwin’s theory.

In fact this film shows how superstitiously entrenched speciesism is in the U.S. courts, as elsewhere. New York’s assistant attorney-general, whom Wise faces as opposing counsel in the final court scene, really has nothing but that to make his argument out of: the chimpanzees are a “different species”; to dignify them with the rights attaching to personhood would mean a “diminishment of those rights”; it would mean “opening the possible floodgates”, and “could affect our society in a negative way.” Fortunately this is not quite enough for Justice Barbara Jaffe. Without recounting this last critical event in the story as filmed, I can say at least that it marks, as Steven Wise says, “the end of the beginning”. And in the final scene, where an elephant, with a history of hardship in its eye and its gait, is directed by a ‘master’ to give rides to American families, there is Steven Wise, like any tourist, watching and taking photographic evidence. The elephants come next.

When the credits roll onto the screen, and lists of the non-human primates and of the judges pass by among the rest, the voice of Bob Dylan (earliest subject of a Hegedus and Pennebaker film) is allowed to give, to all that has been shown in the film, for the first time an outlet in impassioned eloquence:

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east;
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.



Notes and references:

Steven Wise discussed the legal implications of his campaign on the BBC Radio 4 programme Unreliable Evidence, as reported in the VERO blog at  All the details of Steven Wise’s Nonhuman Rights Project can be found at

Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animals Slavery was published in the U.K. by Heretic Books in 1988.

The quotation from Paul Eluard is translated thus and used by Patrick White as the epigraph to his 1966 novel The Solid Mandala. That’s the only form in which I know it, but I gather that a more accurate if less forceful translation of Eluard’s words would be “There is certainly another world, but it’s within this one.”

A trailer and other details for Unlocking the Cage can be found at   There will be a showing of the film, sponsored by VERO, in the University during the coming Trinity term: see VERO’s facebook page nearer the time, at