Two Histories of Vivisection and an Essay on Hamlet

“This is the only field in which sadism can be practised within the law”: so wrote John Vyvyan, in bitter jest, as he reviewed the writings of Elie de Cyon and Claude Bernard, two leading champions of vivisection in the mid-nineteenth century. De Cyon, he believed, genuinely was a sadist; Claude Bernard he thought merely callous, a “subman … a mutilated being”. But subman as he may have been, Bernard commanded the new profession of medical research, and cClaude_Bernard_and_pupils_Wellcome_L0019301rucially he sited it in the animal laboratory. The practical and moral consequences of that choice constitute the story which Vyvyan told in his 1969 book In Pity and in Anger.

To Bernard’s own laboratory in Paris came all the ambitious young medical researchers, including the man who would later become Oxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson. Once settled back in Britain, Burdon Sanderson kept a bust of Claude Bernard upon his study mantelpiece. So, no doubt, did many others in the profession. Conan Doyle put one on the mantelpiece of his fictitious professor in the story ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ (first published in 1890). And along with Bernard’s authority came, as Vyvyan shows, “a new set of values”, licensing and indeed enforcing “the pitiless exploitation of the rest of nature for the physical benefit of man.” [19]

Of course there was some passionate objection to these new “values” [see the post about Frances Power Cobbe, 1 August 2017]. As the book’s title suggests, much of its story is about the personalities and politics of the anti-vivisection movement. Vyvyan was writing a polemic as well as a thoroughly researched history, and he had a great admiration and sympathy for these people. The frightfulness of contemporary animal research he conveys as much through their shock as by direct account. Anna Kingsford, who put herself through medical studies at the Paris Faculté de Médicine during the 1870s in order to speak for the animals with knowledge and authority, called the experience “descending into Hell” [108]. And these opponents did have this much success in Britain, the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, which in theory if not in fact took the values out of the hands of the scientists and gave them to the general public and their elected representatives to decide upon. For all the Act’s faults, and its failures in practice, Vyvyan himself thought well of it: “millions of animals and thousands of students have been spared by this Act, which owes its existence to the early activities of the anti-vivisection movement.”

That last quotation actually comes from the sequel which Vyvyan wrote to In Pity and in Anger, covering the twentieth century to date and titled The Dark Face of Science (1971). Claude Bernard was now in the past; he had died at about the time the British Act was passed. Even so, this next book has for an epigraph, casting its long shadow forward over all the succeeding pages, Bernard’s notorious brag: “le souffle de la science modern, qui anime la physiologie, est eminémment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

Involved in the darkness of that epigraph’s shadow can be found, of course, the medical trials at Nuremberg in 1946-7, when the world heard for the first time what had been done by way of vivisection in the concentration camps: “these incredible events”, the prosecutor Telford Taylor called them, but Vyvyan shows that so far from being incredible they had always been an implication of animal research, and had accordingly been predicted long before. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, had said in 1900, speaking of the possible usefulness of animal research, “you cannot bring a thing of this kind to a utilitarian test at all. If you once begin that particular line of argument, you will find yourself landed in horrors of which you can have no conception.” [29] But quite apart from the awful human dimension, Nuremberg showed how much the practice of vivisection had been boosted and liberated by the urgencies of war, as indeed it had been in both the world wars, on both sides.

So far from meriting special moral licence on account of its service to human well-being, then, vivisection had become part of the century’s psychopathology of violence – had indeed been a crucial preparative for it, so Vyvyan believed. He put Bernard’s words there at the front of his book to indicate as much. And there had, after all, been no shortage of disciples to carry Bernard’s ethic forward into the new century. Vyvyan quotes Edwin Slosson, the American chemistry professor and celebrated popularizer of science in the early twentieth century: “If cats and guinea pigs can be put to any higher use than to advance science, we do not know what it is.” More inclusively, “the aim of science is the advancement of human knowledge at any sacrifice of human life”. [20]

John Vyvyan was an archaeologist by profession, but having retired from that work (through ill health, I think), he took to writing. He wrote three books about the plays of Shakespeare, on the face of it a strange subject to combine with vivisection, or the other way round. But there is a connection.

It was part of Vyvyan’s argument in his two vivisection histories that science could have nothing to say about ethics, except as to its own professional ethic of loyalty to the facts. In ethics and mental life generally science was, or ought to be, itself governed by “the whole human inheritance that the arts (by which he meant all creative making and thinking) have built up over thousands of years.” [Dark Face, 111] And in both the histories this “inheritance” is extensively used in evidence against vivisection, for as Vyvyan says, “virtually all the great creative artists, in whatever medium they worked, have condemned the cruelty of science.” [Pity and Anger, 25] True, there was Gill's Shakespeare.JPGnot much contemporary science for Shakespeare to comment on (though he does touch on vivisection in the play Cymbeline, as described in this blog at 6 December 2016). However, his poetry is a notable part of the “human inheritance”, and accordingly a proper reference for moral thought. And the line of moral thought which Vyvyan studies in his book The Shakespearean Ethic (1959) does indeed prevision the thesis of The Dark Face of Science, most plainly in its remarkable chapter on Hamlet. A digression on the Vyvyan Hamlet, then (skip the next five paragraphs if you’re not as interested in that as I am).

There have been countless interpretations of this supreme and puzzling play, but the lastingly orthodox one, the one on which most actual productions are based, sees the sensitive hero face the terrible duty of avenging his murdered father, then put it off in doubts and hesitations, then rouse himself to the task with self-destructive courage, and finally depart the stage to a funeral drum, as the royal hero he has proved himself to be. Vyvyan up-ends this story. For him, the enlightened student Hamlet is corruptly persuaded by his murdered father’s lurid appeal from the region of “sulphurous and tormenting flames” (punishment for “the foul crimes done in my days of nature”) to revert, against his own better nature and education, to a primitive, pre-Christian ethic. This ethic makes him, not the human or divine laws, the proper judge and executioner of the usurper Claudius. In accepting the role, Hamlet has to betray all that’s noblest in himself, and by the end he has impartially destroyed the best along with the worst in the Danish court.

We know that Claudius is not in fact free of punishment either now or in futurity. He is Hamlet by Delacroixtormented by remorse (“O heavy burden!”), and expecting to have to answer in time for his “rank” offence before a divine, if not a human, tribunal. He says so, kneeling hopelessly in prayer, where Hamlet comes upon him with sword drawn in that moment of astonishing theatrical effect. But Hamlet, unlike Claudius himself, believes that mercy may be available in heaven for the praying king; that’s the reason he gives to himself for leaving Claudius unkilled at this moment. So, in the role of avenger, he means to outwit divine authority.

That it is a role, rather than a course of action native to his character, is suggested not only in the imitatively lurid and unsophisticated language he uses to drive himself on (“now could I drink hot blood”, etc.) but also, most tellingly for Vyvyan, in the cruel repudiation of his love for Ophelia. It is Ophelia who most feelingly witnesses to Hamlet’s natural fineness of character and to his tragic transformation (“O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown …!”). In fact Vyvyan argues that the rejection and death of Ophelia are an allegory of Hamlet’s repudiation of love and beauty in his own nature, “the slow killing of the higher qualities of his soul” (56).

Looking outside himself for a model of right action, Hamlet lights upon Fortinbras, the absurd soldier whom he encounters tramping across the stage with his army on the way to waste “two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats” in a dispute about a “straw”. Accordingly it’s Fortinbras who, in the last scene, speaks a militarist’s epitaph for Hamlet, and orders his men to take up the body of this student and philosopher “like a soldier”, though the deaths by accident, deceit, and poisoning that strew the stage have in fact been anything but soldierly. They carry Hamlet from this shambles, the visible cost of his rough justice, to the sound of a dead march and the firing of guns, symbols of conquest and domination. Vyvyan sums up this tragic conclusion as “the defeat of humanity and the perpetuation of genocide”. (60)

So Hamlet is, like the other Shakespearean tragic heroes Othello and Macbeth, a noble character corruptly induced to his own moral ruin, and Vyvyan ends his chapter with a quotation from Goethe’s Faust, the hero-scholar’s cry of despair: “Das ist deine Welt! Das heist eine Welt!” [That is your world! That is called a world!]

Back to The Dark Face of Science. That Vyvyan was picturing something analogous to Hamlet’s story (as he interpreted it) when he came to write the later book is suggested at its start, for below the ominous words of Claude Bernard in the epigraph is another quotation from Faust:

Weh! Weh!
Du hast sie zerstört,
Die schöne Welt
Mit mächtiger Faust …

[Alas! Alas! You have destroyed the beautiful world with your mighty fist.]

What is the “beautiful world” that Bernard, like Faust, has destroyed? Partly it’s pre-Bernardian science, the delight of knowledge honourably pursued. For Vyvyan assures his readers in a preliminary ‘Note’, “I love science. I owe to it a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence.” And partly the “beautiful world” is the one which Charles Darwin had revealed and bequeathed to the twentieth century, whose implicit ethic of life-fellowship did indeed make possible “a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence”. For it’s with this prospect of life-fellowship, this “new fact, which makes it necessary to re-think our ethics” as Vyvyan calls it [20], that he opens his story of the twentieth century. It’s the equivalent of that “inclination … to light” [36] which he has imputed to the Hamlet of Act 1. And in both cases, as he says of the play, a “tremendous spiritual battle must ensue” to secure or to lose it [36].

That the vivisection contest has indeed been this tremendous battle rather than just a series of political rows is what the book keeps in the reader’s mind always. “This is something to set to the credit of mankind”, Vyvyan says of the great 1909 London Congress against vivisection [95]. But more pessimistically, and echoing at large the story he has told about Hamlet, “the disciples of Claude Bernard have been able to conquer the human mind. It has been a barbarous conquest. It has debased our humanity, made a mockery of our spiritual pretensions, and devalued life itself.” [46] Hamlet’s is a finished story, but ours is not; until we redeem it, supposing we have the time and will to do so, “the human race,” so John Vyvyan says near the end of his book, “has no right to happiness.”


Notes and references:

Both vivisection titles by John Vyvyan are still in print, published by Micah Publications Inc., Marblehead, MA, U.S.A. The Shakespearean Ethic has been re-published by Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2011. The quotations and page references above are from the 1988 Micah edition of In Pity and in Anger, but the 1971 edition of The Dark Face of Science, published by Michael Joseph, and the 1959 edition of The Shakespearean Ethic, published by Chatto and Windus.

The painting of Bernard in his laboratory is by Leon-Augustin l’Hermitte. The image is part of the Wellcome Collection online, and has been made freely available. Bernard is the one standing at the ‘trough’, of course.

The wood-engraved portrait of Shakespeare is by Eric Gill in 1936.

The lithograph of Hamlet and the praying Claudius was made by Eugène Delacroix in 1843.







Keeping Them in their Places

At the top of Time Out’s list of recommended museum destinations in London this autumn is University College’s Grant Museum of Zoology and its exhibition ‘The Museum of Ordinary Animals’. The theme of the exhibition is “the mundane creatures in our everyday lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice”, and how these animals have, through their relationship with humans, “changed the world”: a very important theme, especially at the start of an academic year, when it may help to advise a new body of zoology students how to view their subject. Whether the advice implied in the exhibition is altogether good advice is another matter.

The Museum itself comprises one fine galleried room in the enormous 1920s Rockefeller Building, part of University College London’s medical school in Gower Street. Most of the room is taken up by a permanent collection: skeletons, whole and partial animals showcase 3 preserved in jars, and other remnants of the world’s zoology, themselves part of a much larger collection made by former administrations but still in use for teaching purposes. Being mostly (and very wisely) unmodernized, the room is a period piece. It looks, on its smaller scale, much as Oxford University’s Museum must have looked in the 1870s when John Ruskin gave his lectures there and angrily spoke against that collection as “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”. Ruskin hated its emphasis on the exotic and the dead, and he told the students “I could fill all this museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.”

So the Grant Museum’s current exhibition, fitted in among these more traditional exhibits, may be thought of as making, at least temporarily, just the correction that Ruskin had proposed. There’s a showcase about chickens (illustrated with a stuffed hen) and other farmed animals. Another one follows the human-related migrations of feral rats. There’s a sad account of the imported domestic cat and its destruction of Australia’s wild-life. And two or three videos, as well as a display of snails inhabiting a log, show animals in the live state.

One showcase is labelled ‘Ordinary animals and medicine: the Brown Dog Affair’, and tells that story, illustrated with a picture of the original “very contentious statue” [see post for 7 August 2015]. Inside the case is a respirator for keeping such dogs alive “during vivisection”. It’s an ugly exhibit, or perhaps just an ugly idea; at any rate, here and elsewhere, the exhibition strives to be candid and impartial, positivist in the scientific sense, neither giving nor taking ground on the subject of what we’re entitled to do to these “ordinary” animals. Thus a case showing examples of dissection acknowledges that the practice is becoming less popular in schools “because of changing perceptions by many students and teachers about whether dissection is right”, but the word perceptions (being nowadays used to mean thinking rather than seeing) indicates that it’s a sociological rather than a moral point that’s being made.

All the same, illuminating as it is, the exhibition doesn’t really present a dis-interested account of the subject. In details, and in more general ways, its world-view is plainly and conservatively anthropocentric. That stuffed henstuffed hen, for instance (incidentally a modern piece of work), is glowingly clean and alert-looking, with a roomy glass case to itself. The plinth is simply labelled ‘chicken’, as if this glossy hen stands for all her kind, but the theme of the case is given as ‘The genetics of battery farming’. It amounts to a consoling lie. No battery-farmed chicken could look like this. A single photograph of ‘battery farming’ would have shown what in practice it means to a chicken’s health and appearance to “yield” (that’s the verb used in the exhibition) eggs or meat on the scale required.

And there’s a larger and stranger misrepresentation. Of these species that we “encounter every day on our plates, on our laps and on our streets”, by far the most familiar and ubiquitous, on our streets at any rate, is simply omitted, except as the reference-point for everything else. Anyone visiting the exhibition must feel this anomaly, having just been part of the herds of humans surging this way and that between UCL’s different buildings, and hunted off the roads by competing surges of the motorized sub-species. What the cat has done to Australia is a little thing compared to what humans have done there and everywhere else in the world. But I could find no confirmation in the exhibition that humans are even animals at all. In this room where the names of UCL life-science worthies are inscribed in gold on the ceiling brackets, the exhibition discourses as if the evolution of species has yet to be accepted in the university.

Then there’s the humour. Time Out’s review of the Grant Museum show is predictably flippant: “They’re playing a cat-and-mouse game with a show dedicated to all creatures ‘mundane’.” That’s how some journalists like to write. More dismaying is that the several curators of the show, some or all of whom are academic scientists, are infected with the same waggishness. “Most museums are too chicken to celebrate ‘boring beasts’ – but we’re not”, they announce on the more or less scholarly web-site ‘The Conversation’. And it’s there in the exhibition too. The text about cats in Australia is headed ‘CATastrophe’. The one about rats following human settlements is headed ‘Rat race’. Professor Steve Jones enlivens his display of Cepaea snails with a quip about the science of genetics having until recently moved at a snail’s pace.

This is fun science, I suppose (one of the associated events is a ‘comedy night’), but it’s instructive to compare the ‘Ordinary Animals’ show with another UCL exhibition a short distance away in the main building, entitled ‘What Does it Mean to be Human? Curating Heads at UCL’. This is a straight and wholly unjocular review of its subject, which is human attitudes and practices in relation to human death and the dead human body. It includes the preserved head of Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders of UCL. Bentham Benthamfirst bequeathed his own body to medical study in a will made when he was aged 21. Later he specified that it should afterwards be preserved and set up as an ‘auto-icon’ in the college – where indeed it may still be seen, in a cabinet stationed a few yards from this exhibition, though with a wax model for the head. Partly, Bentham wished to support scientific education, but he also, as a secularist, wished to de-mystify the human body, to rank it thus with the thousands of deserted casings of other species later to be kept in the college and visible in the Grant Museum. (For the ethical dimension to this egalitarianism, see the quotation from Bentham on the banner shown at the top of this page.) But evidently UCL hasn’t yet caught up with Bentham’s serene impartiality: the quite properly respectful, even wary, tone in the wordage to this exhibition is very different from the jauntiness at the Grant Museum. This, after all, is about us; over the road, it’s only about them.

UCL isn’t alone in this, of course. When the Oxford University Museum hosted a conference earlier this year with a similar theme, ‘Chickens and People: Past, Present and Future’, it did have a definite ideological aim: to consider “the consequences of our consumer demands [i.e. for “cheap protein”] on global human and animal health”. It hoped also to recover or at least recall, on the chickens’ behalf, something of the prestige which the species enjoyed in pre-modern times as one of the “special animals”. Even so, the event was presented with the same familiar winks and puns. “Why did the chicken cross the globe?” asked the University’s News and Events web-page, introducing the conference. The running narrative of the event on twitter was tirelessly joky: “Registration table ready!” “Flocking to take seats at the chicken conference.” “Cracking!” Someone tweeted a sign which they’d noticed outside an Oxford fast-food restaurant, advertising “our latest special Cluckosaurus Rex: it’s a clucking beast of a burger!” Noticed it with indignation and sorrow? Not at all, for in fact a highlight of the conference scene was a giant model chicken, placed alongside the Museum’s skeleton-cast of Tyrannosaurus rex and itself named ‘Dinnersaurus rex’. As the University’s web-site explains, “With chickens now being selectively bred to grow so large, so quickly, it won’t be too many decades before they reach dino-size.” It’s true that this model was part of a school project linked to the conference, and led by an official artist/comedian (wearing, hilariously, a papier-mâché chicken head), but that just makes the remorseless jocularity authoritative and prescribed. It would have been more in accord with the expressed purpose of the conference to teach or show children how to take animals seriously. I feel sure that most children would naturally prefer to do so.

The question is whether these adults take animals seriously. Perhaps they can’t really afford to, except as academic raw material; it would make using them for that or any other purpose so much more problematic. In her novel Hackenfeller’s Ape [see post for 11 October 2015], Brigid Brophy writes about a research monkey called Percy, and “the facetious spirit which had given the animal its name”. Mocking animals in this way, however mildly, has a function; it keeps them at a distance, makes their status more malleable. For after all, at the same time as boosting the chicken’s proper dignity with this conference, or proposing to do so, Oxford University had been conducting ‘procedures’ on real chickens as part of an extended study of their mating and reproductive characteristics (using red junglefowl or Gallus gallus, chief ancestor of the farmed chicken). This was partly a study in evolution, but it also aimed to illuminate “reductions in performance amongst domestic chickens and resultant impact on the poultry industry”. Such work presupposes and accepts the complete subjugation of the species, and supports it. I won’t detail the devices and techniques used to intervene in the animals’ sex acts, but neither they nor their commercial reference will have done anything to advance the status of this wretchedly abused species.

Like Oxford, UCL is always somewhere in the top three or four consumers of research animals among British universities. The uncertainty of attitude characterizing the events  at these two institutions, their unscientific speciesism, the habitual smirk with which the non-human animals are patronized, all these are symptoms of a divided mentality. As humans, we know that these animals are fellow-creatures, homogeneous with us in origin and mode of being, but so long as in practice we exploit them as objects, we cannot think and speak of them with the rationality of a good conscience, and it shows.


Notes and references:

The Grant Museum exhibition (on until 22 December) is introduced online at

Quotations about it are from the online text, or from the booklet issued at the Museum, unless otherwise stated. The exhibition is free, and the place is hospitable and well worth visiting anyway. The photograph of the hen is made available on the Grant Museum web-site. I should add that the taxidermist in this instance, Jazmine Miles-Long, quite reasonably calls her taxidermy “ethical”, in that she does not accept work upon animals which have been killed for that purpose.

The piece in Time Out, selecting London’s top ten museum exhibitions, was posted on 25 September here:

The exhibition ‘What Does it Mean to be Human?’ (on until 28 February 2018) is in the Octagon of the main Wilkins Building of UCL.

John Ruskin’s words come from lecture 4 in the series ‘Readings in Modern Painters’, delivered in the University Museum in Michaelmas Term 1877 (see Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, vol.22, p.520).

The Oxford conference took place on 27-8 January 2017, as presented on the University’s web-site here: and as variously reported on @Chicken_project.

The particular junglefowl study quoted is Borziac, K., et al, ‘The seminal fluid proteome of the polyandrous Red junglefowl offers insights into the molecular basis of fertility, reproductive ageing and domestication’, published in Scientific Reports 6, 2016. This was one of several publications arising from a research project at the University’s John Krebs Field Station.