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

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

Claude Bernard wrote Introduction à l’étude de la medicine expérimentale (Baillière et fils 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).