In Defence of Frances Power Cobbe

On the web-site of Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency for animal research in the U.K.), an article has recently been posted under the heading ‘Why the anti-vivisection movement took an absolutist view’. It’s written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee, and his subject is Frances Power Cobbe, who was the person most responsible for bringing vivisection into the reach of a dedicated law, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.

That Act, momentous as it was, in fact painfully disappointed Frances Cobbe, because the promising bill which had started out in the House of Lords a few weeks earlier had been “mutilated” (her word) during its passage, in order to make it acceptable to the medical profession.  One of Miss Cobbe’s fellow-campaigners, the social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, hoped to reassure her by describing the Act as “a foundation on which to build amendments hereafter as evidence and opportunity shall be offered to us”. But in fact it never was amended, and for 110 years it inadequately oversaw the expansion of animal research in the U.K., from the few hundreds of animals used annually at the time of its introduction, to peaks of five million and more in the 1970s.

Chris Magee brings Frances Cobbe’s legacy right up to date, and blames the “140 years of astonishingly little progress towards her aims” on her decision, as leader of the anti-vivisection movement and of its first collective, the Victoria Street Society, to campaign in future for nothing short of abolition. He declares that “there are two things which push progress on – messy compromises and technological innovation”. These, he says, have brought whatever relief to laboratory animals they’ve enjoyed since the days of Frances Cobbe, and she must have realised this would be so: “She knew that by her approach, more animals would suffer.”

So why did Frances Cobbe take, as the UAR title has it, “an absolutist view”? Magee quotes from Cobbe’s autobiography some of her “tenuous reasons”, and finds them unconvincing. His preferred explanation refers the matter more simply to her own psyche. She “didn’t get her way” and chose, for the sake of “her personal narrative” to characterize the half-success, which the Act in fact represented, as “a great betrayal”. She, at least, would remain untainted by compromise. In fact she wanted to be high-minded more than she wanted to help animals: choosing “her soul over their wellbeing”, Magee calls it. More generally – for his account is also a critique of the abolitionist ideal, whoever holds it – he uses the phrase “burnishing one’s halo”.

I don’t think that Frances Cobbe did use that word ‘betrayal’ in anything she wrote about the 1876 Act, and I’d be surprised to find it in the thinking of so disciplined and unself-pitying a personality. Still, that episode did very reasonably come as a hideous shock and disillusionment to her.

It’s not that she was unused to failures or to deferred results in such matters. She was already an experienced campaigner and lobbyist, notably on women’s legal rights and women’s suffrage. Her active strife against vivisection had begun in Florence in 1863, where she had organised a ‘memorial’ or petition against the ruthless vivisections being conducted by Professor Schiff. He, of course, was unmoved by the list of important names: ‘a pile of aristocrats’ the republican professor called it, or words to that effect. But Frances Cobbe only concedes that  “The memorial, as often happens, did no direct good.” [FPC’s italics here and throughout] The implication is clear enough, and when more than ten years later she put together a petition urging the R.S.P.C.A. to sponsor a bill restricting vivisection in the U.K., the failure of that proposal didn’t demoralize her either. Supported by the public attention which she had raised, she took up the management of the project herself. After some parliamentary false starts, the government was pushed by the controversy into setting up the 1875 Royal Commission. The Commission found that vivisection was indeed “from its very nature, liable to great abuse, and … ought to be subjected to due regulation and control.” Accordingly the government agreed to support a bill sketched out by Frances Cobbe and fellow-members of her Victoria Street Society, and it was introduced in the House of Lords by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon.

This bill didn’t propose to prohibit vivisection, but it was an abolitionist bill all the same, for it put dogs, cats, and horses out of bounds altogether. Other animals were to be used in experiments only if anaesthetized. Having government support, the bill seemed certain to pass successfully through Parliament. But there was a delay, during which the medical profession vigorously lobbied the Home Secretary, Richard Cross. The bill was revised accordingly, finished its passage through Parliament, and received royal assent in August of 1876 – surely with reluctance on the part of the Queen, who was as keenly opposed to vivisection as Frances Cobbe herself.

So dogs, cats, and horses were back in the laboratory. They could even be experimented on without anaesthetics, if the licensee applied for and received a special certificate. The Act did introduce inspections of laboratories, licensing of practitioners, and special protections for the dogs, cats, and horses (the certificates). Yet the alterations to Carnarvon’s bill seemed to Frances Cobbe so thorough as “even to make me fear that I had done harm instead of good.” Could the 1876 Act really have made things worse?

The answer, for Cobbe, was premised on the fact that all the controlling – the licensing, certifying, and inspecting – would necessarily be in the hands of fellow-professionals (only unconditional prohibitions escape this fundamental defect). True, the Home Secretary would be in overall charge, but who could depend on the moral sympathies of every successive tenant of that office? Richard Cross had seemed fairly sympathetic, or at least willing to do something to pacify the public concern. His successor, William (‘Buffalo Bill’) Harcourt, was something more than unsympathetic. He was one of the members of Parliament who talked out (i.e. prevented a vote upon) a later anti-vivisection bill sponsored in 1881 by the Victoria Street Society. More drastically, he formally delegated the administration of the Act to the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, as the appropriate experts in the matter. This organisation had been set up in 1882, and had as one of its declared objects to ensure that the Act would be “harmlessly administered”. In this it largely succeeded until the subject of animal research came before another Royal Commission in 1906.

And if the Home Secretary was undependable, the inspectors might be supposed even more reluctant to intervene. After all, it was (so one eminent physiologist had said in 1875) “absurd” to ask an official, however keen he might be to serve the animal interest, “to inspect half a dozen others of at least equal status with himself”. And as to the keen-ness, Frances Cobbe quotes one inspector of the time calling the anti-vivisection campaign which had produced the 1876 Act “a senseless and mischievous agitation”. Meanwhile the licences and certificates would be in the bestowal of the profession, whose agents would of course have sympathy with the aims and practices of the applicants.

But perhaps that sympathy would not anyway be necessary to the success of the applications. Those aims and practices had been given an extraordinary public showing during the Royal Commission: one after another, the new breed of physiologist had justified itself under detailed questioning. Frances Cobbe had not herself given evidence, but “I heard constantly all that went on at the Commission.” When she was later explaining her rejection of half-way measures, she remembered all that. Writing in her pamphlet The Fallacy of Restriction Applied to Vivisection, she argued that once anti-vivisectionists conceded the utilitarian principle, it would mean entering into “inextricable difficulties to determine, next, the point where a little pain, or a greater pain, to one animal or to a thousand animals, ought to be sanctioned to obtain benefit for mankind; and how great or direct that benefit ought to be, and how far be likely of attainment. We fight the battle, in short, thenceforth on our enemy’s ground; and must infallibly be pushed back and back, till all the excesses of scientific cruelty be justified, just as they were by the different witnesses before the Royal Commission.” Among the experiments thus “justified” before the Commission had been the baking and starving of dogs to death, from which indeed something must certainly have been learned. Surely those who could speak confidently of such things in the lay setting of a commission would have little difficulty in convincing less shockable fellow-professionals of their good faith.

What in particular made Frances Cobbe fear that she had “done harm instead of good” was that all these supposed controls over what was done in research had a quid pro quo in the formal entitlement to do that research, which the Act now provided for the first time. Strictly speaking the 1876 Act was an amendment to a more general Cruelty to Animals Act of 1849. Among other things, this earlier law made it an offence to “cruelly beat, ill-treat, over-drive, abuse, or torture … any animal”. Admittedly the only prosecution of a vivisector under that Act had failed, in 1874, but the Act itself had not been found unable in the matter. Now it was made so by the 1876 amendment, which established vivisection as a specially protected case. So, Frances Cobbe writes in her autobiography, “we found that the compromise that we proposed had failed, and that our bill providing the minimum of protection for animals at all acceptable by their friends was twisted into a bill protecting their tormentors”. And it’s at this point that, as she records, “we were driven to raise our demands to the total prohibition of the practice, and to determine to work upon that basis for any number of years till public opinion be ripe for our measure.”

Looking back in the early 1890s, as she wrote her autobiography, over “the heart-breaking delays and disappointments of this weary movement” (“this”, because she never ceased in her active commitment to it), Frances Cobbe came to believe that it was just as well that Carnarvon’s bill had failed. If it had become law, then it would have answered and allayed the concern and indignation aroused during the earlier 1870s. There it would then have endured, whether authoritative or, more probably, ineffectual, in either case steadily mis-educating generations as to the proper relations between humans and other animals. Now, instead, the Act and the practice would be constantly under challenge.

In fact the whole human/animal relation would thereby come under challenge. It’s true that vivisection was a special case, a portentous innovation in the misuse of animals, because it was the practice not of poor men, drunkards, vicious criminals and other such unexemplary types, but of “men who hope to found the Religion of the Future, and to leave the impress of their minds upon their age, and upon generations yet to be born”. Still it was related to all such cruelty, as the title of the 1876 Act made clear. To campaign against vivisection, then, was also to draw continual attention to “the whole department of ethics dealing with man’s relation to the lower animals”. And therefore Frances Cobbe concludes her account of the subject in her autobiography by expressing “my supreme hope that when, with God’s help, our Anti-vivisection controversy ends in years to come, long after I have passed away, mankind will have attained through it a recognition of our duties towards the lower animals far in advance of that which we now commonly hold.” That controversy hasn’t yet ended, but she was surely right in imagining that a much larger conception of animal rights would eventually arise out of the pioneering anti-vivisection movement, if it only kept its nerve and principles.

Chris Magee speaks approvingly of Frances Cobbe as a personality, though in a slightly patronizing way: “I like to think I’d have got on with Frances Power Cobbeher writing style makes it feel a bit like you’ve been hanging out with an educated, thoughtful, and caring and personable individual.” This, I suggest, understates her remarkable force of character. When Cobbe set up the Society offices in Victoria Street in 1876, she made sure that one of the rooms was homely and comfortable – not for her own sake, but to sustain the morale of other women faced with “the frightful character of our work”. Anyone who has looked through her own multitudinous campaigning publications, with their long extracts from reports of experiments, and their illustrations, will feel the force cobbe possible.JPGof that phrase, and admire her accordingly.

And we must remember that she led this campaign against a medical establishment hardly less absolutely masculine in fact and mind-set than the armed services. Magee calls her decision (subsequently incorporated in the rules of the British Union Against Vivisection, which she founded in 1898) not to co-operate in any measure short of prohibition, “a 140 year hissy fit” (= ‘fit of hysterics’?). His mock is not directly aimed at Frances Cobbe herself, but it surely implicates her, and it’s a reminder of some of the things said about her and such as her by contemporary opponents. In private letters, Charles Darwin jeeringly confused the genders of Cobbe and her colleague George Hoggan, and Thomas Huxley referred to her as “that foolish fat scullion”. More publicly, the physiologist and champion of vivisection Elie de Cyon wrote in the Contemporary Review about “hysterical old maids … whose tenderness, despised by man, has flung itself in despair at the feet of cats and parrots.” Portraits of Frances Cobbe, who was indeed unmarried, suggest both how vulnerable she was to such mockery, and also what strength of character she possessed to endure and to rightly estimate it.

Late in her life, Frances Cobbe was left money by a fellow campaigner, so that she who had had to make her own way in the world, and who had never been paid for her long years of campaigning work, was able finally to live in a rather grand house in rural Wales with the woman-friend she loved. I feel glad to picture them there.

 

Notes and references:

The article by Chris Magee can be read on the UAR web-site at http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/antivivisection-extremism/why-the-anti-vivisection-movement-took-an-absolutist-view/

Wishing to be fair to both parties, I have used the same number of words in my response as Magee uses. I haven’t dealt with the subsequent remarkable achievements in medicine which, Magee rightly says, Cobbe could not have foreseen. He believes that they have subverted her case against vivisection, but her plainly stated view was that “the Elixir Vitae itself would be too dearly purchased” by such means. Nor have I dealt with that part of the anti-vivisection movement which was willing to go on pursuing a gradualist policy, notably the National Anti-Vivisection Society, but it needs saying that after 1898 Frances Cobbe wasn’t making decisions on behalf of the whole movement.

Quotations from Frances Power Cobbe come mainly from the chapter titled ‘The Claims of Brutes’ in Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, which in the American edition published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1894, is in vol.2 at pp.556-634. Other quotations are from the pamphlets Four Reasons for Total Prohibition of Vivisection and The Fallacy of Restriction applied to Vivisection, which are collected with many others written by Frances Cobbe in the volume The Modern Rack, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1889. Both of these books can be read online. Some other information comes from Emma Hopley, Campaigning Against Cruelty: the Hundred Year History of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, BUAV, 1998.

The quotation from the report of the Royal Commission is at p.xvii, in Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876.

Quotation and other information about the aims of the AAMR can be found in John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, Michael Joseph 1971, pp.70-77.

The absurdity of expecting a man to supervise his equals in status is argued in a letter written to Charles Darwin by John Scott Burdon Sanderson in April 1875, quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.77.

Huxley’s phrase is quoted in Adrian Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Michael Joseph, 1997, p.76; de Cyon’s article on the “hysterical old maids” was published in the Contemporary Review, no.43, 1883, pp.498-511.

The photograph is of the portrait plaque of Frances Power Cobbe in Manchester College, Oxford.

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Meditation on a Stick

At St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, in June of 1877, a physiologist called W. Bruce Clark was planning to carry out “some experiments as to the nature of shock”. Since he wanted to use animals for the purpose, he now, under the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, had to apply for a licence to do so.

“Injuries”, Bruce Clark accordingly proposed, would be “inflicted by means of blows on the abdomen, and on other parts of the body with a view to determine as far as possible which portion of the body is most susceptible to shock.” He must have been asked for further particulars, because he wrote again to say, with a vagueness which can’t have done much for his cause, “I have thought of using a stick for the purpose”. But he added, reassuringly, “I do not imagine that the animal would suffer much if any pain in most cases.” The records of his application are not complete, and it’s not clear what species of animal Bruce Clark had chosen for his project. However, his supervisor in the Barts laboratory was Thomas Lauder Brunton, designer of the ‘Brunton Holder’ for restraining rabbits and dogs, and I think it likely that Bruce Clark meant to use dogs.

This application was forwarded to Henry Acland who, as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, was a ‘certifier’ under the 1876 Act. It won’t have been a welcome duty for Acland. Although the revival of science studies at Oxford during the 1850s and 60s had been very largely his own personal achievement, he felt unhappy about the direction they were now taking. He saw the university’s medical students becoming “a professional class or clique by themselves”, separated from the arts studies which might be doing something to humanize or proportion their knowledge. Medicine itself was separating, as a laboratory science, from the practice of healing, so that Acland himself now seemed old-fashioned because, though a university academic, he still worked as a doctor in Oxford. And vivisection was especially portentous: Acland uneasily called it “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”. He himself had never practised vivisection, but he had been required to watch, in his own student days, “experiments of a revolting and grave nature”. Yet he believed that its part in medical progress had been established, and he therefore accepted it, however reluctantly. So here he was, inspecting Bruce Clark’s application, no doubt with some aversion.

There was now a correspondence about the case between Acland and Sir Prescott Hewett, who as President of the Royal College of Surgeons was a fellow certifier. Sir Prescott pointed out that cases of shock were common in such hospitals as St Bartholomew’s, where, therefore, “better and truer results are to be got out of careful clinical researches.” He also argued that “in experiments upon animals, the most interesting cases nowadays, of shock, and the most perplexing, taking them in all their phases railway accidents would be altogether left out.” So he was taking seriously the requirement of the 1876 Act that animal research should be permitted only if its purpose was to provide “knowledge useful for saving or prolonging life or alleviating suffering”. It’s true that you could apply for a special certificate to escape that condition, as you could for most of the Act’s other requirements. That was the Act’s essential absurdity and betrayal. But these particular papers do suggest that the 1876 Act, for all its weaknesses, did some good. A year before, Bruce Clark might have experimented away with that stick, or with whatever else he “thought of”, without superior restraint of any sort, perhaps indeed had been doing so.

As I’ve said, the papers are incomplete, and I don’t know if he got his licence. But of course those were merely the early and improvising days of such studies. And just as Lauder Brunton’s ‘holder’ and all the other devices for restraining reluctant animals are evidence of the rise and systematization of animal research in general, so the study of shock, as it progressed, sophisticated upon Bruce Clark’s stick.

One later student of shock was the Canadian physiologist James Collip, working at McGill University. Collip, so far from being policed at Oxford University, received an honorary degree there (mainly for his earlier work on diabetes and insulin). In the laboratories of his Institute of Endocrinology during the 1930s and 40s – so reported his colleague R.L.Noble – the “bizarre combination of topics” under review included “traumatic shock, motion sickness, exercise, blood preservation” and “chemical lung irritants”, and for these various purposes there were “many odd pieces of apparatus”. I think that by “odd” Noble meant ‘curious, ingenious’ rather than stray or jumbled. Certainly the apparatus for studying motion sickness had that merit if absolutely no other.

Among the rest was one product of a collaboration between James Collip and Noble himself: the Noble-Collip Drum. This was something like a washing machine, the drum part being 16’’ in diameter and 7’’ deep, with shelves having much the same function as those in a washing machine, and revolving at up to 50 revolutions per minute. According to data published by Noble and Collip, 300 revolutions produced 8% mortality in rats of approximately 150 grams weight, working upward by degrees to the 800 revolutions which killed them all. But apparently it’s all right: a more thorough follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ reported, as an aside, that (much as Bruce Clark had airily predicted for his own animals) “the rats gave no sign of pain.”

At about this same time, a device for producing shock specifically in dogs was devised by the pioneer cardiac surgeon Alfred Blalock. The story of this man’s collaboration with his assistant Vivien Thomas was made famous in an article by Katie McCabe published in the Washingtonian (August 1989), and subsequently by a film based on that article and titled Something the Lord Made (2004). Thomas, for all his brilliance and originality as a surgeon, was for a long time classified and paid as a hospital janitor, since no other recognition was available to him as a black man in the U.S.A. of the time. Blalock himself had a rather mixed part in this injustice, but in time the skill and indispensability of Thomas produced a more or less happy end to the story. Meanwhile both men pursued their research in their so-called “dog lab”, no doubt putting the ‘Blalock Press’ to good use (I’ll refrain from describing this savage device). Thomas also ran an informal veterinary surgery for the Johns Hopkins faculty staff’s pets, especially their dogs, which is where his research expertise lay. Katie McCabe saw nothing gruesome in this situation, nor did she comment on the way the human caste system was thus passed on into the animal kingdom.

Both the Noble-Collip Drum and the Blalock Press were devised in the early 1940s. It was a time when the study of trauma had special urgency, throughout the world. Desperate measures might well be countenanced. That, of course, was a defence offered at the Nuremberg Medical Trials a few years later, and certainly if you wish to fast-track medical research, human subjects provide by far the most efficient scientific evidence. Some of those who were acquitted at Nuremberg, or who escaped trial altogether, subsequently brought exactly that sort of scientific evidence with them into American universities and other research institutions. And that rather spoils the ‘war-time exigencies’ justification. For the truth is that ever since 1945 the alternative to war has in practice been not peace but fear of war and preparations for war. The contribution which the ex-Nazi scientists were uniquely qualified to make to those preparations is very largely what they were valued for in post-war U.S.A.

A British instance of this same outlook has been cited elsewhere in this blog. When, in 2002, a House of Lords Committee was examining the operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, some account was given of the work being done by the weapons research facility at Porton Down. Contemplating the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, a minister for Defence said, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.”

I guess that it’s partly in order to take advantage of this attitude that medical research itself has so often been represented in military imagery. President Nixon’s ‘War on Cancer’ of 1971 is one instance. The old Research Defence Society’s name may hint at the same thinking; certainly its journal did more than hint, with the name Conquest. But then the French pioneer and evangelist of vivisection Claude Bernard had established the warlike self-image of the practice nearly from the first: “Le souffle de la science modern, qui anime la physiologie, est éminemment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

So we don’t need war or even fear of war to justify desperate measures. If we choose to see and practise it so, research itself is already a war – and we’ve just now been taking a glance at an item or two in its armoury. I don’t know about the Blalock Press, but certainly the Noble-Collip Drum is still in use, alongside countless other such contrivances. For this barbarous tradition of attitude and practice in the science of healing, Bruce Clark, armed with his stick, makes a very proper icon.

 

Notes and references:

The correspondence about Bruce Clark’s application is in the Bodleian Library, MS Acland d.98. Acland’s observations on professionalism come from his 1890 book Oxford and Modern Medicine, and on vivisection from the evidence which he gave to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO 1876).

R.L.Noble’s account of Collip’s laboratory comes from the Canadian Medical Association Journal vol.93 (26), December 1965, pp.1356-64. The follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ was reported in the American Journal of Physiology vol.139, May 1943, pp.123-28.

The article about Blalock and Thomas in the Washingtonian is made available online at http://reprints.longform.org/something-the-lord-made-mccabe

For the Nuremberg Trials, see P.J.Weindling, Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). The story of former Nazi scientists in the U.S.A. is told by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Co., 2014).

Evidence to the House of Lords Committee as quoted was given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, on Tuesday 30 April, 2002. Something more is said about his evidence in this blog at 6 November, 2016: see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/

Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l’étude de la medicine expérimentale was published in 1865. His laboratory in Paris was the European model for experimental physiology at the time. Many British students spent study-time there, including John Scott Burdon Sanderson, subsequently Oxford’s first professor of Physiology. The particular quotation appears as epigraph to John Vyvyan’s account of vivisection in the twentieth century, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971).  

 

A Servant of the State of Nature

Among the images of national self-sufficiency called up during the recent referendum debate was, if I heard correctly, the Battle of Britain. That was a victory which Winston Churchill (himself also hauled into the debate) fixed into national memory with his “finest hour” speech. It’s true that he promptly sacked the man who did most to create the victory, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, but soon afterwards, in 1943, he made amends by putting Dowding into the House of Lords as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory (the home of Fighter Command). House of Lords etiquette requires a serviceman of high rank to be referred to as “the noble and gallant lord”, as if expected to coast his way through the remainder of life on the strength of his war record. And that’s certainly the character in

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which Dowding is now memorialized outside the Church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London: a towering uniform, with a text below it quite rightly reminding us that to this man “the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.”

In fact, like many distinguished soldiers, Dowding had no great admiration for the business of war, or for the sort of nation-state politics which create the conditions for it. And so far from resting content after the war as a British soldier-hero, he had his vision set on a far wider community even than the United Nations, and a far more ambitious conception of what would constitute peace than even the U.N. had in mind. He told the House of Lords in 1952, “we shall never attain to true peace – the peace of love, and not the uneasy equilibrium of fear – until we recognize the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.”

The “scheme of things” which Dowding meant was one he wrote about in several books from 1942 onwards, the one rather loosely termed spiritualism. At the centre of spiritualism is the belief that life and death are not opposites but alternating states, in continuing contact with each other, leading each soul on a path towards perfection, “back to the ultimate source from which it originated”. I can’t speak with confidence about this; I don’t find it convincing or even appealing. But he did, and he was a man who had to hazard the lives of hundreds of young men, and answer for the violent deaths of very many of them, not just as a personal burden but in the literal sense of speaking to their families. One must feel respect and even awe for the conclusions, on the subject of life and death, of such a man.

Anyway, so far from the stealthy dabbling in posthumous domestic relationships which the word ‘spiritualism’ sometimes suggests, Dowding’s “scheme” was panoramically inclusive (as one might expect from an aviator). He felt a “life chain” joining all nature, “from the mineral through the vegetable and the animal to the human”. The animal part of it he became especially aware of under the influence of the woman he married in 1951 (at age 69), Muriel Albini. He became vegetarian, and was actively involved in her pioneering campaigns against the abuse of animals by the fur and cosmetics industries. He helped his wife to found and promote the pioneering charity and business Beauty Without Cruelty. And as a member of the House of Lords he now tried to get the legislature to take more notice of animal suffering.

The speeches which Dowding made in the House of Lords between 1948 and 1965 – on ‘humane’ slaughter, the training of circus animals, the poisoning of ‘pest’ animals, and vivisection – are surely some of the most urgent and radical which that chamber has ever heard on the animal subject. Several of these debates he himself had initiated, and he was determined that his case should be shown to be, not sentimental (by which he meant uninformed and subjective), but “justified by the facts”. His preparations for the debates on vivisection, in particular, had “compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty”, and he meant to make his fellow-peers, too, face this “traffic in flesh and blood”. He introduced to them, for instance, the “devilish device known as the Noble-Collip Drum”, then a quite new contrivance (and still used today) in which “the animal is very slowly battered to death”; he described the experiments on cats forced to breathe 100% oxygen at the Royal Naval Laboratory at Alverstoke, another wretched story of protracted execution; he spoke about the ‘siamesing’ of rats at Oxford University. This example of vivisection at Oxford (not the only one he instanced) had been reported to him by a doctor friend who had been allowed access to the laboratories of that university, of which he was an alumnus: “What particularly struck him was the callous attitude of people who were otherwise normal, decent members of society; and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.” Quizzed on this last point, the young scientist doing the siamesing had explained to the doctor what was useful about it: “It’s going to get me my degree.”

For the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 which at that time was still regulating all such research in the U.K., Dowding had little respect: “merely a sop to public conscience”, “the vivisectors’ charter”, its machinery of enforcement “futile and delusive”. In 1949 a man convicted under the Protection of Animals Act (1911) of starving his dog had been imprisoned for three months and banned for life from keeping dogs; in that same year the Journal of Physiology reported on a long series of nutrition studies during which numbers of puppies had been similarly starved in order to produce diseases of deficiency. “Imprisonment for the amateur in cruelty; honours and rewards for the professional wholesaler,” commented Dowding. It was “a Cruelty to Animals Act in fact as well as in name.”

Of course, other speakers in these debates reassured Dowding that, Act or no Act, scientists could be trusted to do their research humanely, that they were, just like himself, “anxious to spare the animals as much suffering as possible”, and were even “enriched by their work in love and meekness”, whatever that meant. Dowding took no notice of these complacencies, and he was contemptuous of the larger fiction associated with them – that Britain was a nation of animal-lovers: “we are not animal-lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals”. By way of illustration, he spoke of a recent outcry about 300 monkeys suffocated, through carelessness, in a B.O.A.C van at Heathrow. This public indignation, which might well have been taken as good evidence of British concern for animals, Dowding turned inside out. More than 125,000 monkeys, he said, were coming through Heathrow every year:

“Those 300 were the lucky monkeys: they experienced only about fifteen minutes of slow suffocation. What happened to the others? Here are some of their experiences …

Dowding then read out a long list of vivisection horrors. At the end of it he said, “Yet about all this there is no newspaper outcry”.

In fact the concept of the animal-lover, whether person or nation, was and is delusive and irrelevant. Dowding knew that it appealed mainly to people for whom animals have no real standing of their own and so are quite properly dependent upon the interest and kindness of their superiors. Hence, of course, the preferential treatment, in the 1876 Act, of the particular human favourites, the dogs, cats, and horses: “pure sentimentality”, Dowding called that; “All warm-blooded animals feel pain and all are equally entitled to protection.”

When Dowding spoke about the spiritualist “scheme of things”, there must have been some comical unease in that 1950s House of Lords; containing as yet no women and no life peers, it was probably even less of a ‘new age’ scene than it is now. He did admit that his speeches had sometimes sounded “rather like a sermon”. But whether one shares his beliefs or not, it’s enlightening to see how they raised this apparently conventional Englishman far above his fellow-peers in ethical vision, simply by convincing him of the unity of life. Against their moral job-lot of sentiment, custom, selfishness, and improvised kindness, he brought his serene absolute (“I speak of what I know”) that “all life is one”, and all lives “brothers and sisters”. And even when pressing for the modest particular reforms which were all he could hope politically to achieve, he always kept that larger and revolutionary truth in open view, proportioning all those timid mitigations of wrong: thus, when he argued for the captive bolt gun and the casting-pen in slaughterhouses, he nevertheless told the Lords, “sooner or later, the time will come when we shall regard the eating of animal flesh as we now regard cannibalism.”

But of course one does not have to come at this great truth that “all life is one” by the spiritualist way that Dowding followed. There are many other ways to discern and represent what is, after all, at its least a worldly fact: from Albert Schweitzer’s existentialist ‘reverence for life’, through Charles Darwin’s science of evolution, down to the single word ‘speciesism’ with which Richard Ryder nailed its delusory opposite. (That Darwin’s way, the most matter-of-fact, the most patently fitted to the understanding of a materialist society, has in practice done so little good for the animals, is sad evidence of the littleness of our scientific culture.) But just now we need reminding of it in its political character. There is only one stable and non-arbitrary jurisdiction, which did not need arguing into existence and cannot be debated out of it, and to which we unalterably belong, namely the animal kingdom (etymologically ’kin’-dom). This is the one which Hugh Dowding, having rescued the merely provisional and historical kingdom of Britain, went on to serve without reservations for the remainder of his life and, as he hoped and believed, far beyond.

 

Notes and references:

The statue of Hugh Dowding, by Faith Winter, was erected in 1988. The photograph is by René and Peter van der Krogt (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net).

All the quotations above are taken from Hansard debates in which Dowding spoke: these took place on the subject of vivisection in October 1952 and July 1957, and on the other subjects in March and May 1948, Feb 49, Nov 50, Oct 53, June 54, Jan 56, Dec 57, May 58, Dec 62, and Feb 65. They can be read online at http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/hansard/lords/ .

Dowding’s labours on behalf of laboratory animals are remembered in the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research (established in 1974 by the National Anti-Vivisection Society), and also on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, which falls on 24th April, Dowding’s birthday.

 

Victorian Attitudes

DSC04714There was a big demonstration in London today against the proposed amending of the Hunting Act. Mostly the demonstrators looked and shouted across the road at the Houses of Parliament, to whom the message was being directed. But when some speeches were made by Brian May and others, from the steps of a statue further back from the road, this great assembly – with its placards, fox outfits, and other insignia of protest against field “sports” – turned to face none other than King George V, whose statue it is, standing high above the green there. A most ironic situation, because King George was not just a stickler for correct dress and procedure, but also a habitual killer of wild-life: principally so-called “game” birds, but also, when he got the chance as Emperor of India, more exotic creatures like tigers, rhinoceroses, and bears. For much of the time during today’s speeches, the King had a pigeon on his head, preening and scratching itself: in his lifetime, that would perhaps have been the only safe place anywhere near him for a bird to be.

In John Betjeman’s poem of 1936, ‘Death of King George V’, there is mention of this hunting and shooting, but King George is presented as rather poignantly old-fashioned in his tastes and standards. In the last line, by contrast, his successor Edward VIII is a modern figure, turning up casually dressed for the time and occasion, and by aeroplane: “A young man lands hatless from the air.” This more modern king did indeed pursue less rural and destructive hobbies than his father had, but, as we know, it was not the end of hunting and shooting as royal pastimes. Even the present Prince of Wales, for all his earnest promotion of green causes, seems to have no particular feeling for wild animals as individual lives, deserving of respect as ours are.

It seems that the royal family refuses to modernize in this matter. The one British monarch who has had a really powerful and personal hatred of cruelty to animals was George V’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. Admittedly she seems to have accepted her consort Albert’s hunting and shooting. Perhaps also, like the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to which she gave royal approval in 1840, she was readier to mind cruelty to animals among the working people than among their superiors. If so, she made an exception to that in her plain-spoken indignation against what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection [her own underlining]. In a letter she wrote to the Home Secretary, whose office had been made responsible by the 1876 Act for overseeing the practice, she called it “a disgrace to a civilized country.”

That Act, incidentally, was not euphemistically titled, as the present Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act is; it was bluntly named the Cruelty to Animals Act. Everyone knew what they were talking about. However, at the time of the Queen’s letter, the early 1880s, the Act was in the hands of Sir William Harcourt, and so far from agreeing with Queen Victoria, or paying attention to her complaint, he did more perhaps than any other Home Secretary before or since to give the scientists what they wanted: that is, the power to administer the Act themselves, and to enjoy its professional protections without being troubled by its restrictions.

The quotations from Queen Victoria’s letters can be found in Jon Wynne-Tyson’s magnificent anthology of anti-speciesist writings, The Extended Circle (Centaur Press, 1985: revised edition 2009). This book is a sort of permanent demonstration, a great collective statement to the effect that we cannot call ourselves civilized until we cease to tyrannize over our fellow-animals. It ought to be the bedside reading of every politician and monarch.