Dog on a Lilo

The author William Trevor has been generally acknowledged as a master of the short story form, often likened in this to Anton Chekhov. One of the last of the stories published in his life-time (he died in 2016) was ‘Folie a Deux’, coming at the end of his 2007 collection Cheating at Canasta. The story’s title refers to shared madness or aberration, a phenomenon in psychopathology with quite a clinical literature of its own. The aberration in this case is shared by two young boys, who together cause a dog to drown in the sea.

Boys are notoriously cruel. Chekhov himself, in his story ‘Kashtanka’, shows one of them tormenting his father’s dog by feeding her a piece of meat on a string and then gleefully pulling it back out again. But Trevor’s two boys are not cruel. They are pleasant well-brought-up boys, and the old limping dog Jericho is their liked companion in seaside explorations. Inquisitive is what they are, the less conventional boy Anthony especially so. Much of what he says takes the form of questions: “Why’re you called that?” he asks when they first meet. “Am I older than you?” “Do you know what an orphan is?” Not that Anthony himself is an orphan; in fact it’s evident that his father has a continuing part in this habit of enquiry. “Information was everything, Anthony’s father maintained”, and at lunchtimes particularly he imparts it: “Why aeroplanes flew, how clocks kept time, why spiders spun their webs and how they did it.”

The boys meet each year at Anthony’s house by the sea during the summer holidays. The questions asked by Anthony become more practical and scientific. “‘What would happen if you didn’t eat?’ Anthony wondered.” (For the grown-up version of this question, asked and tried out on animals with similar simplicity of mind, see the post ‘Starvation Street’ at 5 June 2017 in this blog.) The boys experiment with a water hose to create a rainbow. “A jellyfish was scooped into a shrimp net to see if it would perish or survive when it was tipped out onto the sand” (but they are told to put it back into the sea).

“What would happen if . . . to see if . . .” Among professionals, it’s called basic research: “to see what happens” was indeed a phrase used by the pioneering experimental physiologist Claude Bernard. And as Anthony progresses at school, he is noted as clever at science and maths subjects. The way things unhappily turn out, however, he doesn’t progress far.

One summer, the boys find a bright yellow Lilo washed up on the beach. With their inducement and assistance, the dog Jericho willingly climbs on to it, and they launch him out to sea: “He played his part, going with the Lilo when it floated out, a deep black shadow, sharp against the garish yellow.” (As William Rutherford, Professor of Physiology at Edinburgh University, told the Royal Commission in 1876, “it is wonderful what one may do to a sheep-dog without the animal making any commotion”, and Jericho is a black Labrador, an equally biddable breed of dog.) No ugly force or Buccleuch_Avon_(1885)excitement, then. It’s all done in the merely inquisitive manner of their other researches: “They watched as they had watched the hosepipe rainbow gathering colour . . . they wondered what would happen, what the dog would do.” And yet they know that a primal wrong is being done. Their knowledge and their shame is expressed by the silence which falls between them even as they do it, and which endures: “Nothing was said as they watched the drowning of the dog . . . They did not ever speak to one another about the drowning of the dog.” As time passes, this silence grows and alienates the boys from each other.

In Seamus Heaney’s famous poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’, a boy fascinated by frogspawn, and devoted to collecting it, has a curative shock when he witnesses the mass mating of the frogs themselves, and imagines in it an avenging motive against himself. ‘Folie a Deux’ pictures likewise the ‘death’ of an experimental physiologist, but the revulsion here is both less dramatic and more profound. The story makes clear that the transgression is not something imagined in the childish mind: it has a real presence and meaning of its own. The folie or act of madness consists in drowning the dog; the shame and the silence that follow are its rational and proper consequence.

As the story presents them, these seaside days are being recalled in adult life by the second participant, whom we only know by his surname ‘Wilby’. This is a man comfortably placed in life, and indeed attached to comfort, material and mental. He has a good income from the sale of his family wine business, and in a gentlemanly way he now deals in rare stamps. The Jericho incident is something which he has almost forgotten, the more easily because he heard, long ago, that Anthony was dead. We are told, “He has lived easily with an aberration, then shaken it off: what happened was almost nothing.”

But now he has to learn otherwise. Pursuing his philately in Paris, Wilby takes a meal in an unaspiring little brasserie, and he sees Anthony there. The schoolboy whom he knew, clever at science and maths, now works in the brasserie’s kitchen as cleaner and washer-up. Although Wilby resists the idea, he knows that this menial work which Anthony does with evident thoroughness, and often enough (as we learn) without taking even the small wage owed for it – in fact Anthony’s whole austere and solitary way of life – is a response to the death of the dog. Nothing so purposeful as expiation or redemption is being attempted, Wilby realizes. The durability of the memory and of the silence (they do not mention the incident, or indeed converse much at all) implies anyway that there can be no expiation. Simply the drowning of the dog is something that Anthony “honours because it matters still.” And although Wilby, more conventional and more selfish, will recover peace of mind among the stamps of the Paris sale, he finds that “he likes himself less than he likes his friend.”

That last line of the story, characteristically unemphatic, is the only comment which Trevor makes, even indirectly, on this brief tragedy (twenty pages long). Nor does he expressly relate the story to anything beyond the two boys and their glimpsed adulthoods. But it’s easy enough for the reader to do so, because the story catches the subject at its source, showing the spirit of scientific enquiry at the moment of its tragic over-reach: the whole history of vivisection is therefore implied in it. When John Vyvyan nears the end of his account of twentieth-century animal research, The Dark Face of Science, he concludes that while such things as he has recounted are done, “the human race has no right to happiness.” That, scaled to the personal, is the moral also of Trevor’s fable. It’s what has brought Anthony to the brasserie kitchen.


Notes and references:

‘Folie à Deux’ was first published in the New Yorker, and then in Cheating at Canasta (Viking, 2007).

The post ‘Starvation Street’ can be read here:

Claude Bernard is quoted (in translation) by John Vyvyan, In Pity and in Anger (Micah Publications,1988, first publication 1969), p.47. Professor Rutherford was giving evidence to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, as recorded in the Commission’s Report (HMSO, 1876), p.150.

The final quotation is from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971), p.183.

The photograph is of a noted labrador called Bucchleuch Avon in old age (photo from the 1890s and now in the public domain).


Remembrance and Refuse

Although decisions about what happens to animals in laboratories are mostly taken by those doing the research, the daily maintenance of the animals is done by others, the animal care ‘technicians’. These are the people who will get to know animals individually, if anyone in the laboratory does. Many of them, perhaps most, will have gone into the work exactly because they ‘like animals’. It’s a strange and potentially unhappy situation for these people, and one which for that reason has produced its own corpus of sociological and psychological study.

Out of this work have emerged various therapeutic suggestions – therapeutic for the humans, that is. For instance, staff might be encouraged to view the laboratory relation as “symbiotic” rather than bleakly exploitative: “We take care of the animals, and they take care of us.” (I won’t bother to expose the sleights of hand involved in this formulation.) Another suggestion is to keep “favoured ‘mascot’ or ‘pet’ animals in the workplace”. This is quite a traditional device. Some of the earliest group photographs of the Physiology Department at Oxford University feature just such a dog. Perhaps the dog providing this service was the professor’s own, for he was known as a ‘dog-lover’ (a “favoured” dog-lover, that is). In fact it was considered a rather entertaining anecdote that when Professor Burdon Sanderson was once walking his dog through the University Parks, a woman expressed the hope that he wasn’t taking it along to be vivisected (laughter all round!).

This device of the laboratory pet as lightning conductor for caring sentiment leaves the other animals exactly where they were, of course, perhaps kept at a convenient distance by the oldest “coping technique” of all: minimal contact, numbers not names, and euphemisms of various sorts.

A rather more inclusive means of reconciling staff to their role as purveyors of live animals to fatal research is now growing in popularity: the memorial. The most traditional form of memorial is the plaque or picture, acknowledging in a permanent but discreet way the nature of the work being done. The University of Rochester Univ Rochester School of MedicineMedical School in New York, for instance, has a rather fine bronze plaque with the text “To those who give their lives for the welfare of mankind”. A notable euphemism itself: you’ll appreciate the choice of verb and its convenient present tense (the memorial is looking ahead as much as back: perhaps war memorials should try this).

It’s doubtful if any text in which an institution memorializes those whom it has itself put to death can quite escape a flavour of humbug. Memorial events may be even more of a challenge. As one such event in Canada (at the University of Guelph in 1993) candidly acknowledged in its prepared reading, “To thank the animals seems logically inappropriate because their contribution was taken, not given.” Even so, the attempt has continued, and some institutions in the U.S.A., Canada, and most animal memorialnumerously in Japan, hold such events annually, with a wide variety of observances, religious and secular: prayers, poems, personal testimonies, ritual procedures, gongs, and so on.

No doubt different cultures design and experience these memorial events in different ways. They must mean differently also to different individuals. Although a moderate regret seems to play an accepted part in them, I don’t find that remorse or the associated desire for forgiveness does, and with good reason: as the guilt-burdened King in Hamlet poignantly asks himself when he tries to pray, “May one be pardon’d, and retain the offence?” That the “offence” – in our case the habit of using animals in research and the benefits claimed for it – will indeed be retained is made obvious by the annual recurrence of the events. But pardon of some kind is implicit in them, self-pardon and institutional pardon, together with its more positive counterpart, a sense that the right thing has been done after all. Hence the recorded effects of such events: “It made me feel proud of what we do”, “It made me realize how much good has come from using animals”, “I went away feeling good about what we do for our animals.” Now we can see more clearly the idea behind these memorial events: they improve morale in the laboratory. They are, in fact, as I said earlier, therapeutic in nature. And after all even feelings of distress can be turned to one’s advantage: as one sociologist specializing in this topic has observed, such feelings show that one has a conscience – surely a comforting possession for anyone to know they have.

That some good does come also to the animals out of all this is certain. Most of the events and other memorials aim to promote respect for the animals (living as well as dead), however compromised that may be in reality. Apparently some events even recall particular animals, rather in the manner of pet funerals. But this last seems to be uncommon, for obvious reasons. It’s not just that there is no grave or pyre, of the sort which normally goes with funeral observances, and that abstraction or idealization must therefore be the characterizing mood; no, committal to ground or fire couldn’t even be imagined in such a setting. How could the event (half an hour each year, in one recently advertised example) possibly keep up with the numbers?

“We simply throw them away”, one scientist says of the unsatisfactory animals produced during his research project on genetically altered chickens. It’s a stray comment heard and recorded at a conference on an especially disgusting theme, the artificial insemination of commercial poultry. But it’s surely the truer record of what happens in laboratories, what in fact must happen, and of the attitude implicit in animals bin 3that. In truth, a bin is a more accurately expressive memorial to laboratory animals than, say, a garden (where, besides, the animals will never have gone in life or death).

This point is made wretchedly clear in a 2014 article in the journal Environments, titled ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’. After all, these animals have not been enjoying healthy outdoor lives: “A vast array of chemicals is involved in every step of animal research and testing, including chemicals for sanitation, disinfection, sterilization, animal care, and research and testing procedures.” Therefore when the time comes to dispose of the animals, they simply become part of an enormous waste problem: “Millions of animal bodies, many of which are contaminated with toxic or hazardous chemicals, viruses, or infectious diseases, and significant amounts of other laboratory waste such as animal excrement, bedding, excess feed, caging, needles, syringes, and gavages, are discarded after use every year.” Mostly, this terrible miscellany is being steadily incinerated, either at the laboratories themselves or by agencies doing it for them. Landfill is another option. The toxic effect of all this isn’t the subject here, alarming as it is: I’m viewing the matter simply as a gigantic and continuous act of cremation or committal, and asking the question, how could any memorial event or art-work make palatable sense of it, even acknowledge it? In so far as they console or inspire, such memorials must deceive.

A like situation is presented with contrasting honesty towards the end of J.M.Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace. The dead animals in this case are not laboratory animals; they come from a charitable Sunday veterinary clinic where the disgraced professor of English, David Lurie, now helps out. The clinic’s function is to heal the animals brought to it by impoverished owners in the countryside of the Eastern Cape, or to neuter them, or most commonly to put them down, their owners having allowed them to sicken beyond rescue or having lost capacity or willingness to support them. But an incinerator is where the dead and bagged animals, mostly dogs, go after the clinic. And it’s the local hospital incinerator, where the scene is much as described in the Environments article, a dump of mixed refuse piled up and waiting for the incinerator to be fired on Monday morning.

Leaving the dogs there overnight among the rubbish is something that Lurie cannot agree to do: “He is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them. So he takes them home in his van, and returns with them early the next morning. But by then they have stiffened, and to fit their bodies into the feeder-trolley the workers at the incinerator beat them down with shovels. Lurie could leave before this happens, refuse to witness it, but he won’t; instead, he does the incinerating of the dogs himself, saving them from this last indignity. He cannot explain to himself why he does it: “For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?” And if it cannot help the dogs, nor certainly does it advantage or dignify him.

When Lurie is first helping at the clinic, he expresses the view that animals understand death better than we do, that they are “born prepared”. The woman who runs the clinic disagrees: “I don’t think we are ready to die, any of us, not without being escorted.” This indeed is what Lurie discovers, and when we last see him he is preparing thus to escort a crippled dog the whole way: that is, to “caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up.”

It’s not presented as a heroic or even a useful service: “It will be little enough, less than little: nothing.” Nor do I suggest that this fidelity – to what? To an “idea of the world”, Lurie concludes – is even conceivable in the circumstances of a research laboratory, whose output of animal bodies is likely to be on a scale that defeats respect and decency, let alone escorting of any sort. I simply offer Lurie’s unsentimental labour, stubbornly unyielding of consolation or satisfaction of any sort, as a critique of the memorials described above. It may well be that such memorials do some good, fortifying people whose work can make a difference for the living animals, and reminding their institutions that something needs putting right: so good luck to them, just as long as nobody supposes that the memorials themselves do put anything right, or that in their dignity and artistry they correspond to anything that’s really happening. They may be well-intentioned and helpful lies; but they’re lies all the same.


Notes and references:

The descriptions of memorials, including the quotations, come from Susan A. Iliff, ‘An Additional “R”: Remembering the Animals’, in the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.38-47. This is a sympathetic account by a vet with direct experience of the subject. The observation about having a conscience comes from an article by A.Arluke, ‘Uneasiness among Laboratory Technicians’, in Occupational Medicine, vol.14, 1 April 1999, pp.305-16. Another writer on this theme of uneasiness in the laboratory is the psychologist Harold Herzog: e.g. ‘Ethical Aspects of Relationships between Humans and Research Animals’, ILAR Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.27-32. This and the Iliff article can be accessed online.

The quotation about throwing chickens away comes from a report of the First International Symposium on the Artificial Insemination of Poultry held at the University of Maryland in 1994, cited in The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research by Karen Davis, 2003, accessible online at

The article on waste from research laboratories is ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’, by Katherine Groff et al, in Environments, 2014, pp.14-30.

The quotations from Disgrace are at pp.144, 146, 84, and 219-20 of the edition by Vintage Books, 2000. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Illustrations: The bronze plaque at Rochester is a cast of the one originally made by Amelia Peabody for the New England Deaconess Hospital at Boston in the 1920s, photograph made available from the online version of Susan Iliff’s article cited above. The animal memorial garden, shown in preparation for a service of remembrance in 2016, is at the Okinawa Institution of Science and Technology in Japan. The image of a laboratory waste bin is by Brian Gunn of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals.




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. 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 Merlins and their Tasks

The non-technical summaries of research projects accepted by the Home Office in 2016 were published just before Christmas. There are 31 categories (‘gastrointestinal: basic research’, ‘human sensory organ disorders: translational research’, ‘regulatory purposes’ [the worst, I think], and so on); they comprise a total of 530 projects. Taking part in all this will be mice, rats, voles, bats, ferrets, dogs (one toxicity-testing project proposes to use 1500 dogs), non-human primates, zebra-fishes, sticklebacks, farmed animals of all kinds: “will be”, because of course these are not, as usually with the vivisection numbers one encounters, used and deceased animals, but fated ones only, due to re-appear in the statistics as their ‘procedures’ are completed over the next few years. There’s something additionally poignant about that.

Most of the summaries are about three pages long, so that the 31 ‘volumes’ take up about 1500 pages of reading. It’s very instructive reading, but one sickens of these numbers, these casually listed menageries. It all reminds me (and I’m very glad to think of something else) of Merlyn’s outburst in T.H.White’s Book of Merlyn, when he justifies his suggested alternative name for the human species, Homo ferox:

‘Why,’ cried the old fellow suddenly, flaming out with a peculiar, ancient indignation, ‘there is not a humble animal in England that does not flee from the shadow of man, as a burnt soul from purgatory. Not a mammal … not a bird … the very fish will dart away. It takes something, believe me, to be dreaded in all the elements there are.’ [62]

This last book in T.H.White’s Arthurian sequence was written during the Second World War, and war is its main preoccupation. The time is late in the evening, and the aged King Arthur is to encounter his illegitimate son Mordred on the morrow, to settle their differences in treaty or more probably in battle. Merlyn arrives in the King’s tent, and Merlyn cover.JPGtakes him away to join the small fellowship of animals with whom Merlyn keeps company in a badger’s set in Cornwall. There, in a confusion of books, papers, charts, and specimens, they are attempting to make sense of the human addiction to war (another suggested name is Homo impoliticus, man the unruly, man the opposite of what Aristotle flatteringly called him). And since they have the education of a King to complete (“there had been some gaps in your education” [37]), the question is what sort of government will induce men to live peaceably. And the answer is to be reached by “learning from the beasts” [72]: animal research, in fact (Merlyn does call it an “experiment”), but not on the laboratory pattern where, as one practitioner has said, “the lowly rodent” serves the will of “his laboratory master”. Merlyn angrily dismisses such “condescending to the other animals” [57]:

This miserable nonentity among two hundred and forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine others [other species of animal, that is], goes drivelling along his tragic political groove, without ever lifting his eyes to the quarter million examples which surround him. What makes it still more extraordinary is that man is a parvenu among the rest, nearly all of which had already solved his problem in one way or another, many thousand years before he was created. [52-3]

And it’s in order to establish the proper modesty in King Arthur’s image of humanity, and thereby fit him to learn from these examples, that Merlyn so eloquently savages the reputation of his own species in this book (“There are a great many more worms than men, and they do a great deal more good.” [58]). He and his retinue of badger, owl, Trevor Stubleygreyhound, hedgehog and others, drive poor Arthur out of one familiar speciesist defence after another (we know them all): man’s fine material works, his intelligence, his heroism, his love. There’s nothing unique to man in any of these, Merlyn insists. (Rather quaintly, his one hesitant concession is the human affection for pet animals in spite of their “uselessness or even trouble. I cannot help thinking that any traffic in love, which is platonic and not given in exchange for other commodities, must be remarkable.” [69])

To learn more directly than by example from the beasts, King Arthur is first transformed into an ant – a cautionary lesson in totalitarianism. Then, more illuminatingly, he is turned into a goose of the species Anser albifrons, “beautiful creatures, who migrate freely over the whole surface of the globe [the King for a time goes with them] without making claim to any part of it” and who “have never fought a war”. [134] From this seemingly perfected form of loose community, passionately evoked by White, Arthur is reluctantly recalled, still clutching a feather, “his fragment of beauty”. [139]

Merlyn, always impetuously intellectual, formulates the political lessons of all this, but for Arthur, still on the eve of his momentous encounter with Mordred, it has made possible a more visionary understanding: “He suddenly felt the intense sad loveliness of being as being, apart from right or wrong: that, indeed, the mere fact of being was the ultimate right.” [144] And with this sense of the beauty and self-sufficiency of life merely as such, Arthur looks out over the moon-lit land, his own land as King, admiring and loving it “because it was”, thence loving also its plant life and animals, and finally even its people, in spite of all that Merlyn has truly said about them: “All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness.” [144-5] Exactly not, then, by pre-supposing the superiority of humans, but by coming at them, as nature itself did, by way of all their animal predecessors and relations, is it perhaps possible to accept what they are.

Still, it’s a vision only. The morning  comes. Arthur and Mordred, at the head of their armies, meet and make a treaty. This leaves Arthur quite contented with half his former kingdom, in which he now has hopes of introducing “the germs of that good sense which he had learned from geese and other animals.” [167] But no: a grass-snake, like the one which forms part of Merlyn’s retinue, happens to pass in its proper element among the feet of the soldiers; with human instinct to destroy, a sword is drawn and the snake is pointlessly killed. The abrupt action is mistaken for treachery, “the tumult rose, the war-yell sounded”, and the battle is joined which takes the life, among others, of the King himself. [168]

The second Merlin, spelt thus and presented just a year or two later in the novel That Hideous Strength by C.S.Lewis, has lain torpid in something like that badger’s set for about fifteen centuries, and is now exhumed suddenly into the light of the twentieth. Both Merlins are in some sense voices of, or for, pre-human or at least pre-Renaissance nature, but whereas T.H.White’s Merlyn has moved as a free observing intelligence through all the possibilities of the organic world, Lewis’s Merlin is a life force hardly distinct from it: “a strangely animal appearance … full of the patient, unarguing sagacity of a beast” with “the voice of a tree”. But he too has the task of correcting somehow the stupidity of mere humanistic power (Homo stultus is another title suggested in White’s book) and of socializing delinquent humanity.

For this Merlin, however, the power-problem is not war but science, a hubristic science escaped from the restraint of humane thought and from the loyalties to nature on which much of that thought has been founded: Lewis speaks of an ideal of scientific progress premised on “the stifling of all deep-set repugnancies”. Although such science has risen out of the study of nature, its aim now, as Lewis pictures it, is to raise humanity above and away from nature, for there is, says his science administrator Lord Feverstone, “far too much of every kind of life about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet.” A caricature, no doubt, but Lewis bases it on much that is uncomfortably familiar. For instance, some of what the great and admirable Stephen Hawking says about moving humanity to a new planet would be well-received at Lewis’s National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE). And, of course, entailed in NICE’s project is “an immense programme of vivisection”.

So now we’re back with the fated menageries. These NICE animals (“hundreds of pounds’ worth [1945 values] of living animality, which the Institute could afford to cut up like paper”) have been heard as muffled sounds from time to time in the book, but at last, in the crisis scene of the novel, they escape their fate – among them a tiger, a wolf, snakes, a gorilla, finally an elephant – and gate-crash NICE’s annual self-congratulatory dinner, bringing that and the whole NICE project to a violent end. But not just these animal prisoners are free; there were human ones too. And when, briefly, we learn how they all got out – “Merlin … had liberated beasts and men” – the clear implication is that the salvation of humanity, as well as of the other animals, depends on finding that right place for this “parvenu” in the ancient, imperfect commonwealth of life for which these Merlins speak: not, that is, as a tyrant numbering off the other animals to serve him, preying upon them and also upon his own kind, but as a peaceable member of the community, making it, if not better, at least not immeasurably worse.

Or is that just sentimental new-dawnism? And after all, if humanity is unsaveably ferox, there’s always the consolation which Merlyn mentions, “the suggestion which would probably be made by every other animal on the face of the earth, except man, namely that war is an inestimable boon to creation as a whole, because it does offer some faint hope of exterminating the human race.” [156] Not quite as faint now as when T.H.White wrote that, in 1941, but let’s hope for a better solution, and meanwhile very best wishes for 2018 to all who read this, and to the animals!


Notes and references:

The non-technical summaries of animal research projects are accessible at

The Book of Merlyn was first published in 1977, some years after T.H.White’s death. It was intended as the fifth volume in his Arthurian series, the first four having been published between 1938 and 1958, and collectively in that year as The Once and Future King. The page numbers shown are from the Collins Fontana edition of 1978, which has apt and evocative illustrations by Trevor Stubley (one of which is shown), though the cover is by Stephen Lavis.

The quotation about “lowly rat” and “laboratory master” comes from The Science of Animal Behaviour by P.L.Broadhurst (Penguin Books, 1963), p.135.

That Hideous Strength was published by Bodley Head in 1945; the quotations are from the same publisher’s edition of 1969, pp. 355, 334, 249, 46, 122-3, 436




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.






Earth-born Companions

When Oxford University was first required to estimate its annual usage of animals in research and teaching – this was in 1875 – the tally was about 30 frogs and smaller unspecified numbers of fish, dogs, rabbits, insects. No mice were mentioned. In 2016, the University used 226 frogs but more than 200,000 mice.

I don’t know when mice overtook frogs as the leading victims of animal research. Now, in the U.K. at least and probably everywhere, they account for well over 60% of all experiments and a much higher proportion of the GM breeding programmes. A huge industry and international trade has come into being, devoted to the creation and exchange of genetically altered mice. Two of its primary sites are the Medical Research Council’s establishment at Harwell in the U.K., and the Jackson Laboratory in the U.S.A.

As well as its own research, MRC Harwell supplies mice to other laboratories round the world, either live or as frozen sperm or embryos (see web-site for prices). In more detail, its services include (just to give an idea of the sort of thing) “Production of blastocysts and pseudo-pregnant females [a blastocyst is a cluster of cells in the very early stage of embryo development]… Uterine transfer of injected blastocysts to pseudo-pregnant foster-mothers [the foster-mother is the female into whom the foetuses extracted from the first mother are inserted. Neither mother survives the process] … Oviduct transfer of injected embryos to pseudo-pregnant foster mothers … Harvest and preparation of F0 transgenic embryos …”, and so on. The gruesome gynaecology of all this, I won’t attempt to describe: a sample guide to one of the procedures, with illustrations, is referenced below. MRC Harwell bred over 213,000 mice in 2016, but this number would not include the mice archived or traded in unborn condition, or the wastage in mothers and unviable offspring.

The Jackson Laboratory, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, does things on an even larger scale. Like Harwell, it does its own research work. In addition, more than 3 million ‘Jax’ mice, from a selection of over 7000 genetically defined varieties, are sent out to other institutions.

A brief digression now on the likely experiences of these Jax mice at their destinations. Since the Jackson Laboratory receives state funding, it has to conform to national guidance as to the care of its own animals. The same does not apply to the privately funded or commercial laboratories in the U.S.A., well over 800 of them, to which Jax mice may be sent (still less, of course, to laboratories in other countries). These establishments are regulated only by the Animal Welfare Act, whose definition of ‘animal’ does not include mice (or rats or birds). This glaring anomaly is genially described as a “quirk” by the National Academy of Sciences, but actually it was a very deliberate omission, and one which was later emphatically fixed into law by the so-called ‘Helms Amendment’ of 2002. Senator Jesse Helms pointed out to his fellow-senators during the debate that a mouse was much better off in a laboratory than being eaten by a python in the wild, and evidently they accepted this as a useful bench-mark for mouse-welfare. Certainly the research industry did; indeed it had sponsored Helms’s intervention. This is just one instance of a consistent historical record. In spite of all the claims in their publicity to be making animal welfare their special concern, research institutions and their agencies have always resisted statutory controls. If they’d had their way, laboratory animals would even now be relying for their welfare wholly on the haphazard kindness of their vivisectors.

Back to the Jackson Laboratory, and the man who founded it in the 1920s, Clarence Little. In later years he declared that his institution “has done for the mouse in science what Disney has done for it in amusement.” In fact he hoped that Walt Disney’s version of the mouse might be employed to publicize medical research of the Jackson sort – rather Mickey_-_House_of_Mouseas comic pigs advertise bacon. And certainly Micky Mouse would very expressively have represented what has happened to the mouse since it got caught up in medical research. The Disney studio ruthlessly stylized Mickey Mouse, both to make repeat drawing easier, and to make him highly visible and recognisable (the strange white gloves and bulbous shoes, for instance): this is the mouse subdued to human idea and human use. So exactly is the Jax mouse, standardized as it is, and infinitely repeatable in its 7000 varieties. And just as Mickey Mouse became the iconic cartoon animal, so the Jax mouse established its species as the essential laboratory animal.

Both of these institutions, MRC Harwell and the Jackson Laboratory, belong to the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium, an international collaboration whose aim is “to catalogue the functions of the roughly 20,000 genes that mice and humans share”. Last year the IMPC “released an analysis of the phenotypes of the first 1,751 new lines of unique “knockout mice” (mice in whom one gene has been deleted), with much more to come in the months ahead.” The National Institutes of Health, reporting this achievement, was especially interested in the genes which seem to have proven crucial to live birth in the mice. The heading to its announcement optimistically generalized the findings thus: ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes Essential for Life’.

Can mouse genetics really translate so usefully into knowledge about humans? In one of this month’s issues of the journal Science, there’s a report of research into “the nature of genetic predisposition to pain”, which is said to promise “new treatments of conditions affecting tens of millions of people worldwide”. Naturally the research used mice, designed and generated for the study (though using at least some Jax mice as starters). But other research in that same area of biology – incidentally an especially malignant one for laboratory animals, with its array of ingenious pain-supplying devices – has questioned the value of mice as models for humans, even where the same genes seem to be involved. An article about it in Yale Scientific said that “there was almost no correlation between human and murine reactions to any of the experimental conditions. For example, if humans were likely to activate a certain gene following trauma, mice were almost equally as likely to activate it or suppress it.” Acknowledging that “mice models are a cornerstone of biomedical research”, the Yale article suggests that this reported research “raises the question of how similar humans and mice really are. With such different genetic responses, perhaps the biology of mice is not an accurate representation of that of humans.”

Bad news in Bar Harbor and Harwell, then, but wait! A professor interviewed for the same article points out that the study only used the one mouse variety, C57BL/6, commonly called ‘Black 6’: “until other mouse strains are studied, the authors need to be cautious in their interpretations that use of mice is irrelevant to human responses.” Get out those order books, then, and let business resume.

The Yale article was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: The Mouse as a Model for Human Disease’. The upbeat NIH piece, you’ll recall, was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes … etc.’ But it’s not much of a coincidence: that phrase, with its neat alliteration and reassuring link with a vaguely remembered literary classic, has also caught the imagination of many other science writers on this subject, or has at least appealed to them as likely to catch the imagination of their readers. After all, in a poll recently organised by an educational publisher, John Steinbeck’s fine novel Of Mice and Men has been ranked fourth in the “top 100 titles for the American literature classroom … chosen by American literature teachers across the country.” (But then The Great Gatsby came top!) And perhaps, although mice are only incidentally present in it, this story of two displaced and status-less labourers in forlorn search of a home is no bad fable for the modern animal.

But in fact the novel’s title is not the origin of the phrase. Steinbeck himself was borrowing it in his turn from the poem ‘To a mouse’ by Robert Burns, first published in 1786. And this certainly is an encounter of mouse and man to set beside and re-appraise the modern Disneyfied mass-mouse and the people who convert it into science.

The poem’s sub-title is ‘on turning her up in her nest with the plough’, for Burns was a farmer when he wrote the poem; he knew the situation. He was, besides, as the poem 220px-PG_1063Burns_Naysmithmakes poignantly clear, unhappy in his own ways, remorseful about the past and fearful as to the future. Accordingly there’s absolutely nothing suggestive of species-superiority in the way he speaks to the mouse, as he contemplates the ruin of her nest. He sees in detail and feels the catastrophe which the mouse has suffered, and he understands suffering as a universal burden, indifferent to species and size. Hence that phrase:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,       

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy!

The poem recognizes the encounter as an aspect of the power-relation whose characteristic modern manifestation we’ve been viewing in earlier paragraphs:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

So the spoiling of the mouse’s nest is an incident in a much larger wreckage of that commonalty which Burns beautifully dignifies as “nature’s social union”. But in his poem he reasserts the union, at least between these two now present, pledging a true existential comradeship in those phrases “thy poor, earth-born companion / An’ fellow-mortal”.

And of course exactly this is “how similar humans and mice really are” (the phrase from the Yale article). They really are earth-born fellow-mortals, each in their own sphere liable to “grief an’ pain”. Unfortunately we’ve repudiated that fellowship for which Burns’s poem is a permanent model and recommendation, and have chosen instead to privilege human grief and pain, and to make of the mouse a multitudinous enslaved resource in our ruthless struggles to escape them.



Notes and references:

The numbers from 1875 were published by the Cardwell Commission in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, Appendix III.

Information and quotation about the work at Harwell appears on its web-site at

A clear, though highly technical, illustrated account of how a standard procedure works can be found in the article ‘Pronuclear Injection for the Production of Transgenic Mice’ at

About the welfare provisions in the U.S.A.: the “quirk” reference is from; the account of Helms’s amendment is from a contemporary news report in U.S.A. Today, readable at

What Clarence Little said about Mickey Mouse is quoted by Karen Rayder in Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900-1955, Princeton University Press, 2004, p.5

The announcement about the work of the IMPC is on a blog run by the National Institutes of Health at

The article in Science is from 16 June 2017, pp.1124-5 and 1168-71, quotations from pp.1124-5. The Yale Scientific article is from 5 April 2013, and can be read at

The poll of American novels was organised by Perfection Learning, and is reported on their web-site at

The picture of Mickey Mouse is from the TV series Disney’s House of Mouse (2001-3). The portrait of Robert Burns in 1787 is by Alexander Naysmith, and is held in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In the U.K., Animal Aid has recently started a campaign to raise awareness of the mouse, its qualities in nature, and its sufferings in laboratories: see



What Shakespeare Would Have Said

In a few days’ time, a wreath will be placed at the the monument to Samuel Johnson in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, to mark the anniversary of his death on 13 December 1783256px-samuel_johnson_by_joseph_nollekens_1777. It’s a little ceremony that occurs every year, acknowledging Dr Johnson’s continuing authoritative presence in English literary culture. The bust used for the monument was made by Joseph Nollekens when Johnson was sixty eight. It expresses very clearly his great moral and intellectual force.

Outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square, there’s another and more recent monument, this one imaging his cat Hodge. Johnson was very fond of Hodge. James Boswell recalls, in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), watching the cat “scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend, smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying “Why, yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then, as if Hodge.JPGperceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “But he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

Boswell writes the Life as a friend, but also as a self-consciously cosmopolitan Scot, and he calls Johnson “much of a John Bull; much of a true-born Englishman”. That Englishness has been a lasting element in Johnson’s reputation: he appears, for instance, as one of the images of Englishness in Julian Barnes’s satirical novel England, England (1998). And I suppose that the monument to Hodge might be thought to record another aspect of Englishness: the love of animals. But of course the idea that England, or for that matter Britain, is or ever has been a nation of animal-lovers (it’s a cliché much-loved by journalists and politicians) is humbug – useful, I suppose, as a myth tending to obscure our actual pitiless subjugation of most of them. Nor did Boswell himself (though he had an aversion to cats) relate this fondness to Johnson’s nationality. He recounts it as evidence, along with Johnson’s considerateness to children and to his household servants, of “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”. In this respect, therefore, he modifies his biographical portrait of an otherwise extraordinarily downright and dogmatic mind, a man pugnacious in argument with his peers and impatient of anything sentimental.

So Johnson’s care for Hodge, although it must certainly have involved pure affection, was of a piece with the rooted concern he felt for all who were especially liable to maltreatment, injustice, or disregard – whether animals or people. “Upon one occasion,” says Boswell, “when in the company of some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies!’” Neither on that occasion at Oxford (his own university, from which he had his honorary doctorate), nor when he spoke playfully to Boswell over Hodge’s head, were “humanity and gentleness” strictly required of him; it was in his nature to feel them and to express them gratuitously.

And that’s why also, in his edition of the plays of Shakespeare, he suddenly breaks off from making learned notes in order to voice his disgust at vivisection. He has reached Act I, scene v, line 23 of Cymbeline. The Queen, stepmother to King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, is just making plans to … but why retail this elaborate plot, which Johnson himself found tiresome? The point is that the Queen has commissioned a selection of “most poisonous compounds” from the physician Cornelius. He somewhat diffidently asks her what she wants them for. Basic research, is her reply:

                        I will try the forces
Of these thy compounds on such creatures as
We count not worth the hanging – but none human –
To try the vigour of them and apply
Allayments to their act, and by them gather
Their several virtues and effects.

To see what happens, in short, using (so Cornelius guesses) cats and dogs for the purpose. In this, the Queen speaks for a long line of future scientists. I wish that Cornelius could be said to be doing the same for his profession, when he tells her

         Your highness
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

“Shall … but ..”: he means that the only certain result of the Queen’s studies will be to diminish her humanity (‘shall’ being used in the common Shakespearean sense of ‘must’ or ‘will necessarily’, and ‘but’ in the sense ‘only’). So Cornelius, like Boswell, puts animals into the same moral space as humans, where indeed they belong: as we treat the one, so may we be expected to treat the other. The Queen impatiently dismisses his scruples: “O, content thee!” – in other words, ‘Dry up!’ And although such a research project would be characteristic of her (she’s of the wicked step-mother class), the Queen is not really engaged in it at all. Rather than knowledge, her mind is on her career, or her son’s career. (How far she’s in this way anticipating that long line of scientists again here, I can’t say.) Her intention is to clear his path to the throne with poison.

Samuel Johnson’s notes to Shakespeare are in general aimed at clarifying obscurities in the text, or suggesting emendations, but what Cornelius says moves him so much that he puts aside the textual critic and speaks as a moralist or simply as a man:

There is in this passage nothing that much requires a note, yet I cannot forbear to push it forward into observation. The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.

It’s a case which he had argued more discursively in one of his weekly Idler essays (5 August, 1758), but now, in the little space proper to a textual note, he puts it with extraordinary conciseness and anger. So strongly does he believe these men to have compromised their humanity by what they do, that in his last few words he separates them from the class “human beings” altogether. It’s a strange and sinister image: the men standing upright, as amoral aliens, among gatherings of ordinarily decent people.

This, Johnson implies, is what “our author” himself would have felt, had he lived into the science-crazed eighteenth century. He brings the huge moral authority of Shakespeare as a testimonial to his case, as I do that of Samuel Johnson. Meanwhile, Cornelius spoils the Queen’s supposed researches by substituting harmless soporifics for the wished-for poisons. In this way he sets an early example of peaceable sabotage, and ensures that the story has a happy ending. All four of us can be content with that.



The quotations from Boswell’s Life of Johnson come from the years 1783 and 1777: in the Oxford University Press edition of 1953, they’re at pp.1217 and 876.

For Dr Johnson in England, England (Vintage Books 2012), see p.142: in the ghastly simulacrum of England which Sir Jack Pitman (a vainglorious businessman of the Donald Trump variety) creates on the Isle of Wight, Dr Johnson is seen introducing visitors to “the Dining Experience at the Cheshire Cheese”.

The bust by Nollekens as shown is from the Yale Center for British Art. The statue of Hodge was made by Jon Bickley, and placed in Gough Square in 1997.