The election of Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology in the autumn of 1882 started two and a half years of progressively angry controversy there. The new professor, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, had to make his first public appearance at Oxford not in a lecture room but in the University’s Convocation, to attend a crucial vote on the allocation of money for the new physiology laboratory in which he would do his work. He was there to explain and defend the sort of work it was to be. Or rather, since the ‘sort’ was sufficiently made known merely by his own name – for this man was, as a local paper said, “the high priest of vivisection” – he was there to reassure Convocation that there would be limits to what he felt free to do. Mainly, he wouldn’t be demonstrating experiments in his lectures. As to other limits – so a record of the event reported him as saying – “he must appeal to the University to have confidence in his character”.
This was in June 1883, when only a few members of the University were aware of the appointment and its implications. There were not present in Convocation, therefore, the furious hundreds that would attend later on, when other votes had to be taken on the same project. Even so, it was a close thing: the funds were approved by 88 votes to 85, hardly an emphatic statement of confidence in Burdon Sanderson’s character as put before the house.
Perhaps it had been an unwise “appeal” for him to make, though it was one which apologists for vivisection habitually did make on behalf of each other or, as in this case, about themselves. They meant, of course, that since physiologists were, as Professor Ferrier told the Royal Commission of 1875, “the most humane kind-hearted men that I know” (he was one of them), external rules and supervision were wholly unnecessary. Burdon Sanderson did indeed have a distinguished character among these kind-hearted men, but by the laity he was much less admired. He had edited the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), which introduced to students many techniques and standard experiments but in all its more than 400 pages said nothing about the care of the animals subjected to them. He had been Superintendent of the Brown Institute, a clinic and research establishment founded for the welfare of animals but turned into a centre of vivisection with demonstrably careless ethical standards. His own published accounts of suffocation in dogs (part of his research into drowning and resuscitation) showed a scarcely human insouciance. These and other reasons to wonder about Burdon Sanderson’s character had been made full use of in evidence against him by opponents of vivisection, notably by their formidable leader Frances Power Cobbe.
So it was an unfortunate coincidence that, in the very month in which Burdon Sanderson made that appeal to Convocation, there appeared the final episode of the hair-raising study of a vivisector by Wilkie Collins, his ‘sensation’ novel Heart and Science. The story had been running as a serial since the previous summer in a well-known periodical called the Belgravia, and it had been noted and reviewed in at least one Oxford University paper, as also of course in the London journals. Collins, famous since the 1860s as the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, wanted this new story to make a serious protest against vivisection, and he had taken advice from Frances Power Cobbe herself on the subject. His intention was not just to question the science and morality of the practice, but also to diagnose its psychology, which he did in the personality of one of the most remarkable and exotic of all his creations, Dr Nathan Benjulia.
This man Benjulia is a consultant specializing in diseases of the brain, but most of his time is devoted to researches in the private laboratory which he has had built “in an isolated field” near his house. What these researches are, he refuses to discuss; they have to be guessed at from sinister hints and symptoms – blood-stains on his walking-stick, his appearance at London Zoo to hustle away a sick monkey, the instant dismissal of a servant who tries to look into the windowless laboratory from the skylight – or from the character and behaviour of the man himself. And this character and behaviour are certainly the most compelling thing in the book.
Collins makes Benjulia “almost tall enough to be shown as a giant”, and so thin as to be nick-named “the living skeleton”. Aloof and preoccupied, he is contemptuous of most other people, the one exception being a quaint little girl called Zoe. Between these two there is an unexplained mutual fascination. A kind of custom or ritual with them when they meet is that he tickles her, but there is no fun about this: she participates with “reluctant submission”, he “as if he had been conducting a medical experiment”. The relationship is creepy, certainly, but also wholly convincing; at the very end – and Benjulia comes to a violent and tragic end – it even does something to redeem him. But, taking the hint in Zoe’s name, we must suppose that the scientist’s obsessive and illicit interest in the little girl, separated as it is from any conscious warmth or responsibility, and the girl’s naïve susceptibility to his power, are to be understood as an image of his relation to the life that is the subject of his studies – in short, as a palatable version of what goes on in his laboratory. What really does go on there, what Collins calls “the hideous secrets of vivisection”, his readers have been promised in the preface that they will not be shown.
Benjulia is a grotesque character, certainly, but Collins meant him to be also a representative one, illustrating what effect “the habitual practice of cruelty” had upon “the nature of man”. Among his fellow-professionals, accordingly, Benjulia is not regarded as an embarrassment; on the contrary, his funeral brings them out in large numbers to honour a “martyr who had fallen in their cause”. Could this portrait of a vivisector, then, have been modelled upon the real “high priest of vivisection”, Burdon Sanderson? There’s certainly some physical resemblance. A report from one of the Convocation votes shows the professor leaning against the wall, “gaunt, grim, notable”. The portrait bust in the University Museum, done by Henry Pinker in 1884 (and pictured above), confirms that impression, with its aloof and austere physiognomy. His manner of speech and writing seems to correspond. Commenting on the public indignation caused by the Handbook, he told the Cardwell Commission, “we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft“: remote and unbending, with its hint of patrician irony, this might be Benjulia speaking. And if Benjulia is indeed grotesque, with all the licence in such a portrait which the author of a high-coloured novel enjoys, Burdon Sanderson himself was, though real, by no means a comfortable character: Dean Liddell (father of Alice), who was one of his backers for the Waynflete chair and supporters in Convocation, called him, in a letter written to Henry Acland, “a d—-d queer fellow”.
Of course Burdon Sanderson didn’t tickle girls. Nor, I feel certain, did he allow his laboratory practice of putting animals through disease and distress to stray into the human sphere, as Benjulia does. In fact he was, by his own lights, a severely conscientious man, tenacious and methodical rather than erratically brilliant. But he acquired, more or less by accident, the leading part in a controversy which, as Wilkie Collins recognised, was inherently sensational in the literary sense, as well as nationally portentous. When Burdon Sanderson came forward to speak at a Convocation in 1884, he was “received with a storm of applause and hisses” as if he were equally the hero and the villain of a melodrama. I suspect, therefore, that Collins took something of the real man, as communicated to him by Frances Power Cobbe, and worked it up into a personality more adequate to such scenes and to the moral crisis implied in them. And since Collins was convinced, and insisted throughout his novel, that “no asserted usefulness in the end, can justify deliberate cruelty in the means”, he made his vivisector unequivocally the villain of his novel.
Benjulia’s laboratory is destroyed in the novel’s catastrophe; Burdon Sanderson’s, by contrast, was successfully funded and built. But I don’t doubt that Collins took the same view of the one as of the other.
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Collins quotations are from Heart and Science: a Story of the Present Time, ed. Steve Farmer, Broadview Press, Ontario, 1996. Other quotations are from various contemporary Oxford journals, including the Oxford Magazine and the Oxford University Herald.