The Antiviv: a Hospital without Cruelty

At a biomedical research establishment in Holland shown in the BBC documentary Monkey Lab (BBC3, April 17), a veterinary assistant speaks of her affection for the animals which are used in experiments there:  “Sometimes I really have to cry a little bit … So why do I have this job?” The answer she gives is that she herself uses medicines, and to shun the work which provides them would make her “a hypocrite”.

In one form or another it’s an argument which is frequently used against those who object to vivisection. Someone prepared to benefit from the therapies which medical science produces cannot honourably object to the means used to produce them; or to put it the other way round, anyone who does object to vivisection should refuse its products. And just so that we should know what that implies, the champions of vivisection would like these products to advertise their origins in animal research: “there is a case”, said Lord Winston in a House of Lords debate, “for having legislation to make it clear that a particular drug has only been possible for human consumption because of animal testing. This could be stamped on the packet, rather like a cigarette packet.” This drug, in short, will defeat your ethics. Lord Taverne developed the idea: “it would be beneficial if every general practice surgery displayed a notice stating ‘All the drugs used or recommended in this surgery have been tested on animals.’ ” Merely by consulting a doctor, then, someone opposed to vivisection is discrediting their principles. The aim is to freeze such people out of the health service, or rather, since they have to be a part of it, if only by paying taxes, to freeze out their ethics.

As a matter of fact, living up to their ideals is something that few humans do manage, and I can’t see that the merit of the ideals is compromised by that. As Robert Browning’s artist Andrea del Sarto says, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s Heaven for?” If we don’t aim higher than we can presently get, ethics would become merely a matter of describing how we do behave, not how we ought to. Of course, a campaigner against animal abuse who isn’t vegan is plainly contradicting themselves. But then there’s a real alternative choice there – not to eat animal products – and it’s a choice which anyone can easily make. There is no such choice in modern medicine, here in Britain at least and probably anywhere. The nation has only one health service, it’s supported involuntarily by all who pay taxes, and it’s premised on animal research.

In that sense, medicine is a service like policing, fire-fighting, or defence: you pay for it, and you get it in the one available form, whether you like that or not. If you don’t like it, you must hope and try to have it changed. Meanwhile, you may heroically shun it altogether, or at least use it as little and as judiciously as possible. But it’s as unreasonable to argue that someone who objects to animal research ought to do without the state’s medical assistance as to say that someone who campaigns for changes in the police or fire services should do without police protection or should make their own arrangements about putting their house out if it catches fire.

In fact even before the National Health Service was established in 1948, the medical profession had made animal research an inseparable part of its institutions. This is what made the controversy in Oxford in the mid-1880s so crucial. By building and endowing an animal research laboratory, to the specifications and for the use of one of the nation’s leading practitioners of vivisection (Professor Burdon Sanderson), the University was endorsing and confirming the practice as the way into the profession for its students. Prophetically, then, the man who led the opposition to this development in the University, Bodley’s Librarian E.W.B.Nicholson, warned his colleagues, as the date for the final vote on the subject approached, “If we are beaten then, we are beaten for ever.” To teach medicine as an animal-using discipline was to fix it as such for all subsequent generations of practitioners.

Here’s an illustration of how that works, from ten years previously:

Lord Cardwell (taking evidence during the 1876 Royal Commission on animals in science): Therefore any students who come there, so far as your teaching and influence are concerned, adopt, I presume, the principle that you have adopted?

Dr Klein (professor of pathology at the Brown Institute, London): Yes.

Lord Cardwell: And consider that a physiological inquirer has too much to do to think about the sufferings of the animals.

Dr Klein: Yes.

Even so, attempts have been made to break this monopoly of the vivisectors in medicine, and to provide a cruelty-free alternative. One such was the National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, established at Battersea Park, London, not far from the scene of the 1907 Brown Dog riots (see the post for 7 August 2015). In fact the hospital was itself briefly caught up in those riots when a band of medical students, driven away from the Brown Dog statue itself, made the nearby building its target. Their indignation and violence (more deliberate and destructive, incidentally, than anything that animal rights “extremists” have ever done) reflected a medical training which now committed them in practice and professional allegiance to experimentation on animals. That is, they saw anti-vivisection as a threat, or at least an insult, to their craft, prestige, and livelihood. Fortunately the hospital, like the statue, was adequately defended on that occasion, mainly by the local population.

Here are a few facts about Battersea’s National Antivivisection Hospital, also known as ‘the Antiviv’. It opened in 1903 at Lock’s Folly, 33 Prince of Wales Drive. The money for it had been raised by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, and it was subsequently kept going and expanding largely by donations and bequests from well-off sympathizers. It was located in a poor district of London, to whose people it provided a precious service (doing “great and useful work”, according to Battersea’s mayor in 1907), and these people too supported it, not only by strength of arm as mentioned, but also by fund-raising: carnivals, concerts, boxing tournaments, more poignantly by direct gifts, including free work. By the end of the 1920s, the hospital was treating 400 in-patients and 40,000 out-patients each year.

During all this time the hospital was, in the words of its own board of directors, “a standing protest against cruel experiments on animals, and a concrete demonstration that these are not necessary for the succour of the maimed or the healing of the sick.” Nor was this “protest” merely implicit: there was a notice-board outside which declared the hospital’s principles. The principles were that no experimentation on animals or humans (this last a common and not unfounded fear among working people at the time) would occur on its premises, by way of training or research; there would be no treatments derived from live animals; and its staff would all have signed a declaration against vivisection. It was the opposite, then, of the doctor’s surgery as proposed by Lord Taverne.

Of course the Antiviv had difficulty paying its way. This was a difficulty for all the ‘voluntary’ hospitals (meaning those not owned and funded by local authorities or the state, i.e. most of them). It was exactly in acknowledgement of this general problem that the Prince of Wales ‘s (later King Edward’s) Hospital Fund for London had been set up in 1897. Through this agency, funds were to be raised in a systematic way and distributed to the voluntary hospitals – those of them, at least, which were assessed as efficiently run. Naturally the Battersea Hospital frequently applied for funds from this source, but although the Fund never seems to have found fault with the running of the hospital, it consistently withheld its support. The Fund’s reasoning was variously expressed at different times and by different individuals, but the essential reason was clear: its General Council did not wish to encourage a venture which, as one hospital fund-raiser put it, “casts a great slur upon the profession generally”. Sir Henry Burdett, a leading member of the Council, argued that an anti-vivisection hospital was impossible anyway, because there was no modern medicine or medical treatment which had not at some point involved animal research. To take a stand against it was therefore “humbug”.  Already in 1909, then, the hypocrisy charge was being used to discredit and subvert any effort to make medicine cruelty-free.

The Antiviv closed down in 1935. Its last chair of the board of governors, Lord Ernest Hamilton, blamed the failure on “this ceaseless hostility of King Edward’s Hospital Fund administrators who refused to help us. If they had helped us, we should now be financially solvent, but they have refused to give us a penny.” (It’s an unhappy irony that the Fund had been set up in the first place “to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign” – in tribute, that is, to a monarch who was passionately opposed to what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection … a disgrace to a civilized country”.) That the Antiviv had been working well as a hospital is sufficiently indicated by the fact that, having simply changed its name to the Battersea General Hospital and dropped its anti-vivisection rules, it continued to function as before, in fact went on serving South London until 1972. The building was demolished in 1974, and its address no longer exists: a huge block of modernistic flats now squats on the historied site.

The Antiviv was not the only attempt to set up a cruelty-free health service, but it was the latest to survive. What Burdett said about it, that it couldn’t actually free itself of the products of animal research, was probably true. In fact, that was always a controversial question among its own people, how strict to try to be. In this matter, there can be no innocence any more, and already there could not be then: the medical profession itself had made sure of it. But the “reach” was absolutely right, towards a health service in which the great talents, skills, and practical compassion of the professionals would not be dishonoured by a background in animal exploitation. That the “grasp” failed, for that time, was a tragedy – one that, as we’ve seen, need not have happened. It says nothing about the validity of the ambition, only about the wretched history of its deliberate defeat, that those who champion it are still obliged, if they’re to accept scientific help in time of need, to participate in that dishonour.



Notes and references:

The Lords Winston and Taverne were speaking in the House of Lords debate on the transposition of EU Directive 2010/63 on 31 October, 2011. The subject was debated again in similar terms in that House on 25 October, 2013, with reference to the Medicinal Labelling Bill.

E.W.B.Nicholson’s words come from a letter which he sent to all signatories to the Oxford campaign on 6 March, 1885 (Bodleian Library 1516d.4).

The Cardwell/Klein exchange is from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, p.185.

Information and quotations about the Battersea Hospital come mainly from ‘Boycotted Hospital: The National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, London, 1903-1935’, A.W.H.Bates, Journal of Animal Ethics, vol.6, no.2 (Fall 2016), pp.177-87; also from Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, especially chapter 1 (the “great slur” quotation is from p.19); and from reports in the Times newspaper for 1 October, 1907, and 31 May, 1935 (on the maintenance and then closure of the hospital), and 6 February, 1897 (on the founding of the Prince of Wales’s Hospital Fund).

The words of Queen Victoria are taken from letters written to the Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Home Secretary William Harcourt in the early 1880s (see The Extended Circle, ed. Jon Wynne-Tyson, 1985, p.386).


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