Remembering John Ruskin Rightly, part 2

Here’s a characteristically Ruskinian scene, recorded by his friend and secretary William Collingwood during a summer excursion which they were making in Switzerland in 1883, just before Ruskin went back to his work at Oxford. They had stopped for a meal at a wayside inn, and were eating at a table outdoors:

To this lunch there came a little dog, two cats, and a pet sheep, and shared our wine, bread, and Savoy sponge-cakes. The sheep at last got to putting its feet on the table, and the landlady rushed out and carried him off in her arms into the house; but Ruskin, I think, would as soon have let the creature stay.

It’s not that animals needed to petition charmingly, as they happened to do here, in order to engage Ruskin’s attention. In fact Collingwood specifically says that Ruskin felt “a sympathy with them which goes much deeper than benevolent sentiment”. But the scene is typical of the way animals thronged Ruskin’s life: they turn up in his conversation, lectures, and writing, in his dreams, in his own paintings and in his art criticism. And, as we know, they were the occasion of that crisis in his working life, the resignation from Oxford University.

The scene at the Swiss inn may be taken, besides, as a sort of emblem of the animal kingdom (the whole of it, humans included) as Ruskin envisioned it. In one of his early Oxford lectures as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a lecture in which he was typically combining a study in natural history with his ideas about the point of university education (the formal subject of the lecture was the halcyon or kingfisher), he put to his audience “my main theorem – that reading and writing are in no sense education, unless they contribute to this end of making us feel kindly towards all creatures”. And again, not ‘kindly’ in a merely cerebral or sentimental sense: rather, in the etymological sense of feeling kinship. He wanted the future landowners in his audience (many of the undergraduates would indeed have been from the landed gentry and aristocracy) to be educated out of their corrupt taste for hunting and shooting animals. He wanted them to devote themselves instead to maintaining their land in its “native wildness”, so as “to let every animal live upon it in peace that chose to come there.” A lot of meaning is bound up in that word ‘chose’.

He had the same scheme in mind for Oxford itself. The authorities, he hoped (or dreamed), would “so far recognize what education means as to surround this university with the loveliest park in England, twenty miles square”, within which “every English wild flower that can bloom in lowland will be suffered to grow in luxuriance, and every living creature that haunts wood and stream know that it has a happy refuge.” And it was much more than a conservation scheme. Ruskin believed that the essential relation between humans and other animals could be transformed – restored to innocence, perhaps – if only the humans themselves would change: “There is peacable kingdom.JPGscarcely any conception left of the character which animals and birds might have if kindly treated in a wild state.” He was teaching, in fact, the way towards the peaceable kingdom.

Nor was this just a picturesque ideal for Ruskin. It was founded on his absolute conviction of nature’s entirety: that in fact was a key word in his vocabulary. Wisdom itself, he told his Oxford students, was “the faculty which recognizes in all things their bearing upon life, in the entire sum of life that we know, bestial and human”. There could therefore be nothing narrow or pedestrian about drawing a small bird, or for that matter a stone or twig, as he often directed his students in the art school to do (and as he himself did with brilliant fidelity and feeling), for “the system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole.” Writing about Venice, Ruskin improvised a special function here for the patron saint of that city, St Theodore. He should represent “Divine life in nature; Divine life in the flesh of the animal, and in the substance of the wood and of the stone, contending with poison and death in the animal, with rottenness in the tree and in the stone.” [C&W 29.62] This St Theodore champions the life-wish, and Ruskin sensed that wish far into areas of nature conventionally regarded as inanimate or at least as involuntary. In another Oxford lecture, he spoke of crystals as “living stones”. He used to get the girls at Winnington School, where he was a sort of visiting professor, to get their own sense of that stone-life by acting out the different crystal formations.

But there was nothing mild and consolatory about this notion of a ubiquitous shared life, for Ruskin had also an acute feeling for the perils faced by the life-urge in all its variety. We’ve seen these perils contended with in the labour of St Theodore. Ruskin himself was viscerally affected by the sight or even idea of disease, of physical suffering and harm. The dreams show it: “a green leaf which was an animal, and was drowning in a basin of water, and putting its green point up, trying to get out”; “I had a nice black dog with me, and trod on it, and half broke its leg; then it gradually got better and limped after us about the town”; “a fit of great distress and self-reproach because I Ruskin_Self_Portrait_1875.jpghad starved a hermit crab whom I had packed away in his shell … looking at the starved creature and wondering if I could revive it.” This sense of life’s ordeal – and his intense sympathy for it, as suffered by animals especially – amounted to a personal engagement, which the dreams cruelly dramatize by making him the cause of harm. The sympathy was always vivid in his imagination and directive of his thought. “There is no wealth but life” he wrote, by way of summarizing his economics in Unto This Last (1860), but it summarizes his thinking in all of its many directions.

And it was here that science came to seem in Ruskin’s mind essentially hostile. That was a tragic estrangement, for Ruskin loved and never did cease to study the natural sciences. He had a strong talent for it. In that same black dog dream, he observes a tourist “staring” at his surroundings, and the two men agree that “to stare was the right thing; to look only was no use.” The scientific skill of concentrated and selfless attention Ruskin had to a very high degree, and the practice of art as he taught it at Oxford was a means into that discipline; in fact he insisted that art was itself a science, “the science of aspects”. He even, during that inaugural lecture of 1870, proposed that art and “our now authoritative science of physiology” should collaborate in making a complete record of the world’s animal life. (“now authoritative”! It was an ominous misconception; Ruskin didn’t then realize that British physiology was only just starting to discover itself and its characteristic techniques as a science.)

But always the art depended on moral engagement and sympathy; the artist was to feel “rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which he forms a part. He told his Oxford students during that kingfisher lecture, “in the degree in which you delight in the life of any creature, you can see it: no otherwise.” It was this sympathetic delight which, during the 1870s, Ruskin came to think had been cut out of modern science, of biology in particular. This part of science was now consciously shaking off its amateurish past as ‘natural history’, so much associated as that had been with personal observation in the field and with anecdotes of particular living animals. This was the tradition to which Ruskin himself belonged (something of it has since been recovered and re-valued as ethology).

Oxford’s future Physiology professor, the one who would be sharing the University Museum with Ruskin during his last two years as Slade Professor, was a leader in this modernization of biology. At just about the same time that Ruskin was telling his audience about delight as a condition of seeing anything at all, John Scott Burdon Sanderson had been telling a different audience that “the study of the life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.” In other words, biology was to be incorporated into the world as defined by physics and chemistry – the world of “mechanism”, as Ruskin called it. And the organic part of that world, like the rest of it, was to be explored primarily through experimentation, conducted by scientists acting as disengaged technicians. For these modern pioneers, so different from the ones Ruskin had pictured in that inaugural lecture lovingly recording the world’s wild-life, he used a harsh and sinister image: they were, he said, “mostly blind, and proud of finding their way always with a stick.”

For two more immediate reasons Ruskin felt driven to contest this innovation. One was the glaring importance of science. Its rapid growth in prestige was everywhere obvious, not least in Oxford, where the Museum itself was built evidence of it. In fact one of the critical moments in this cultural triumph of science had recently taken place there: the famous debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, on the subject of evolution. If science was to replace religion as the primary force in British culture, and thus perhaps become the conditioning sub-text of the British mind, which Huxley himself frequently argued that it should do and Ruskin feared it already had, then it mattered very much what sort of mind and culture that entailed. And for Ruskin, modern science, and the technology which was its most conspicuous product, entailed a maiming alienation of mankind from the rest of the world. Years earlier he had defined what he regarded as man’s “due relation to other creatures, and to inanimate things”: it was to “know them all and love them, as made for him, and he for them.” And he had warned against that alienation: “All the diseases of mind leading to fatalest ruin consist primarily in this isolation.” And now “fatalest ruin” was what he believed he was seeing in the 1870s. Speaking of the spoliation of land and wild-life in Europe, he told Oxford students in 1872, “we shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth.”

And here, as the second reason for Ruskin’s preoccupation with the character of modern science, was the Museum’s own collection encircling him as he lectured. For he found that the building which he had hoped would be a celebration of the beauty and unity of life was filled with the stuffed skins and bottled parts of multitudes of imported corpses. Ruskin angrily called it “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”, and he told his (no doubt astonished) audience, “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.” More useful because these un-showy and familiar birds were animals whose lives students could in some sense share, whereas the dead animals in the Museum were an object lesson in selfish ambition and violence. And the Victorian collecting mania which had assembled them was itself a part of a larger corrupt and dangerous notion that man had triumphed over nature, and should consequently enjoy rights of ownership there.

I’ve said here only a part of what I wanted to say about Ruskin and animals: nothing, for instance, about his wonderful descriptions of their behaviour, his enactments of bird flight in lectures, his love and respect for the individual animals which he encountered (even ants and shrimps); perhaps most importantly I’ve said nothing about his sense of the mystery of animal consciousness, and the poignancy of the clouded understanding on both sides which thus conditioned all such encounters. I think that it was this mystery which he had in mind when, in one of his later lectures of the 1880s, he spoke of modern animal research as “depriving the animal under investigation first of its soul within, and secondly of its skin without.” Ruskin had no conventionally Christian faith, but he regarded as a kind of blasphemy this crude objectification of an inaccessibly mysterious individual life.

Anyway, during those last two years of his professorship, while the newly appointed Physiology professor, Burdon Sanderson, was moving equipment into his temporary quarters in the University Museum just downstairs from where Ruskin lectured, the contest of values reached a crisis. I’ve mentioned in the previous post the University’s plan to build a new laboratory for Burdon Sanderson, and the campaign which was mounted against it, or at least against its use for vivisection. Ruskin signed up to that campaign, but he also conducted his own personal campaign in lectures and beyond. “The scientists slink out of my way as if I were a mad dog”, he said in a letter written at this time (there are many shadowy arcades and showcases to slink behind in that neo-Gothic Museum). He planned to end the Michaelmas term of 1884 with a lecture entitled ‘Mechanism: the Pleasures of Nonsense’, which would be a passionate and last-ditch statement of his case against the new biology in general, and vivisection in particular. What a text that might have been, and what an event! But it didn’t occur; Ruskin was persuaded to postpone the lecture, and when the Michaelmas term ended and Ruskin left town for the Lake District where he had his home, it was to be a permanent departure.

Without that mechanism lecture, without in fact any single organised statement of his thinking about animals (he said in a letter that he wanted to write one, but hadn’t enough time), it has no doubt been easier than it would otherwise have been to treat Ruskin’s given reason for resigning his post – the decision to fund the new laboratory – as an excuse only. The real reason, it was commonly said at the time and frequently has been said since, was his mental ill-health. He certainly was unwell (the stress of those last Oxford weeks played a large part in that), but he, at any rate, believed in the reason which he gave, and indeed insisted upon it, as the previous post in this blog has recorded. I hope that this brief account of his thinking about animals has at least shown that there was quite enough strength of feeling and expressed commitment there to account for his action. We can and should remember that action, then, as Ruskin himself experienced it and as he wished it to be remembered.


Notes and references:

Instead of a long list of citations, these are the main texts quoted or referenced above:

William Collingwood’s Life and Works of John Ruskin, 2 vols, Methuen, 1893, is a fine and sympathetic account by someone who had been a student of Ruskin, and became his friend and helper.

‘The Story of the Halcyon’ was the ninth lecture in the series delivered by Ruskin in the Lent term of 1872, and published by George Allen in the same year under the title The Eagle’s Nest. Several of the quotations here come from that series, in which Ruskin was at his most well-organized and optimistic. His comments on the Museum collection come from a much more improvised and therefore exciting series delivered before very large audiences in the Michaelmas term of 1877, and titled ‘Readings in Modern Painters’. These were published from Ruskin’s notes in vol. 22 of Cook and Wedderburn’s great ‘Library Edition’ of Ruskin’s writings (39 vols, George Allen and Unwin, 1903-12). The last series of lectures, delivered in Michaelmas term of 1884, were titled ‘The Pleasures of England’ (the intended ‘mechanism’ lecture would have been the final one), and it’s from the first of these that he spoke of scientific research depriving the animal of its soul. The letter about scientists slinking out of Ruskin’s way is re-printed in Cook and Wedderburn, vol.37, p.501.

The quotation about “the system of the world” comes from the fifth and last volume of Modern Painters, published in 1860, where also he wrote about our “due relation to other creatures”. Here too, he uses the phrase “science of aspects” – in connection with the works of J.M.Turner (whose reputation was the originating subject of this great book), but the idea was one which he subsequently insisted on in his Oxford lectures.

Ruskin wrote about St Theodore in one of his ‘letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’ titled Fors Clavigera and published in the 1870s, while he was also working at Oxford. This particular issue was numbered 75. The image of the blind scientist comes from that same letter. Ruskin’s dreams are recorded in his diaries: they were edited by Joan Evans and J.H.Whitehouse, and published by Oxford University Press in 3 vols, 1956-9.

The quotation about “rational and disciplined delight” comes from the first sentence of Ruskin’s book of instruction in the principles of drawing and painting, The Laws of Fésole, published in parts from 1877-79.

On the study of biology: Professor Burdon Sanderson was addressing an audience at a professional event, and his speech was published in the journal Nature, 1 June, 1876.

Th illustrations show a detail from one of the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ series painted by the American artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 1820s to 1840s, and a self-portrait in water-colour by John Ruskin, painted in 1875. Both images are in the public domain.





Remembering John Ruskin Rightly

Next Wednesday, 6th February, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest of the Victorians, John Ruskin. His reputation took a tumble with the rest of them when there came a reaction against the Victorian model of the great man, soon after the end of the century – rather unreasonably in Ruskin’s case, since he had been notoriously a scourge of Victorian values and ambitions. Even the magnificent complete edition of his works in 39 volumes, which came out in 1903 -12, seemed to confirm him as a forbiddingly earnest heavyweight rather than revive his influence. “I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie”, says one of the intellectual girls who attempt to marry P.G.Wodehouse’s rattle-brained hero Bertram Wooster, and her first step is to read Ruskin to him in the drawing-room.

But Ruskin’s reputation recovered and he is now properly accepted as a NPG 1336; John Ruskin by Sir Hubert von Herkomersupreme interrogator of modern Western culture. The revival really began with the inaugural lecture given in 1947 by his most eminent successor as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, Kenneth Clark – a man who shared, incidentally, Ruskin’s love and admiration for non-human animals, in life and in art (see his book, Animals and Men, 1977). Clark’s lecture remains one of the best and most sympathetic short accounts, and the anthology which he edited in 1964, Ruskin Today, remains likewise the best of short tours. Then, among the countless subsequent books and exhibitions which have helped to confirm Ruskin’s re-acknowledged stature, there is the superb and definitive biography by Tim Hilton (published in 2000).

Still, time alone would surely have restored Ruskin to proper attention, so illuminatingly and enduringly sound was his charge against industrial society: that the joint rule of commerce and science has been turning modern man into a universal predator. In a lecture to an Oxford audience, he thus characterized the new human: “consumer of all things consumable, producer of nothing but darkness and abomination . . . a god to himself, and to all the world an incarnate calamity.”

Pollution of land and water, perversion of the weather (Ruskin called this the “plague-cloud” of industrialization, and some thought him deranged on the subject, but we now know it as climate change), and Western humanity’s own social sickness, these were part of the “calamity”. And always Ruskin had in mind the non-human animals, and what our way of life entailed for them. During his career as a professor at Oxford, animals appear again and again in his lectures and other writings (and in his dreams), and it was indeed this aspect of the “calamity” which eventually put an abrupt end to his work there.

To understand this story, one has to appreciate the unusual relationship between the man and the institution. So far from being the solemn pedagogue implied in Bertram Wooster’s drawing-room ordeal, Ruskin was a brilliant and engaging personality. “I never saw or heard anyone laugh with such abandonment of enjoyment”, says one memoir of him in his professorial days. As a speaker, he fascinated audiences. His inaugural lecture at Oxford, in the Hilary term of 1870, was fixed to take place in the University Museum, which contained Oxford’s newest and largest lecture theatre, seating more than 500, but long before the time of starting it became obvious that the room wouldn’t be big enough for the demand. The audience had to be herded out, joining the crowds in the street outside and forming one tumultuous procession around Ruskin himself, which then headed for the University’s great ceremonial hall, the Sheldonian, and filled that place from floor to galleries. Fourteen years later, his last lectures (now back in the Museum) were still attracting so many from town and university that he had to deliver each one twice, and a notice was posted requesting people not to attend both sessions.

Probably there has never been at Oxford University any other single personality who has commanded attention and enthusiasm there in the way Ruskin did. As professor of Fine Art, an extra-curricular subject not implicated in exams, he didn’t have a defined audience, and he always spoke as one addressing the whole university, for indeed he believed that his subject had no academic bounds: “The teaching of art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things.” As one contemporary exclaimed sardonically, “What more entrancing than the new Art-Professor, and the wonderful fireworks which throw their magical light over every subject on earth but the subject of his chair?” For of course Ruskin’s free-minded critique of university life and practice didn’t please everyone. Certainly it made the official University uneasy, sometimes indignant, but then as Kenneth Clark has said, “in studying the nineteenth century, we shall be astonished at the tolerance of academic circles compared to those of our own day.” That’s a sad truth.

So Ruskin strayed brilliantly across all the topics he thought his audiences should mind about, challenging what they carelessly took for granted: new university buildings, student sports (rowing he particularly disliked, for disturbing river-life), how to study birds, the Oxford countryside, mountaineering, materialism, science. But yes, increasingly science, and in particular science’s attitude to animals. For in the 1880s that had suddenly became an acutely controversial subject at Oxford. The University was proposing to build a dedicated physiology laboratory, and to have it directed by Oxford’s first professor of Physiology, a man well-known as a pioneer of vivisection in the U.K., John Scott Burdon Sanderson [see this blog for 21 November 2015: ‘The Real Benjulia?’] An impassioned campaign against this innovation was organized by the head of the Bodleian Library, Edward Nicholson. Ruskin signed his name to Nicholson’s campaign, and spoke freely on the subject in public and private. In fact his last public words in Oxford, in December of 1884, were addressed to an anti-vivisection meeting in the Town Hall. But they were his last because the campaign failed: Convocation (the University’s parliament) voted to finance the new laboratory and to attach no conditions to the work that might be done there, and as a consequence Ruskin resigned.

At least, he said that was why, but since then the question has always been (improperly, as I believe) whether to accept what he said about what he was doing, or to substitute more conventionally common-sense explanations.

Ruskin was at home – Brantwood, in the Lake District – when he received the news of Convocation’s decision. He had been enjoying, so he said in his diary for March 15th, “a lovely and delightful day . . . doing quantities of good work”, work that included revising one of his recent Oxford lectures for the press. But the news scattered his equanimity: that night he “slept ill . . . waking at two, to think whether I would resign the professorship on it.” For it was a most distressing decision to take. I’ve said something about Ruskin’s extraordinary reception and continuing glamour in the University. He felt a fully reciprocal attachment to “my own Oxford – so he had called it in his inaugural lecture. It was a place which he had known, worked in, had a hand in, ever since he had first arrived there as a student in 1837. The very building in which he usually gave his lectures, the DSC05094.JPGUniversity Museum (completed in about 1860), had been a product of his aesthetic philosophy and of his practical advice and collaboration. As Oxford’s first Slade Professor of Fine Art, he had always had high ambitions for what he could achieve: “I really think the time has come for me to be of some use”, said this man already famous in the world as an art critic and social critic when he started the work at Oxford. And still in the early 1880s he had “all sorts of useful notions for Oxford, it was his “proper task”, there was “a great deal to be done there now”. He said subsequently that he had “meant to die in my harness there”.

But that very attachment, which would make severance so drastic, also made it imperative: for as his close friend Henry Acland, then Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, recognized, Ruskin must have felt himself “personally responsible for that which his whole nature abhorred”. And so he did indeed resign, sending a letter to the Vice-Chancellor a few days later, and never, in fact, re-visiting the place which had meant so much to him.

Ruskin asked that his reason for resigning should be made public in the University, but it wasn’t. In London the Pall Mall Gazette announced the decision to the nation, but with the explanation that the professor, now 66 years old, felt unequal to the demands of lecturing. He wrote to correct this explanation: he had resigned “solely in consequence . . . of the vote endowing vivisection in the university”. But some version of the Pall Mall Gazette account has lived on ever since. And Tim Hilton’s biography now standardizes it, seeing in the vivisection defeat a cover for his departure rather than the true reason; it provided, says Hilton, “the perfect opportunity to leave Oxford.

Certainly Ruskin was entitled to resign: he had been professor at Oxford, with some intervals, for nearly fifteen years; he was tending to get behind-hand with preparation for lectures, and consequently had to improvise more and more, breaking at times into fantastic digressions (which the undergraduates appreciated a lot, but the dons didn’t); he had a history of mental collapses, and was in precarious health. But as he himself noted in his diary on that March day, he could still work well, and he wanted to work. His very fine last book Praeterita, yet to come, would prove as much. In his own mind at least, there was no doubt why he was resigning: it was because vivisection was too great a wrong to live with at Oxford – or, as he put it in a private letter, because he refused to lecture to the sound of “shrieking cats” (he meant that more or less literally, for while the new laboratory was being built, Professor Burdon Sanderson was at work in the same University Museum that Ruskin lectured in). He meant his resignation to be a clear and practical statement of the ethical fact – as if to say, I dedicate this rupture, of a unique and treasured relationship, to the value of animal lives.

It is surely owed to Ruskin, in this year when he will be more than usually talked about and fêted, to remember his act of resignation rightly. In the next post of this blog there will be more about animals in Ruskin’s life and thought, and why it was, as he believed, that his obligations towards them made Oxford impossible for him.


Notes and references:

The Wodehouse story ‘Scoring Off Jeeves’ originally appeared in the Strand Magazine, February 1922.

The anthology of Ruskin’s writings edited by Kenneth Clark and published by John Murray and Penguin Books, who later issued it as John Ruskin: Selected Writings (1991). The “incarnate calamity” passage is from a lecture given in 1884 and recorded by Edward Cook in Studies in Ruskin, Geo. Allen, 1890, p.293.

Ruskin’s laughter is remembered in a memoir by ‘Peter’ (Edwin Barrow) published in St George, VI, no.22, April 1903, pp.103-15, at p.111

Ruskin wrote about art as the teaching of all things in his series of papers called Fors Clavigera, no. 76, April 1877. The comment on his lectures was made by the historian J.R.Green in Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901, p.265. Kenneth Clark’s observation about academic freedom comes in his 1947 lecture, published as Ruskin at Oxford, OUP, 1947.

The discussion of J.S.Burdon Sanderson in this blog is at

Ruskin’s diaries have been edited by Joan Evans and John Whitehouse (3 vols, Clarendon Press, 1956-9). The letters from which Ruskin’s views on his Oxford work are quoted are published in The Brantwood Diary, ed. Helen Gill Viljoen, Yale UP, 1971, pp.271, 313, 487.

Henry Acland’s discussion of Ruskin’s resignation appeared in The Oxford Museum, 1893, reprinted in Cook and Wedderburn, Works, vol.16, pp.235-40. Ruskin’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette (including the statement about dying in harness) was reprinted in the Oxford Review, April 29th, 1885. Tim Hilton’s account of the resignation is in John Ruskin, Yale UP, 2002, pp.791-2. Ruskin speaks of “shrieking cats” in an unpublished letter to his friend Joan Severn, dated 22nd March 1885, and held in the Bodleian Library’s English Letters collection.

The watercolour portrait of Ruskin in 1879 is by Hubert von Herkomer, Ruskin’s immediate successor as Slade Professor (image used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London). The picture of the University Museum shows the building, designed by Benjamin Woodward in ‘Ruskinian Gothic’ style, in 1860 (image originally made for the Oxford Almanac, here reproduced from a Blackwell’s Bookshop Christmas card of 1979).

Scenes from the Dawn of the Atomic Age

An advertisement published in 1952 by the National Society for Medical thanksBigResearch shows the towering cloud of an atomic explosion with attendant dog, who calmly turns her head back as if to deliver or at least endorse the message posted at her feet: “We must thank animals if good comes from the atomic bomb”. Yes, the dog must be a she because it surely can’t be by chance that this is a Rough Collie, the same breed as Lassie, who had by then become famous in print and film for her imagined loyalty and sagacity. So she’s thought a suitable intermediary between us humans and the animals whom we’re invited to thank for helping us to make a good thing out of the bomb. Later on, Lassie tended to advertise dog foods, but here she (or at least the breed which she made famous for its useful virtues) is being made to advertise vivisection. And the giant mushroom cloud reminds us that we’re in a hurry; we need to be in a position to thank the animals pretty soon, or there won’t be anything left to thank them for.

At the front of the picture, some palm trees bend and flap in the unnatural gale. Evidently, then, the immediate reference is to the atom bomb tests which had been carried out by the US government at the tropical Bikini Atoll in 1946 (and which would be resumed in 1954). The tests had been titled ‘Operation Crossroads’, the crossroads in question being the ones mankind had arrived at in his war-making: which direction was he to go in next? Three bombs in turn were to be exploded over or under a miscellaneous fleet of about ninety warships – either obsolete US vessels or ones captured from the recent enemy – to test, in particular, the continuing relevance of the navy in battles transformed by nuclear science. The ships were realistically loaded with equipment and stores: planes, tanks, guns, ammunition, even food. But of course there were the personnel to think about too, and that’s where the animals came in, or rather were put in.

Rats, mice, guinea pigs, goats, pigs, about 3,500 of them in all for the first test, were put on board selected ships, in cages or pens, or tied to individual restraint devices which were bolted to the decks, or just shut into the ships’ accommodation. Some of the animals were shaved, and sun-cream and other such ointments were tried out for their protective powers against radiation. Pigs and goats were put into naval uniforms or other clothing, to see what difference that might make. The ships with these grotesque involuntary crews were anchored at various distances from the expected epicentre of the coming first explosion, code-named ‘Able’. (A note on names: after ‘Able’, the next two tests were to be ‘Baker’ and ‘Charlie’, but the bomb itself was named and sign-painted ‘Gilda’, after a character played by Rita Hayworth in the newly released film of that title: “There never was a woman like Gilda!” said the posters. The laddish frivolity of the name is highly characteristic of such enterprises; it re-surfaces, for instance, in the ‘Dolly’ project, as commented on in this blog on 29 August 2016.)

Operation Crossroads was not a secretive affair, except in technical matters. Part of its purpose was to show that the United States was uniquely there at the world’s crossroads, determining the new direction. It was a staged event, and a very large audience, estimated at 42,000, was assembled to experience it: service personnel of course, but also members of Congress, UN representatives, observers from other nations, including the USSR, and many journalists, who had their own dedicated press ship, with “specially prepared media packets, lectures, and tours”. More than 150 ships were needed to accommodate these people. In fact it was said at the time that Operation Crossroads was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted”.

In particular, great quantities of moving film were used to record the event – mainly the explosions themselves, of course, but also the preparations and the aftermaths. Some of the film was edited for official use, and a commentary was added. One such sequence shows pre-test tours of the fleet, the hurried making-ready (the whole project seems to have been conducted in haste), then the moment for the humans to make themselves scarce: “Preparations are now complete, and crews abandon their ships . . . Military and scientific personnel leave the target area.” The target ships recede from our view. That representative collection of the world’s Able testhumans re-assembles at a safe distance of 15 or so miles away, while the animals remain behind to endure the bomb. It’s a summary of vivisection: the humans taking cover and watching (in this case through protective goggles) to see what happens to their more expendable fellow-creatures.

In the event, the ‘Able’ test was rather less destructive than expected, perhaps partly because the bomb missed its aim by about half a mile. In the official film, the camera cruises again around the now blasted fleet noting the damage. It spots some of the animals just visible in a huddle within the ruined superstructure of one of the ships: “These animals,” explains the voice-over, “survived the blast but died later from the effect of radioactivity.” In fact one or two did survive more lastingly. A pig (no. 311) which had been shut into the officers’ ‘heads’ or lavatories on the Japanese cruiser Sarawak, anchored about 500 yards from the centre of the explosion, was discovered some hours later “swimming gamely in the radiation-polluted waters of the Bikini Lagoon”. “gamely”! One would think it was a sporting event, but then the title of the Time magazine article from which that quotation is taken was ‘This Little Pig Came Home’: once you conspire in the misuse of animals, it’s impossible to speak in a straight and honourable way about them. Pig 311 died in 1950 at the Smithsonian Institution Zoo.

The second test, ‘Baker’, was detonated underwater and proved much more sensational. The giant column of sea-water, hurled 6000 feet into the air, came back down in a spray of radioactivity which clung to the surviving ships so tenaciously that they could not safely be re-occupied. (For that reason, the third test, ‘Charlie’, was abandoned.) An official report described the ships as “radioactive stoves”. There seems to be less information available about the animals used in this second test, but one history of Operation Crossroads says that “All of the pigs and most of the rats used during the Baker test were either killed by the initial blast or died shortly thereafter from radiological exposure.”

That was of course neither the beginning nor the end of the part which animals have been made to play in atomic weapons research (some more details are provided in this blog at 9 November 2018). In 1964, a cow patronizingly called ‘Granny’ – and if I was naming farm animals, I’d avoid the theme of family life – appeared in the news as a survival story, rather as pig no.311 had done. The cow had just died twenty or so years after the very first atomic bomb test (New Mexico, July 1945) by which she and her fellows had been sprinkled with radioactive dust. The herd had at once been collected and taken away for tests. ‘Granny’ herself was, when she died, under observation at an agricultural research laboratory, for as a 1960s booklet on the subject noted, “Not only does man benefit from radiation research on animals, but animals do also”: for instance, we can “improve the quality of farm animals by determining, with the help of radioisotopes, the most efficient methods of feeding, breeding, and maintaining good nutrition.” So Granny didn’t survive in vain.

Still, deciding how to fight and win wars in the new atomic age was the primary motivation of the early animal research, and it remains, after all this time, a continuing laboratory theme. Thus a study from 2003 titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors’ argues that “accurate predictions of age-specific radiation-induced mortality in beagles and the atomic bomb survivors can be obtained from a dose-response model for comparably exposed mice.” Or, from 2010, the report of a ‘workshop’ on the subject, titled ‘Animal Models for Medical Countermeasures to Radiation Exposure’, speaks of its mission “to identify and develop mitigating agents that can be used to treat the civilian population after a radiological event”.

A “radiological event”: it’s a horrible prospect even when part-disguised by euphemism, and no doubt we’d all be glad to learn that there did indeed exist “mitigating agents” against it. That, of course, is the thinking behind the Lassie advert. The National Society for Medical Research had been founded in 1945 to promote animal research in general, and how better to promote it than by shaking the mushroom cloud at us?

Many unappealing human sentiments and qualities have been involved in the practice and the reporting of atomic weapons research – in that part of it, at least, for which we “must thank animals”: callousness, bumptious levity, hubris, amoral curiosity. But cowardice is perhaps the most shameful of them. That workshop report claims that “Radiation research has a glorious history of sound animal models.” I’ve only offered a sketch or two of that history here, but I’ve perused a very great deal more, and I can’t find anything glorious there. It has been inherently a cowardly enterprise. A suitable New Year’s resolution for the human species would be to face up to our future with honourable self-reliance, instead of trying to make the other animals solve our troubles for us.


Notes and references:

The Lassie advert is in the archive of the US National Library of Medicine, and can be seen here:

There is any amount of material documenting the Crossroads tests, including notably the web-site of de-classified documents from the US National Security Archive, at The quotation about publicity, and the phrase “radioactive stoves”, come from that page, as well as the photograph of test Able and the report on the animals used in the Baker test. The quotation about amenities for journalists comes from James P.Delgado, Nuclear Dawn: the Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War, Osprey, 2009, p.147. See also The Effects of Atomic Weapons, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, McGraw-Hill, 1950.

As for film, links to official documentary films can be found on the web-site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation: Some of that footage appears also in the compelling 1988 film by Robert Stone, Radio Bikini.

The quoted article in Time magazine was published in the issue for 11 April 1949. The 1960s booklet is Animals in Atomic Research, published in 1969 by the US Atomic Energy Commission, quoted at p.37.

Both of the recent research articles quoted were published in Radiation Research: the first is dated August 2003, vol.160, no.2, pp.159-67, the quotation being from the preliminary abstract; the second is  from April 2010, vol.173, no.4, pp.557-78, the quotations being from pp.557 and 573.

Love Talk

A radio presenter, referring last week to Brian May’s book about Victorian photography, described him as a “badger-lover”. Naturally enough: it’s how his campaign against the culling of badgers in Britain is habitually summarized. Even a quite serious interview in the Guardian newspaper speaks of May’s “love of animals”. This is a convenient shorthand, no doubt. And besides, the question in both cases, radio and newspaper, was really ‘What’s he like?’ The badgers and other animals just help us to chew over that question, if we wish to. However, it’s noticeable in the interview that May himself does his best to refuse the personalization of the topic: “I just care about the animals”, he says, adding “This concerns us all.”

The word for such a person and such a point of view used to be ‘zoophilist’ or ‘zoophilite’. In fact the journal of the first British anti-vivisection organisation, the Victoria Street Society, was titled The Zoophilist (first published, 1881). Of course that’s just a more classical version of ‘animal-lover’, a phrase already in use at that time, but the classical form is exactly what knocks out the homely personal associations. It helped, too, that the word came into currency during the vivisection controversy of the 1870s (though it had been in occasional use for some years before that), giving it a purposeful and even political character. A zoophilist was someone whose interest in animals could not safely be supposed a matter of merely personal sentiment. Accordingly, one of the pioneers of animal rights, Henry Salt (1851-1939), spoke of “the zoophilist movement”.

Salt tried to save that movement from its association with the concept of the animal-lover, an association which its opponents deliberately used against it. For this purpose he wrote a short play titled ‘A Lover of Animals’. One of its characters says “if we are to fight vivisection, we must rid ourselves of this false ‘love of animals’, this pampering of pets and lap-dogs by people who care nothing for the real welfare of animals . . . and must aim at the redress of all needless suffering, human and animal alike – the stupid cruelties of social tyranny, of the criminal code, of fashion, of science, of flesh-eating.”

Unfortunately the word ‘zoophilist’ fell out of use (though Salt himself was still using it in the 1930s). It’s true that there are now various specific words and phrases for those who might formerly have been called zoophilists (‘animal activist’, ‘animal advocate’), but ‘animal-lover’ survives as the only general term, still carrying with it the associations to which Salt objected. Most damagingly, perhaps, it locates the relationship firmly in the person. It’s what the person is like, not the situation; it’s all subjective, in short.

And therefore, when Peter Singer came to renew the “zoophilist movement” in his book Animal Liberation, his first necessity was to dissociate it from the image of the ‘animal-lover’, just as Salt had tried to do. He starts the preface with a story of being invited to tea by two old-style animal-lovers who knew about the book he was writing and therefore supposed him one of themselves. They discovered, to their bewilderment, that Singer had no pets, “didn’t ‘love’ animals”, was not even “especially ‘interested’ in animals”. There’s some pathos in this situation, though I don’t think that Singer, a resolute young man at the time of the tea and the writing, was much affected by it. Anyway, the story dramatizes the idea which Singer wishes to establish as a premise of the book:

The assumption that in order to be interested in such matters one must be an ‘animal-lover’ is itself an indication of the absence of the slightest inkling that the moral standards that we apply among human beings might extend to other animals . . . The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional ‘animal-lovers’ has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of non-humans from serious political and moral discussion. [pp. x-xi]

It was a radical and powerful statement in 1975, even though it was what Henry Salt had been saying eighty years before.

And the habit of siting the interests of animals in the mind and sentiment of the people who speak for or about them lives on, as we’ve seen. It’s what the people are like. And from there we move on to what the whole nation is like. Britain is a nation of animal-lovers”, says a Member of Parliament, leading a debate on the export of live animals for slaughter (26 February 2018). Members of Parliament habitually say it whenever questions of animal welfare arise there: “We’re a nation of animal-lovers . . . ,” their speeches begin. Perhaps the formula does have some value, because it usually implies that we ought to demonstrate our ‘love’ in the particular instance under review. But of course it goes with merely corrective improvements (e.g. slaughtering the animals in the UK instead), rather than radical change. After all, since we ‘love’ animals, we must already be doing the right thing by them in general; any problems are likely to be anomalies rather than symptoms of an essential wrong.

This national version of the formula has been as durable as the personal one. The valiant zoophilist Hugh Dowding (see this blog on 26 June 2016) did all he could to expose its falsehood during debates in the House of Lords. This is what Dowding said there in 1956:

We English people pride ourselves upon being a nation of animal lovers, and we tend to be righteously critical of the lower standards of other nations. In point of fact, as a nation we are not animal lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals. It is true that we cherish our domestic pets and that we have qualms about the condition of old and worn-out horses; but where the interests of animals run counter to our sports, our amusements or our pockets, the animals receive scant consideration at our hands.

And he listed “examples of the general callousness of the nation towards animals’ suffering”, including “the vivisection laboratory”.

Unfortunately Dowding was no more successful in this case than Henry Salt or Peter Singer in theirs. The nonsensical saying seems to rise above all evidences against it, and of course it has a currency far beyond the Houses of Parliament. For instance, and puzzlingly, it’s a saying much liked by Cruelty Free International (CFI), an organisation which campaigns very effectively against the use of animals in research. Here too the formula seems to have some practical use as moral leverage: for instance, “As a nation of animal lovers, the UK should lead the way in ending dog experiments.” Perhaps it also has a consolatory purpose. The CFI style favours puns and sobriquets of a cute or warm-hearted kind: “our feline friends”, “sharing our homes with a pooch”, “five facts that will make you barking mad for animals”. Like “nation of animal-lovers”, these tropes are presumably intended to sweeten an unpleasant subject. They do so, if at all, at some expense of seriousness, but at least they’re harmless flourishes rather than untruths. The claim that Britain is a nation of animal-lovers, however, is both harmful and untrue.

And the badger cull itself has shown that it’s not becoming any less untrue. In fact even before that started, the naturalist Richard Mabey wrote about what he called “the New Vermin Panic”: “With a sense of disgust and outrage that seems borrowed from the Dark Ages, wildlife is increasingly being demonised for the slightest intrusion into human affairs.” Among the examples he gave was the “farcical commotion” recently caused by a fox that had strayed into a boutique in the Portobello Road. The manager reported that “people started shrieking and ran out into the street in their socks . . . We shut the shop because we couldn’t tell if it would make our customers sick.” This was in the capital city of a nation of animal-lovers.

The phrase is a foolish one, and should be disused everywhere. Probably ‘animal-lover’ itself should be discarded too, at any rate in all public discourse. The case for the animals has nothing to do with the love which some of us have for some of them – a love very often real and honourable, of course, but also fickle and partial, and in any case beside the point. What the animals need from their human fellow-creatures is not love-talk from their special friends, agreeable though that must be, but the sympathy and active respect of society as a whole. In short, ‘animal-lovers’ or not, “This concerns us all”.


Notes and references:

The interview with Brian May was in the Guardian of 4 May 2011.

Henry Salt used the term ‘zoophilist’ throughout his writing on animal rights, but the particular quotation comes from The Creed of Kinship (1935). His play ‘A Lover of Animals’ was not separately published, but appeared in The Vegetarian Review, February 1895. Both texts are quoted here from extracts published in The Savour of Salt: a Henry Salt Anthology, ed. George and Willene Hendrick, Centaur Press, 1989, pp. 199 and 56.

The preface to Peter Singer’s 1975 edition of Animal Liberation is quoted from the 1995 Pimlico edition, pp. x-xi.

The debate in the House of Lords on the use of wild animals in circus performances took place on 31 January 1956.

The quotations from Cruelty Free International appear on its web-site at

Richard Mabey is quoted from A Brush with Nature, BBC Books, 2010, p. 217.

Not Coming Away Clean

A report entitled ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Using Animals in Research’, and published online by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, was the subject of the third post in this blog (1 August 2015, ‘The Complete Vivisector’). The report has now been published in book form, edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey. I’ve re-read it, and I find it as good as it seemed the first time: a complete survey (though tending to concentrate on the situation in the U.K.), thoroughly lucid and readable, surely the best all-round account of this unpleasant subject there is.

The book version adds, to the original report, a new general introduction and some supplementary essays (rather a miscellany, I feel) by scholars and activists, which together account for about as many pages as the report itself. The introduction is headed ‘Oxford: the Home of Controversy about Animals’. It’s a fair title: not a glorious one, perhaps, since Oxford has first of all been the ‘home’ of vivisection, and the controversy has largely followed on from that; but an honourable title, because it shows that there have always been actively high-principled people, in the University and beyond, to object to this betrayal of what the University might stand for, or at least to insist publicly that there are profound moral questions involved. This last is the very least of what ought to be publicly acknowledged – and it was indeed acknowledged during the nineteenth-century phase of the controversy by the leader of medical science at Oxford, Professor Henry Acland, not otherwise an opponent of vivisection. He saw in it, with explicit unease, “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”.

His close friend John Ruskin was more absolute on the subject, of course. There has always been some doubt about why Ruskin resigned his chair in Fine Art. He was certainly ailing at the time, and had possibly become unfit for the hard work of lecturing as he practised it (i.e. with great earnestness and theatricality). However, he himself did not believe so, and he unhesitatingly gave as his reason the University’s decision in 1885 to fund a laboratory where vivisection would be used. More than that, he then spoke about his work as professor of Fine Art at the University since 1869, and the work he had been intending to do in the future (for he had “meant to die in my harness there”), in such as way as to say that the laboratory had nullified it all. His whole art project at Oxford University then, which quite apart from his own high ambitions as to its value had become a phenomenon of the University’s intellectual life probably never since matched for excitement and acclamation, he thus expressly made a casualty of this new scientific practice. It was the opposite of a dedication, reflecting his belief that the new laboratory represented the opposite of what a university should teach and be.

The introduction to the new book gives some account of these and other historical protests in Oxford. It touches rather more briefly on the campaign against the very recently built laboratory (oddly dating the campaign at 2006 although even at its full strength it lasted for several years, and it continues today). And the account concludes thus: “The campaign in opposition failed. The new Oxford lab was built.” Well yes, in that particular objective it did fail, just as the 1880s campaign had failed (that lab was built too) – just as, indeed, the book itself may be said to have failed if it doesn’t bring the practice of animal research to an end by the time it goes out of print. But in fact we know that the book’s ideas will spread outward and endure, just as the story of Ruskin and those University convulsions of the 1880s endures. And here is some of what the modern campaign achieved.

Most essentially, the campaign made manifest in modern Oxford what Henry Acland had acknowledged, the moral momentousness of the decision being taken by the University: the decision, that is, to build animal research into its long-term future. When Elizabeth Costello, in J.M.Coetzee’s novel of that name, speaks to a university audience about the slaughterhouses at work in the vicinity, unseen and unacknowledged, she concludes sardonically, “We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.” This, Oxford University would indeed have liked to do but was prevented from doing. For a time, demonstrations and rallies came to characterize speak-demos-024-300x281the city, made all the more conspicuous by the presence (often grossly over-numerous) of police officers with their alarmist cameras and high-visibility jackets. The University’s ceremonial events in particular were trailed, like a bad conscience, by demonstrators and their banners. And the scenery itself, even without the people, came to be expressive. For a year and more, the new laboratory was halted half-built, an ugly skeleton announcing itself along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Around it, painted lines marked the limits set by court injunctions as to where protesters might go. Even now, notices of these injunctions are pinned to the trees injunction.JPGoutside the laboratory: not irrelevantly, because the demonstrations continue in that place today, but they’re also important documents, advertising to a multitude of passers-by every day the cause they were aimed at.

With the new awareness of animal research which was thus gifted to the town and University came the debate properly due to this subject. It was forced upon the University by activists, but of course it should have been promoted by the University itself, as an intellectual institution preparing to implicate all its thousands of members in a renewed commitment to a practice that some of them must certainly have deplored. (I don’t want to sound naïve by calling the University also a moral or even spiritual institution, although its own motto does claim or solicit divine guidance.) That it did not promote or even facilitate the debate is a reminder of how little the University really does exist as one institution with any coherent aim other than growth and reputational success. Such unitary voice as it has is mainly synthesized by fund-raisers and PR people speaking on its behalf; otherwise it’s really a congeries of discrete subjects, professions, and careers, careful not to tread on each other’s ground. This was already a concern for Ruskin. He hoped to make his own art school a harmonising force, and indeed made himself unpopular with other professors by freely expatiating on their subjects in his own lectures (in fact on “every subject on earth but the subject of his chair”, as one contemporary complained). The progressive atomizing of the university is no doubt largely what prevented its senior membership from playing any collective part in the modern controversy, of the sort it certainly had played, on both sides, in the controversy of the 1880s.

Anyway, the debate did occur, and in many different ways, formal and informal, from televised set-pieces, through talks and seminars, to ‘vocalizations’ (I use the preferred physiologist’s term) of all kinds in the streets. And crucially, the audiences and participants included science students, who were encountering animal ethics for once not just as a possible branch of their professional training – another ‘module’ to pass an exam in – but as a decision of very great consequence to be made about human nature in themselves and in general.

“Where is your moral teaching in science?” So the politician Tony Benn asked the scientist Richard Dawkins (both of them Oxford graduates) during an interview. Repeatedly in the history of vivisection (including human vivisection), sudden light has revealed scientists insouciantly doing what astonishes and scandalizes their lay contemporaries. It’s really how the anti-vivisection movement began in the U.K., when outsiders to the profession were given an unintended view of the contents of the 1873 Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory. The recent news story about testing diesel exhaust on monkeys is another such occasion. Two of the supplementary essays in the Linzey book touch on this question of the morally unschooled science-mind. One of them, ‘Is “Necessity” a Useful Concept in Animal Research Ethics?’, shows how that slippery concept is used by the research community and its apologists as a sort of alibi or substitute for real ethical attention. The other, Katy Taylor’s excellent study of the utilitarian calculus, ‘Harms versus Benefits’, considers (sceptically) the notion that doing these calculations (in so far as they are done, or even can be), at least gets researchers “to simply consider the ethics of what they are doing.”

It’s a problem which will assume ever more urgency as science grows in scope and authority. Certainly it can’t be solved simply by direct action, but at least for the fourteen years to date of the Oxford campaign, no-one using the University’s science area can have been unaware of the existence of moral values more ambitious than their own or at least than their institution’s. The years of banners, whistles, amplified commentary, crowds, vigils, earnest human attention, have made sure of that.

Yes, direct action may pass into illegality, in a way that lectures and formal debates almost never do. In fact the tactics of the police and of the University’s security service were almost certainly designed to make anything done on behalf of the animal cause outdoors look illegal in itself, or likely to be illegal at any moment. And this is no doubt largely why the introduction to the Linzeys’ book hurries rather briefly over the modern phase of the Oxford controversy; why also, though it kindly mentions VERO (and I hope that VERO has indeed played a worthwhile part in the story), it does not mention by name the group which initiated, orchestrated, and led SPEAK banners at WDAIL.jpgthe most active of the protests throughout, and is still there on the street making the case against vivisection outside the new laboratory: that is, SPEAK, ‘the voice for the rights of animals’.

This blog has already covered the subject of law-breaking (15 January 2016, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’). I shall only say here that in the anniversary year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, when the suffragettes are being remembered with admiration and gratitude, I don’t hear it said that their criminal offences against property discredited the cause or the women’s reputations. It was said very often at the time, as it is said now about animal rights militancy. Well, let us wait until the animal cause too is won and has become orthodoxy; then we can more confidently decide what we think about the people who took its risks and paid its penalties.


Notes and references:

The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, is published by University of Illinois Press, 2018. Quotations are from pp.2 & 149.

The quotation from Henry Acland is part of the evidence he gave to the Royal Commission of 1875-6: see Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.47-8. The Ruskin quotation is from his letter to the Pall Mall Gazette explaining his resignation, reprinted in the Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-12, vol.33, p.lvi. The comment on his lecturing was made by the historian J.R.Green in the Saturday Review in 1870, reprinted in his Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901 (p.265).

J.M.Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is quoted from the Vintage edition of 2004, p.80. Chapters 3 and 4 of this novel recount Elizabeth Costello’s experiences as a visiting lecturer speaking about the rights and sufferings of animals. It’s a brilliant and profound piece of writing.

The illustrations show a demonstration in Broad Street (note the tourist bus viewing the principal sights of Oxford), an injunction notice outside the laboratory in South Parks Road (the cameras seen on the left followed me as I took this photograph), and a rally at the Mansfield Road side of the laboratory (this photo by Paul Freestone).

This blog’s review of ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable’ can be read here:

The post about law-breaking, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’, is here:


A Period Piece

In addition to the very well-known stories about Sherlock Holmes, and all sorts of other stories about soldiers, pirates, pugilists and ghosts, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote stories about doctors and medicine. This last was his profession, after all, at least until literary success released him from the struggle to earn his living as an oculist in Harley Street. Perhaps because he had this background of personal knowledge and experience, his medical stories often have more realistic plots, and engage with more serious contemporary or perennial problems, than the others do. In fact when these stories were first collected, in a volume entitled Round the Red Lamp (1894), Doyle wrote a preface warning his readers that the contents dealt with the graver side of life” red lamp and might be “bitter to the taste”.

Number eight of the fifteen stories in Round the Red Lamp was ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’, which had first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1890. As its title suggests, the focus of the story is upon the domestic scene, but that scene is strictly conditioned by the professional character of the man in question, Professor Ainslie Grey. Here, in fact, is a careful portrait of what was then still a relatively new figure in the history of medicine, the full-time experimental scientist. We see him only briefly in his laboratory, but already in the story’s second sentence we are told all we need to know about what must be happening there. Either side of the clock on the mantel-piece of the dining room, there are busts of his mentors: John Hunter, the eighteenth-century surgeon and pioneer of experimental research in medicine; and, more significantly, Claude Bernard, the nineteenth-century champion of the use of animals in such research. In real life at this same time, a bust of Bernard supervised the study of Bernard medalOxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, whom one Oxford newspaper called “the high priest of vivisection”.

Similarly expressive are the three academic institutions which Doyle tells us have been the scenes of Grey’s training and early practice hitherto. The first of them is Edinburgh, which at about the time when Grey is imagined to have been there, and when Doyle himself was there in reality, had caused a public outcry by advertising for dogs and cats in the Scotsman newspaper. (The British Medical Journal urged that “the doings within the walls of the Edinburgh University Physiology Laboratory” should be “kept publicly quiet” in future). Then followed Cambridge, professional scene of Michael Foster, one of the three or four founding British physiologists, co-editor with Burdon Sanderson of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), and author of A Textbook of Physiology (1876: sample from p.262: “Newly born and young animals need much longer immersion in water before death by asphyxia occurs than do adults”). Finally Vienna, a continental centre for vivisection under Professor Stricker, whose one-time assistant Emanuel Klein it was who electrified the Royal Commissioners of 1875-6 with his dogmatic indifference to animal welfare (question 3539: ‘do you mean that you have no regard at all to the sufferings of the animals?’ – ‘No regard at all.’)

In short, Ainslie Grey belongs to that new branch of the medical profession whose members, as one of the Commissioners said, “devote the whole of their time to the study of the laws of life upon animals.” More, he represents it, for his own profession is said to regard him as “the very type and embodiment of all that was best in modern science”. But we’re now to find this paragon of the laboratory briskly turning his attention to the domestic life, and more or less willingly yielding himself, as he says, to “the great evolutionary instinct which makes either sex the complement of the other”.

Natural enough, but for contemporary readers at least this wooing would have had some sinister associations. At that time, the medical profession as a whole was strictly masculine. No woman might belong to the BMA (though one, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, had got in before a ban could be formalized). To Professor Grey, as to Burdon Sanderson himself, such a prohibition seemed soundly based: “It is a question of avoirdupois … The female cerebrum averages two ounces less in weight than the male.” And there was the character weakness too: “It is because women by virtue of their organization are more liable than men to be handicapped by emotion that they will always fail in the race.” [first speaker Professor Grey, second one Professor Burdon Sanderson] In the particular case of the physiologist, this general background of assured superiority and command seems to have taken on a more ominous character, at any rate in some popular representations of his work and personality. The moral domination of the woman, and the physical intrusion into the helpless animal, were assimilated or confused, so that vivisection became associated with sexual violence and perversion. It was an idea somewhat encouraged by the unappealing but current image of nature itself as a woman subject to the researcher’s curiosity: “It has been said,” Bernard himself observed, “that the experimenter must force nature to unveil herself, and indeed he does …”

Among the fictions of the period which worked on this idea of the research animal as symbolic of the woman, or exchangeable with her, were Leonard Graham’s novel The Professor’s Wife (1881), the 1883 novel Heart and Science, discussed elsewhere in this blog, and The Beth Book, Sarah Grand’s novel of 1897, in which, again, the heroine marries a vivisector. Later it strayed into pornography, and it can be found also in rumours that Jack the Ripper’s 1880s murders were the work of a deranged vivisector. Doyle’s story treats such implications very obliquely, perhaps even involuntarily, but in his readers the very title he chose would probably have caused an uncomfortable frisson.

And certainly, when the professor visits the young widow Mrs O’James, whom he proposes to marry, there’s a disturbing contrast between his own personality and manner – “cold and impassive” – and hers, characterised by suggestions of vitality: “quick”, “sensitive”, “wilful”, “strongly feminine”. These suggestions are interpreted by Ainslie Grey with dismal professionalism. When Mrs O’James accepts his proposal of marriage “with a sharp, quick gesture which had in it something of abandon and recklessness”, she can’t help showing her inward stresses in her face: noticing these signs, Grey observes “Your nerves are shaken. Some little congestion of the medulla and pons.” Teasing the man, she calls this reductivism “dreadfully unromantic”, to which Grey solemnly answers, “Romance is the offspring of imagination and of ignorance.”

The professor soon discovers that Mrs O’James has been reading “Hale’s Matter and Life”. It’s a book title which (as far as I can find) Doyle made up for the occasion, rather in the way he used to enjoy referring to unwritten Sherlock Holmes adventures (“the Conk-Singleton forgery case”, “the dreadful business of the Abernetty family”, etc.). But we can supply the philosophy of the book from its title. Making a dualism of the world, it must be imagined putting the case for some variety of ‘vitalism’, the idea that there is a property peculiar to living things which will never be explained in the material terms of physics and chemistry. The professor shies at this insight into Mrs O’James’s thinking: “a feeble reasoner … I should not recommend you to found your conclusions upon ‘Hale’.” Not that Doyle himself, or many other science-trained minds of his time, would have subscribed to vitalism either. The book is really there to ask the more general question: is life a special category, requiring more than reason and observation to know it and to assess its value?

Doyle’s narrative seems to urge that it is. For although this unhappily ill-matched pair do indeed marry, it turns out that the physiologist nevertheless has no wife (I shall not explain why, though the plot is familiar from the Sherlock Holmes canon). It’s a shocking discovery whose cruelty to himself the professor characteristically (and at his best here) refuses to acknowledge, though we’re told that he “had found out at last how hard it is to rise above one’s humanity.” In fact he cannot do so, and the blow gradually kills him. The two doctors who have to certify Grey’s death feel “some slight embarrassment” at identifying its cause. Confident that it’s “what the vulgar would call a broken heart”, they daren’t offend Grey’s memory with such a suggestion. They therefore leave the Hale question unresolved: “Let us call it cardiac, anyhow.”

Compared to the Wilkie Collins novel, Heart and Science, ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ is a plain, unmelodramatic account of the vivisector and his implications for modern culture (though the discovery which wrecks the marriage makes for a sensational turning-point). More to the point, Doyle does not set out to censure vivisection itself, as Collins had done. True, he had been dismayed by the practices of his own professor of Physiology at Edinburgh, William Rutherford: “He was, I fear, a rather ruthless vivisector … I am glad that the law was made more stringent so as to restrain such men as he.” Anyone who has read Doyle’s fictions about the impatient and furiously aggressive Professor Challenger, a character based on Rutherford, will be able to imagine that ruthlessness all too well, nor are we likely to be much impressed by Rutherford’s own claim to be “extremely sensitive” to the sufferings of animals. (He made that claim in a characteristically aggressive letter to the press, and backed it in the same spirit with an evident readiness to go to law against his detractors in the matter). However, as his comment on Rutherford suggests, Doyle did not oppose vivisection in principle. He had even vigorously defended it in public debate only a few years before he wrote ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’. What then to make of the story?

Certainly it’s a cautionary tale. The ‘other man’ in the story is also a scientist, in fact another physiologist (Grey’s former prize student), but one in whom the professional mind has not taken the whole man prisoner. This is a man of quick sympathy and impulsive emotion. As he admits in conversation with Ainslie Grey, “Either my brain is too small or my heart is too big.” And the story endorses his humanity, rewarding him with the woman of whom it has deprived the other man. The lesson might thus far be applied to any person subject to the temptations of ‘scientism’, an overgrowth of confidence in the scientific method and corresponding disparagement of the kinds of truth and value which science cannot deal with or authenticate. In fact it’s one of the merits imputed to the scientist-subject of John Betjeman’s touching obituary poem ‘In Memoriam Walter Ramsden’, where he speaks of  “That old head so full of knowledge, that good heart that kept the brains / All right.”

But Arthur Conan Doyle’s story goes further than that, whether he meant it to or not. After all, it’s specifically as a physiologist that Ainslie Grey attempts “to rise above one’s humanity”, with those European centres of animal research behind him, and Claude Bernard’s image on his mantel-piece. Bernard himself had famously described, in his introduction to the subject of experimental physiology, his ideal worker in the physiological laboratory: “A physiologist is not an ordinary man, he is a savant, a man fascinated by the scientific idea which he pursues: he no longer hears the cry of animals, he no longer sees the blood that is shed, he sees only his idea and perceives only organisms hiding from him the secrets which he intends to uncover.” For Bernard, the “no longer” means that the man of science has gone beyond the lay sensibilities of the ordinary contemporary man, risen above them indeed: in just that respect is he “modern” in his work, as Professor Grey is noted for being. Doyle shows that it is rather a case of leaving behind something essential to the complete human: how essential, Ainslie Grey, or at least his doctors, have to discover. But in a man both modern and representative, the loss must have much more than personal or momentary implications.

So this is indeed a period piece, a study of a man peculiarly of his time. Unfortunately the moral flaw or misconstruction that defeats him personally is one that he and his kind bequeathed to succeeding generations of their fellow-professionals.


Notes and references:

The “high priest” sobriquet comes in the Oxford University Herald, 27 October 1883. The British Medical Journal comment is quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.47.

The question to Emanuel Klein was put by the Chair of the Royal Commission, Lord Cardwell, and appears in Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, 1876, p.183. The second quotation from one of the commissioners is from p.107.

Burdon Sanderson’s observation about women comes in the Memoir edited by Lady Burdon Sanderson, Oxford, 1911, p.157. I know that the paragraph about the relation between research animals and the Victorian woman is a very perfunctory summary of a complex subject. It’s treated at adequate length (among other places) in Coral Lansbury’s The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, and also by Mary Ann Elston in ‘Women and Anti-Vivisection in Victorian England, 1870-1900’, which is chapter 11 of Nicolaas A. Rupke, Vivisection in Historical Perspective, Croom Helm, 1987.

Doyle’s observations on Rutherford as vivisector are quoted in Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, Florida, 1984, p.70, having appeared originally in Doyle’s autobiography Memories and Adventures (1924). The debate about vivisection in which Doyle took part is mentioned in Rodin and Key, p.46.

Claude Bernard quotations are from his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (Paris, 1965), pp.99 and 29, as accessed online at (translation by the writer of this post).

The illustrations show a modern edition of Round the Red Lamp, published by Valancourt Books in 2007, and a 1913 plaque of Claude Bernard (image from the digital collection of Tulane University Library).

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.