The interplay between human and veterinary medicine was incredibly common by the second half of the 19th century. While human medicine and veterinary medicine were distinct professions, they were inextricably linked in the latest experimental turn. Not only were animals involved in the experiments that led to medical breakthroughs, they were crucial to the ethical, and public health policies that shape modern medicine. Today we’re exploring the history of animals and medical science but we’ll start at the beginning.

Transcript for Animals and Medicine

Written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Marissa: We’re taking you back to March 19, 1878, where you’re a fly on the wall of the plenary session of the Academie de Medicine in Paris. It’s been one hell of a year. Physicians, chemists, public health professionals, and veterinarians have been arguing bitterly over the science of contagion. And they were in Paris to hash it out. French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur saunters in triumphantly. He’s holding a dead chicken in one hand and a cage with two live chickens in another. These theatrics were designed to perturb another scientist at the meeting, veterinarian Gabriel Colin. Colin and Pasteur had been arguing all year about Pasteur’s insistence that chickens were immune to anthrax. Pasteur hypothesized that chickens’ natural body temperatures were too high for anthrax to survive. Colin said this was nonsense.

Elizabeth: At the height of their disagreement, Pasteur demanded that Colin present him with a chicken that had died of anthrax. Colin did not hold up his end of the bargain. And Pasteur added insult to injury by exhibiting his newest experiment which had proved Colin wrong. Pasteur had cooled a live chicken in a cold bath and then administered anthrax to the chicken. He died (this was the dead specimen he held in one hand). But the cage in his other hand housed two controls. One chicken that had been given anthrax and NO cold bath. And another that had been given a cold bath but no anthrax. They both survived. As Pasteur paraded around his dead and living specimens, the impressive members of the Academie de Medecine praised his experimental gusto. They were sick of arguing back and forth about nothing more than general theories about contagion. They wanted scientists to act rather than write and speak about disease. Pasteur must have swelled with righteous indignation that Colin had ever doubted him.  

Marissa: Pasteur’s shenanigans confronted academia with the lived experiences of an experimental scientist—the stinking dead chicken, the certain knowledge that its death had been miserable—the living chickens, pattering around their cages, squawking, pecking, pooping, flapping, entirely unaware that they’d taken part in medical history-making. This interplay between human and veterinary medicine was incredibly common in the second half of the 19th century. While human medicine and veterinary medicine were distinct professions, they were inextricably linked in the latest experimental turn. Not only were animals involved in the experiments that led to medical breakthroughs, they were crucial to the ethical, and public health policies that shape modern medicine. Today we’re exploring the history of animals and medical science.

I’m Marissa.

And I’m Elizabeth

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

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Marissa: The distinction between human and animal medicine goes back to ancient times, but so does their interdependence. Historians of medicine know that there has been both a distinction and an interplay between human and animal medicine since at least the time of Hammurabi. We know this because Hammurabi’s code differentiates between physicians and veterinarians, but it also describes medical practices that were common to both humans and animals. Even before the time of Hammurabi, historians theorize that gatherer-hunter societies had reason to attend to the health of their non-human animals.

Elizabeth: Most prehistoric communities made animal sacrifices to appease their gods. Sacrificial animals were typically not any old cow or hare or goat. For most of human history sacrificial animals were bred and tended carefully to ensure their health. The healthier the animal, the higher quality the sacrifice, and the greater likelihood that their sacrifice would be rewarded. As societies tended more to their sacrificial animals, they developed a better understanding of animal anatomy. Sometimes, sacrificial animal tenders acted as healers to humans as well or to their neighbors’ farm animals and pets, passing on their valuable folk knowledge and skill to others.

In ancient Rome, the highly stratified society was replicated in the world of animal health. Animals kept for sacrificial ceremonies, to perform in the circus, or in the military – which were all more patrician activities – were highly valued. They were worth the time, labor, and money necessary to keep them healthy. Animals who aided the peasants in farming, produced milk and cheese, or served as pets or working animals in other professions were not worth the resources it took to heal them. This hierarchy remained for much of the premodern period.

Marissa: In early modern Europe, academic resources were concentrated on military equine medicine and fancy elites, while farriers, barbers, and lay doctors treated everyone else, including the peasantry and their pets or working animals. By this point in history, human and animal medicine were similar. There were three primary interventions or modes of healing. We’ve talked about many of these practices before on the show but I’m not sure we’ve ever categorized them like this.

The first mode is manipulation: we’re talking obstetrics, Otzi’s tattoos, castration, wound treatment, simple surgery, bleeding, and burning. In humans, dental work and advanced bone setting would be included here as well.

The second mode is medicinal: by this we mean the ingestion of herbs and folk remedies. Medicinal interventions were generally reserved for humans, but wealthy landowners or even peasants who really valued their livestock would also seek out these remedies for their animals.

Elizabeth: The third and last intervention is spiritual. Historically, this might include animal sacrifice, incantations, prayer, magic, or ceremonies performed by shamanic healers. Today this might include reiki, chakra, crystals, confession, etc. I know as contemporary people who have been familiar with modern medicine their whole lives, spiritual healing hardly seems like it belongs in the same category as medical science. But for most of human history, these three categories of medical practice – manipulation, medicinal remedies, and spiritual healing – were used alongside one another. For example, sweat lodges, which had both physical and spiritual aspects; or reflexology, which enjoys modern scientific backing but also contains spiritual elements. 

Marissa: Spiritual interventions were used generously on both humans and non-human animals, probably because of their low overhead and presumed availability of spiritual healers in most times and places. Again, animal medicine was generally considered to be a “peasant’s problem” and not worthy of attention from academics until the later-17th/early 18th century. This was all about to change due to four factors: the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Rinderpest Epidemic, and the discovery of vaccination.

Science in the late 17th century was all about empiricism. The first microbe was identified in 1665. Though humans still hadn’t developed germ theory at that point, so there was no coherent understanding of the mechanisms of contagion, most scientists believed that microbes were related to health and disease. During this time, Francis Bacon developed the Scientific Method and medical experimentation began to rival traditional academic medicine. Many of these experiments fused human and animal medicine in new and exciting ways.

Elizabeth: One example was the practice of vivisection. Vivisection is the process of dissecting live animals or human beings, ostensibly in the interests of scientific discovery. The term was invented in 1709, but the act itself has been taking place for ages. For example, ancient Greeks did experiments on the optic nerve of live animals in an attempt to understand sight and blindness. Vivisection became more of an issue and a critical aspect of science and medicine in the 17th century, specifically with the work of two scientists, Robert Hooke and William Harvey. Hooke was a classic 17th century scientist. He was incredibly brilliant and multi-talented. He did research in tons of things, including the mechanics of physics, gravity, timekeeping, microscopes, paleontology, astronomy, the workings of the brain architecture, etc.

Marissa: During one of his experiments, Hooke tried to investigate the mechanics of breathing by cutting open a dog’s chest so he could see the lungs working. Without the chest muscles, the lungs could not continue to work. So he ended up forcing a tube down the dog’s throat to force air into his lungs. He thought that the investigation was worthwhile, but also felt badly about the dog suffering. He wrote, “I shall hardly be induced to make any further trials of this kind, because of the torture of this creature.” So for Hooke that was going to be a one-time thing.

Elizabeth: William Harvey, on the other hand, famous for being the person to uncover the workings of the human heart and circulatory system, learned about the ways that the human body worked by examining the bodies of animals. Harvey was the personal physician of King Charles I. Because of his proximity to the king, he had access to the king’s stock of deer, and unlike regular people, he wouldn’t have been tried and hanged for poaching the Kings deer. Charles I found his experiments fascinating and important and did what he could to help Harvey in his work. So when the king and his men went on a hunt, they brought home freshly killed deer for Harvey to examine. (Though Charles I was beheaded himself, putting an end to Harvey’s plum position in the royal court.) The knowledge gained from his dissections helped Harvey write two important works one on the workings of the heart, and one on human conception, gestation, and birth.

Marissa: A creepy side note to that is that Charles and his men often went hunting during the height of mating season, when the deer were making baby deer. And Harvey actually benefited from that, particularly because the king’s men would take the doe that had been recently impregnated, and then he could see the physiological changes that were happening to its body. And that became a large part of his work on conception, gestation, and birth.

Elizabeth: In addition to Hooke and Harvey, scientists like Bernardino Ramazzini began to take interest in occupational diseases. Ramazzini’s book, Diseases of Workers was published in Modena in 1700. This marks the first time that academic medical scientists expressed interest in the ol’ “peasant’s problems” faced by the nameless faceless laborers of the world. This growing interest in occupational health would have a critical impact on human health in the next century.

Marissa: As the eighteenth century progressed, the Enlightenment transformed medical inquiry. Though the Scientific Revolution took place in the 17th century (giving birth to the scientific method), it was not until the 18th century that scientists realized they could apply the scientific method to the study of humans. The Enlightenment (1637-1789) incrementally shifted the public’s understanding of disease and death. In medieval Europe, infectious disease, human suffering, and premature death were usually understood to be providential (God’s will). By the 1740s, most people were realizing what scientists had known for decades: that disease and death were preventable and that it was within our grasp to decode life’s mysteries, to measure, study, and preserve it. These powerful imperatives spawned countless scientific disciplines: epidemiology, anthropology, and embryology, just to name a few. Scientific study shifted to a clinical focus, so for the first time, scientists were applying their theoretical education to real people. Post-Enlightenment science understood humans as animals within a large typology of animals (naturalism) rather than as mortal beings in the image of God (Biblical).

Elizabeth: Now those first two factors were philosophical shifts that changed the way humans viewed the world and their place in it. But there were also two very practical events that tied human and animal medicine closer together, into “One Medicine”. First, there was a series of panzootics, or animal pandemics, that plagued Europe during much of the 1700s: Rinderpest, Anthrax, and Hoof and Mouth disease.

Marissa: These panzootics were studied by our good friend Ramazzini, the occupational disease guy, between 1709 and 1713. Ramazzini was so used to studying the way that workers’ behaviors led to physical ailments, so he applied this methodology to the “cow plague” that was ravaging Europe. He knew there was no physical cause, meaning, this was not an occupational ailment suffered by cows because of their behavior, so he looked at the DISEASE’S behavior instead. He was impressed by its specificity, as it only infected even-toed ungulates like cattle, buffalo, deer, and giraffes. He was even more impressed by its incredible contagiousness. Rinderpest is transmittable through direct and indirect contact with bodily fluids, as well as via aerosol.

Rinderpest epidemic in South Africa, 1896

Elizabeth: Rinderpest panzootics took place in Europe in the 17-teens, 1750s, and 1770s. Over 200 million cattle died of Rinderpest between 1709-1769, a loss of 20% of all dairy cows in existence continuously over a 60 year period. The seriousness of this rinderpest problem necessitated immediate action from authorities in Europe. The Pope’s physician, Giovanni Lancisi, recommended immediate extermination and cremation of infected cattle and cattle suspected to be infected. England did the same and was eventually forced to reimburse farmers for the cattle that the government had destroyed. France’s Louis XIV and his emergency council instated strict public health measures for cattle. Prussia took to issuing health certificates for transported cattle in a bid to stop the spread of rinderpest.

Marissa: After a century of panzootics, rinderpest became endemic in Europe but it continued to rage in other places in the world. Most notable is the Great African Panzootic of the nineteenth century. In the 1880s and 1890s, rinderpest destroyed sub-Saharan Africa, killing NINETY per cent of its cattle. The rinderpest also decimated the oxen, goat, sheep, buffalo, giraffe, and wildebeest populations. The consequences for this part of the world were devastating. Without these animals grazing, entire swaths of land were left unused and susceptible to invasive thornbushes. Thornbushes are inedible for livestock and became home to the tsetse fly, which transmits the sleeping sickness. These circumstances made sub-Saharan Africa particularly vulnerable to colonization by European powers during this time. European colonizers devoted most of their resources to eradicating rinderpest in their colonial holdings. There was little left for infrastructure development and investment in colonial citizens. Most historians believe this is one of the reasons why Africa’s public health system is more robust for animals than it is for humans, even to this day.

Elizabeth: At the same time that rinderpest was raging in Europe (1700s), so too was Anthrax. We know now that Anthrax epizootics occurred in Europe circa 1760, in the late 1770s, and circa 1790. Contemporaries probably lumped in Anthrax contagion with rinderpest contagion, referring to them both as part of the massive “cow plague.” But Anthrax confused scientists’ findings because it was slightly less contagious than rinderpest, and its impact on the body changed depending on the mode of infection. What’s worse, as the French physician Nicolas Fournier discovered in his study of what the French called charbon malin, Anthrax was communicable to humans.

Marissa: In his studies of charbon malin, Fournier found that people were sometimes infected after ingesting the meat of a similarly infected animal. His extensive clinical observations led him to classify different types of charbon. Spontaneous charbon was an occupational disease that sprouted up in poor, unhygienic peasants who handled livestock. Contagious charbon was caught by contact with a contagion. Contagious charbon could either be external (just lesions on the skin, and survivable), or internal. Internal charbon was always and immediately fatal. Though Fournier was unable to clearly identify the pathogen causing these diseases, he did identify the two main presentations of Anthrax as we know them today: cutaneous and gastro-intestinal.

Elizabeth: Now we have identified one last panzootic from the 1700s that was probably lumped into the “cow plague” by contemporaries: Foot and Mouth disease. Foot and Mouth became panzootic in 1755, the 1760s, and the late 1770s. We now understand these three as distinct pathogens but keep in mind that folks living through the panzootics would probably have lumped these together most of the time. Since it was before germ theory, they would not have been able to distinguish between the different pathogens. That must have made the experience even more terrifying.

Marissa: The last practical event that happened during the 18th century that tied animal to human medicine was one that our listeners should know well: the invention of vaccination. We have a whole episode on this so I won’t go into detail here. Long story short: dairy farmers began experimenting with purposely infecting their children and servants with cowpox because they noticed dairy maids who had contracted cowpox were immune to smallpox. Physician Edward Jenner eventually heard tell of these goings-on and conducted a few experiments himself on humans, by taking cowpox from humans and infecting other humans with it.

Elizabeth: In 1798, he published his findings that vaccination significantly reduced one’s chances of contracting smallpox and, if contracted anyway, vaccinated people were much less likely to die as a result. Jenner’s experiments are often considered the big bang of modern medicine. And it’s not coincidental that other animals – cows – were involved. Jenner’s experimentation came at a time when humans had a better understanding of where they fit into the animal kingdom. This new attitude had jump-started the discipline of veterinary medicine. Academics and practitioners alike were interested in animal medicine and what animal medicine could do for humanity. One might even say it became a topic of national interest. Rather than view the cowpox as unimportant, and the milk maid’s lived experience as a matter for peasants, they recognized the importance of folk knowledge and experiential learning. And it revolutionized medical science. Following Jenner’s example, scientists were intent on using these new forms of knowledge for innovation.

French print in 1896 marking the centenary of Jenner’s vaccine

Marissa: By 1800, veterinary/zoological and human medicine were two distinct (meaning separate) fields, but they were, in many ways, more related than ever. During the 1800s, there was a rapid industrialization and mechanization of farming. Animals were increasingly used as sentinel to assess environmental risks to human health (see, for example, Elizabeth’s canary in a coal mine episode). Cattle and other farm animals were forced into increasingly mechanized food systems, like the horrific conditions of the meat-packing industry uncovered by Upton Sinclair in 1904 Chicago. Moreover, these developments were publicized by a salacious news media which was consumed by increasingly reform-minded citizens. It should hardly be surprising, then, that the 1800s saw a massive growth in animal rights activism. Despite the exploitation of animals that was taking place on a large scale in their daily lives, many activists focused their anxieties and ire on scientific practices that exploited animals. Let’s be clear that these practices that we’re about to discuss did not originate in the nineteenth century, not by a long shot. But we’re discussing them in this part of the episode because the volume and cultural currency of animal exploitation exploded during the 19th century. 

Elizabeth: The most common form of animal experimentation by the 19th century was epidemiological in nature, meaning the experiments were aimed toward the prevention of infectious disease. Now this is a contentious subject, and we’re not here to take sides on it. Nineteenth century scientists and their contemporary apologists are quick to point out that epidemiological experiments on animals led to important breakthroughs that improved the lot of both humans AND animals. And they’re right. But animal activists (from the nineteenth century AND today) are also right when they raise the ethical issues involved in animal experimentation and testing. Animals have no way of consenting to or understanding the repercussions of participating in experiments. Let’s dig into some case studies.

Marissa: The nineteenth century saw the advent of germ theory. Microbes, called “seeds of disease” or “animalcules” in earlier centuries, had been discovered long ago. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that germ theory became accepted science. (A whole other episode). But it’s super important for us to point out that these earliest “microbe-hunters” vacillated seamlessly between human and animal medicine. In fact it was the fusion of human and animal medicine that made these breakthroughs in modern medicine possible. (Remember, we’ve already seen this once with the smallpox vaccine).

Some of these breakthroughs benefited animals even more than they did humans. Scottish scientist Sir David Bruce focused on diseases that were problems to both humans AND animals. He discovered the brucella bacterium and African trypanosomiasis, sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in animals. Bruce and his team developed a tetanus antitoxin and a tetanus vaccine that revolutionized wound care during World War I.

Elizabeth: Louis Pasteur, who starred in the vignette at the top of the show, was the captain of the microbe-hunters, the experimental scientists hellbent on identifying microbes and their mechanisms of contagion. In addition to his work on anthrax (for which he developed a vaccine), Pasteur worked on resolving chicken cholera. Chicken cholera was a highly infectious disease with a nearly 100% mortality rate that plagued poultry yards around the world. 

Marissa: Pasteur set to work on investigating the disease some time in 1880. That summer, he became distracted and forgot about his chicken cholera culture for some time. When he rediscovered the old culture, he used it to inoculate some chickens and concluded that the bacteria had lost their ability to infect. To check his hypothesis, he developed a fresh chicken cholera culture and administered it to the chickens who had gotten the stale culture AND to a new set of chickens. The chickens who had been given the old culture fought off the disease while the other set of chickens died. It goes without saying that this accidental discovery of the chicken cholera vaccine had a positive impact on the health of poultry all over the world. It also benefitted the folks who owned that poultry or made their living from them. Pasteur referred to this method of reducing the virulence of microbes as “attenuation.” He did something similar with rabies, a viral disease that infects both animals and humans.

Elizabeth: One of Pasteur’s contemporaries, German Rudolf Virchow (they were born the same year), was responsible for identifying Trichinella Spiralis in pigs. His discovery triggered public health measures that improved the lives of both animals and humans. He coined the term “zoonosis” which is a disease that can be passed from animals to humans. As a result of this work, Virchow became passionate about the idea that there must be no division between human and animal medicine.

Canadian physician and pathologist William Osler continued this work, teaching both medical and veterinary students in Montreal in the 1870s. Osler’s work emphasized the importance of comparative pathology and what would come to be known in the 20c as “One Medicine” (that is, one medicine for both humans and animals).

Marissa: While the realities of epidemiological animal experiments were unsettling to some, their legitimacy, within a One Medicine framework, was easy for medical scientists to argue. To most folks in the world, it was worth sacrificing some animals if the end result meant that the health of future animals and humans would benefit. But as the nineteenth century progressed, it became harder and harder for scientists to justify the experiments they did on animals in the quest to better understand animal and human physiology. One practice in particular was responsible for the development of an entire animal rights movement and it’s one we’ve already mentioned— vivisection.

So it’s clear (from what we discussed earlier) that scientists and physicians valued vivisection as an important way to learn about the workings of the body. And of course, even autopsy on human corpses drew strong condemnation. Vivisection only became more common with the progression of scientific medicine, particularly in the 19th century, though debates over the appropriate uses intensified. There were bodies available for autopsy, but only in very limited supply. And of course, there was one major difference. They were all dead.

Elizabeth: At the same time that vivisection was becoming more commonly used by doctors and scientists—in the early to mid-19th century — people in both the US and Britain were starting to think very differently about animals. For ages, what we would consider clear cases of cruelty to animals were simply common practice and was generally considered entertainment. Gambling on cockfighting, for example, was a very common form of entertainment, and during the 18th century, even for the most dignified planters and gentleman, cockfighting was just something that all men did. Bear and bull baiting was the entertainment of kings and queens in England for centuries. Of course, it wasn’t no holds barred when it came to the treatment of animals. One of the earliest laws that we have regulating the treatment of animals comes from Massachusetts that, of course, was a colony at the time in 1640, which passed a law making it a crime to drive cattle too hard. It actually mandated that you had to pause to allow animals to rest and get food and water every so often. But these kinds of regulations were usually exceptions to the rule before the nineteenth century.

Marissa: Why this sea change in feelings about animals? Though the Second Great Awakening proper is an American story, and therefore a little more specific than we want to get on this more general episode, it’s worth mentioning because it didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was also a period of Christian revival in Great Britain and many other Christian countries around the world. Americans, Britons, continental Europeans and their colonies were moved by a desire to better the world in the hopes of bringing about the second coming of Christ. This was a desire that affected so many facets of life. For example, it influenced the Temperance or anti-alcohol movement, abolitionism, of course, education reforms, and improving asylums and poor houses. Many examples, right? Some of this energy was also directed into stopping animal cruelty.

Elizabeth: In Great Britain, religious reformers were able to push for that first Animal Protection Law in 1822, which was focused specifically on protecting cattle, horses and other farm animals from improper treatment. And the first British animal rights organizations were created in 1824. Part of the initial concerns were raised by cruelty being observed. For example, there were some highly publicized cases of carthorses in large cities were literally driven to death by their owners, and would die on the street. Another push for animal rights reform came during a huge fashion trend toward feathers. Feathers were being used in hats and women’s hair decorations. And as one might imagine, feathers don’t grow on trees, they grow out of the butts of birds. And so bird populations were being decimated for fashion purposes, because men and women wanted the pretty feathers for their outfits.

Le Larousse pour tous : Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique, vol.2, Librairie Larousse, Paris, [1907-1910], p.465. Public Domain.

Marissa: And there are really important connections between animal cruelty laws, and the many, many other nineteenth-century reforms, especially vegetarianism (duh) and, perhaps surprisingly, abolitionism. Abolition was a transnational movement focused on abolishing slavery worldwide. In the eyes of white reformers, both slaves and animals were the helpless property of their masters. And they were also both easily and often exploited or mistreated by their masters. And, again, I just want to pause here to say, keep this idea in your mind, because this will come up again – animals are an easy sort of analogy to humans in particular conditions. So it’s not just enslaved peopeople; later on, it becomes white women, then children. Comparing mistreated people to the plight of mistreated animals became a way of garnering sympathy for humans, which is really shocking. One would think that it’d be the other way around- that you’d want to compare animals to humans- humanize them- to garner sympathy for animals. But no. Fun fact: the anti-Cruelty to Animals Act came BEFORE the anti-Cruelty to Children Act. But suffice it to say that they’re connected, and one relied on other.

Elizabeth: Animals were also often used as barometers of behavior in a way that I think that we still kind of do. If a man was cruel to his horse or his dog, wouldn’t he also be cruel to his slaves or maybe to his children or to his wife? And I think that’s very much an idea that we still have today, right? That if somebody mistreats the helpless animals under their control, then that’s actually an indicator for like sociopathy. There are some famous examples of this that come up in abolitionist literature. One really famous example of this comes to us from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of course, the most famous American antebellum novel, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This was a really sentimental romantic kind of novel, but it was intensely popular; it was the bestselling book in the United States, except for the Bible, for like decades and decades and decades.

Marissa: And there’s a scene in the novel where the two of the main characters, Eliza and George, who are both slaves, are discussing this horrific incident that took place with their master. And George says to Eliza, “You know, poor little Carlo (dog) that you gave me … the creature has been about all the comfort that I’ve had, he has slept with me nights and followed me around days and kind of looked at me as if he understood how I felt well, the other day, I was just feeding him with a few old scraps I picked up by the kitchen door and master came along and said I was feeding him up at his expense, and that he couldn’t afford to have every [n-word] keeping his dog and ordered me to tie a stone to his neck and throw him in the pond.”

And Eliza yells “Oh, George, you didn’t do it. Do it, not I, but he did, Master, and Tom pelted the poor drowning creature with stones. The poor thing, he looked at me so mournful, as if he wondered why I didn’t save him, I had to take a flogging because I wouldn’t do it myself. I don’t care master will find out that I’m the one that whipping won’t take my day will come? Yeah, if you don’t look out.” And that scene, there’s also an altercation between George and the master over the treatment of some horses that George stands up for as well, and then takes the Master’s ire for too. So you see this connection between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of animals.

Elizabeth: And, as we’ve alluded already, animal welfare groups eventually also became advocates for children. There were animal welfare organizations long before there were any child welfare organizations. But in this world, children were supposed to be physically corrected. And also, their upbringing was considered strictly the purview of their parents, so people didn’t see the need to interfere. The first child abuse case in the US took place in 1874. And it was a case of a little 10-year-old girl named Mary Ellen McCormack, who was beaten horrifically by her adoptive mother slash guardian. When her neighbors tried to get help for the little girl, they went to everyone, the department of public charities and corrections, which was in charge of asylums, as well as hospitals and orphanages. But no one could really do anything because there weren’t any laws regarding this issue. They didn’t have the jurisdiction essentially. Eventually, the little girl’s case was taken to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Marissa: The ASPCA had been founded in 1866 and had largely been concerned with protecting cart horses in New York City. The founder of the ASPCA, who was wealthy and had some clout, was able to get a prominent lawyer to take up the case, which they ended up winning. The little girl became something of a sensation. Newspapers like the New York Times took up the story. And suddenly everyone was fascinated, not with just Mary Ellen, but also the idea of child abuse. The lawyer and Henry Berg, the ASPCA founder, were also so moved by the case that they founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. That same year, it was the first such society in the world.

I know I’m belaboring this point, but it just stuns me that there were not just one but numerous organizations dedicated to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals before there were to children. But at the same time, the historian and me is saying like, of course that makes sense. You know, children came under the control of their parents. You weren’t to interfere with that, you know, certainly not the state and laws, right. Yeah.

Elizabeth: In the United States, these groups grew up a little bit later in the century than in Great Britain. The first one was founded in 1822, or 1824. And the ASPCA wasn’t founded in the United States until 1866. The turning point for the American animal rights movement was the Civil War. One author that I read about this topic, argued that it was actually the deaths of horses who were killed in the literal 1000s during the Civil War that helped to make Americans think differently about animals and the sacrifices the animals were making. Horses were so intimately a part of most Americans lives that they were the animals that often got people to think about this issue differently.

Elizabeth: The shift in the early 19th century in which people begin to think differently about animals and become invested in preventing cruelty towards them also extends, of course, to the use of animals for experimentation and scientific research. In 1874, there was something of a turning point when a French doctor named Eugene Magnan performed a particularly disturbing demonstration before the British Medical Association. Magnan was doing experiments about how alcohol and absinthe affected the central nervous system. And on August 13, 1874, Magnan tied down a dog for a demonstration, apparently in the smoking room of a Masonic Hall. And observers testified later that this dog looked as though it was being crucified. It was shaking and whining with fear, and, of course, when Magnan sliced open its thigh, it cried. Some of the doctors watching were disturbed by this scene, but others thought that that was just ridiculous, arguing that dogs were not “sensible” in the same way as humans. And Magnan, when he was criticized for this, argued that dog was insensible, he’s not suffering anything. And this is an important point because vivisection was very much accepted by physicians. This was just, you know, kind of accepted practice.

Marissa: Most surgeons agreed that vivisection was maybe unpleasant but necessary for the advancement of medicine. So by a vote, the doctors president decided to continue with the demonstration. One man who happened to be the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, his name was Thomas Joliffe Tuffnell, was really angered by this, and he couldn’t let it go. And he said to Magnan in the middle of this demonstration, “That dog is struggling to get free. I am a sportsman as well as a surgeon and I will not see a dog bullied.” Magnan sort of ignored him and then inserted a tube into the dog’s femoral artery and blew some air into it, which caused blood to spread out all over the dog and all over Magnan’s white apron. Magnan then poured pure alcohol into the tube and the dog became very obviously affected and intoxicated, essentially.

Elizabeth: Magnan then said to Tuffnell, “Now you see he’s insensible.” He’s sort of teasing him about his sensitivity to this. Tuffnell was not dissuaded. And he sort of shot back. “Yeah, well, he’ll never be sensible again. Now, because you’ve killed him.” And indeed, just after that Magnan injected the dog again, this time was absinthe, and the dog appeared to have a seizure and then died. This caused a great deal of unrest in the animal rights community, and outside of the animal rights community too. This wasn’t just people who were zealous about the rights of animals. The Magnan case brought in lots of other people, partially I think because this guy who was very respected – the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland – was spearheading the outcry, and he lent some credibility to it. There was a trial afterwards, in which four English surgeons who had been present were charged with animal mistreatment, cruelty and torture. Magnan had run back to France to escape charges. The doctors were not convicted. Ultimately, the court could not find that what they had done was not justified in the name of science. Gross. Very gross.

Marissa: And then this case marked a turning point in what became known as the anti-vivisection movement, led by Frances Power Cobbe, in 1875. She created the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable for Vivisection. Cobbe was a suffragist, a woman’s rights activist, a writer and a journalist and a social reformer. And as if all that wasn’t enough, Cobbe was also a theologian. She was actually a critical figure in the history of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Elizabeth: She was also what we today would probably label a lesbian, and lived in a lifelong partnership with a woman named Mary Lloyd, who was an artist who shared Frances’ passion for social justice. It’s no mistake that Cobbe was both an animal rights activist and a woman’s rights activist. And it wasn’t just that people who are social justice-minded tend to think along particular lines. For Cobbe and other activists, men not only treated both women and animals poorly, but thought of them in similar ways. Women, particularly in the minds of physicians and scientists, were less evolved than men by their reproductive capacity and apparent urges toward baser desires to have offspring and raise them. Women were forever stuck on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder, while men, who were able to prioritize mind over body, were far more highly evolved.

Marissa: This wasn’t just about reproduction. Scientists obsessed with categorizing the human race into narrower and narrower groups based on their skeletons. And women’s skulls apparently looked much more like the skulls of Africans than the more highly “evolved” European men. In turn, women, particularly those involved in women’s rights activism, saw themselves as closer to nature as well, except in a different way. They saw themselves in animals: defenseless, vulnerable at the whims of men who could be at turns affectionate and caring, or cruel and violent. They also felt a kinship with animals through emotion, or women’s apparent innate ability to feel. They believed deeply the animals also felt and thus deserved not to be in pain, right?

Elizabeth: One of the things that we’re not going to get into quite as much, but that it’s important here, is that one of the arguments over vivisection and anti-vivisection becomes not about whether or not doctors can perform these experiments on animals, but whether or not the animals need to be anesthetized. And that ends up being kind of one of the compromises that they make – that okay, you can still do this, but you have to take the proper steps to make sure the animals aren’t in pain.

Marissa: Frances Power Cobbe and her activism intertwined women’s rights and anti-vivisection. For example, in in her powerful essay entitled “Wife Torture in England,” Cobbe wrote that, “The familiar term wife beating conveys about as remote a notion of the extremity of the cruelty indicated as when candid and ingenious, vivid actors talk of scratching the newts tail when they refer to burning alive or dissecting out the nerves of living dogs, or torturing 90 cats in one series of experiments.” For Cobbe, and for others like her, cruelty to animals and cruelty to women were intimately connected, both symbolically and, for some activists, in reality, like abolition. They believe that a man’s treatment of animals was indicative of how he would treat women.

Elizabeth: And there’s this wonderful historian named Leila McNeil, formerly of the blog Lady Science. Leila wrote this fascinating assay for Nursing Clio that was all about the connections between women’s rights activism and anti-vivisection. And Leila makes this argument that because women had no voice in the public sphere, they had to turn to alternative venues to express their feelings about violence towards women and animals. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals was entirely male-run. Even though women were very active in that organization, they didn’t have a public voice in the organization, so they turned to other venues, specifically poetry and literature. Anne Bronte, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Mary Coleridge all use imagery of captured, wounded, or subjugated animals to describe women, specifically birds in cages. Even more recently, Maya Angelou‘s most famous book is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? So she’s drawing on this much older tradition.

Marissa: A powerful example and pointed example comes from a poet named Mary Howitt written in 1824. She writes:

“Oh, that they had pity, the men we serve so truly!

Oh, that they had kindness, the men we love so well!

They call us dull and stupid, and vicious, and unruly,

And think not we can suffer, but only would rebel.

They brand us, and they beat us; they spill our blood like water;

We die that they may live, a million in a day!

Oh, that they had mercy! for in their dens of slaughter

They afflict us and affright us, and do far worse than slay.

We are made to be their servants—we know it and complain not;

We bow our necks in meekness the galling yoke to bear;

Their heaviest toil we lighten, the meanest we disdain not;

In all their sweat and labour we take a willing share.”

I mean, and this poem, she’s ostensibly talking about animals, working alongside men, but you could read it without much effort as women. Even I think something that’s really powerful here is “we die, that they may live, a million in a day, oh, that they had mercy for in their dens of slaughter.” And to me, that sounds like childbirth, right? We die, that they may live a million in a day. How many women died in childbirth, right? So I don’t know enough about Mary Howitt to say that she was doing this purposely. But this certainly was in the water, right? These connections certainly reflects the tone of the period.

Elizabeth: And just to sort of bring this back around to an individual that folks might be more familiar with: Charles Darwin was an anti-vivisection. Which is important, because he was also the scientists of the 19th century. But he was, according to his friends and family, very tender hearted toward animals, and was deeply distressed by stories of the torture of animals at the hands of other scientists. He did believe that sometimes it was necessary to the advancement of science, but that it was too often abused. For example, in his 1871, The Descent of Man he wrote, “Everyone has heard of the dogs suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator, this man unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.” And a letter that he wrote around the same time he re-emphasized this point, he wrote, “You ask about my opinion on vivisection. I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigations on physiology, but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror. So I will not say another word about it else I shall not sleep tonight”

Marissa: So it’s clear he had really strong feelings about it. And just to interject here, this is another sticking point he’s pointing to in the vivisection/anti-vivisection debate, that of differentiating between experimentation and demonstration. And what really bothered people about Magnan’s case with the dog and the absinthe was that it was not experimental. It was a demonstration. And so the dog was essentially just a prop. And that’s what really drove people kind of crazy about it. Now, that was sort of part of science and medicine at the time, when you think about the 19th century in medical colleges, how they operated on people in a room full of onlookers or medical students in theaters. But obviously the humans who were dissected in these theaters were dead. Pain and suffering weren’t part of the show.

Elizabeth: And that’s why there were debates between doctors and scientists over whether or not it was acceptable. And some people said no, for demonstration purposes, it’s not. But then other doctors had a legitimate counter argument, which was that those demonstrations were critical learning opportunities; not all of us have the ability to get our hands on animals or humans to learn, right? And so we need to be able to see those demonstrations.

For Darwin, I think it’s very clear that this is important to him. Because he’s not just writing it in letters to friends; he’s also writing it in his second major publication, The Descent of Man. This is interesting because he was not particularly political. He didn’t even really defend his own work; when the Origin of Species came out and it was criticized heavily around the world and in the scientific community, he didn’t get wrapped up in the controversy. But he made an exception (to his apolitical principles) for the anti-vivisection movement. He joined his daughter and son in law and crusading against the practice.

Marissa: In 1875 Darwin himself helped to draft the Playfair bill, which required that all animals used in experimentation needed to be anesthetized. And that animals could not be dissected for demonstration, but only for specific experimental purposes. Darwin’s role in the advocacy for the bill lent it serious credibility. And in 1876, it was passed as part of a larger bill called the Cruelty to Animals Act in Great Britain. So I think that Darwin is also important to the story because it demonstrates that you can be committed to rigorous science, but also be willing to adapt its standards and take issues of pain, morality, and ethics into consideration. In this sense, it seems that Darwin was ahead of his time.

Elizabeth: So after that detour into the vivisection and anti-vivisection campaigns that dominated medical ethics in the nineteenth century, I want to bring us back around to the larger purpose of this episode, which is to explore the interwoven nature of human and animal medicine in history. We’ve arrived at the 20th century which was a watershed moment in the history of medicine. At this point in the history of medicine, many pathogens had been identified and medical science was becoming increasingly capable of neutralizing the threat of infection. Human anatomy was all but entirely mapped out. So one might think that animals would become less important to medicine than they had been in the past. But you’d be wrong. In some ways, human and animal medicine are more intertwined than ever.

Marissa: In some cases, this is because animal anatomy or epidemiology serves as a fruitful comparison to novel human diseases. For example, in the 1970s scientist Max Essex launched a huge research project on Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) which is a very common viral infection that damages the immune systems of cats. When the HIV epidemic hit the United States in 1981, Essex and his team noticed incredible similarities between FeLV and HIV. They were quickly able to pivot their research toward the research of HIV instead.

Elizabeth: Perhaps the most common interplay between modern human and animal medicine concerns zoonoses. Zoonoses are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. There are over 200 of them known to us today. Why, in our age of modern medicine, are we still discovering new zoonoses? Well, first of all, pathogens mutate over time, so there will always be new pathogens with which we need to contend. But the more obvious answer is that we pay comparatively little attention to animal pathogens until, that is, we discover that humans are susceptible to them. Then, obviously, our interest is piqued.

Marissa: We mentioned earlier some of the 19c scientists concerned with zoonoses (Virchow and Osler) but the One Medicine concept continued to grow in the 20th century. In 1947, James Steele established the Veterinary Public Health division of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA. There, Steele and his colleagues focused their efforts on the prevention and eradication of zoonoses like bovine tuberculosis, rabies, and more. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the One Medicine approach actually got it’s name from Calvin Schwabe, a veterinary epidemiologist teaching at UC Davis in the US.

Zoonoses can be transmitted in a variety of ways such as direct or indirect contact (brucellosis or echinococcosis), biting (dengue fever), consumption of contaminated animal products (salmonella), ingestion of intermediate hosts (Tapeworms). During the 20th and 21st centuries, Zoonoses are most prevalent in the “developing world” where human/animal contact is more quotidien and public health infrastructure is weak. But they can happen anywhere, and humans have been experiencing zoonotic infections for millennia.

Image of a cow, Martin Vorel, Creative Commons

Elizabeth: Historians think that humans have been aware of zoonoses since ancient times, even if they didn’t understand the mechanisms of infection. For example, Semitic cultures refrain from eating pork, which we think may have been a way to avoid cysticercosis or trichinosis in a time when refrigeration was not possible. Likewise, some African tribes didn’t allow the keeping of dogs in order to reduce the risk of rabies long before the rabies pathogen was identified.

Marissa: While animals and humans are able to make each other sick, they are also able to give each other immunity. This is called Zooprophylaxis or interspecies cross-immunity. Historically, zooprophylaxis was understood by folk practitioners for decades or even centuries, but they were then later “discovered” by mainstream, academic medicine. Such was the case with cowpox/smallpox, rinderpest/measles, tuberculosis, and leprosy. In these cases, a human’s prolonged exposure to sick animals built up their immunity to similar diseases.

Elizabeth: As scientists have learned about the way zoonoses impact our society, the concept of One Medicine continues on but under the guise of “One Health.” In recent decades, due to the eradication of many of the most dangerous diseases, medical scientists have begun to focus less on infectious disease and more on behavioral health. This is also true in the field of public health (for humans) and herd health (for animals).

Marissa: The integration of human and animal medicine continues in the world of surgery as well. Xenotransplantation, the transplantation, implantation or infusion of animal cells or tissues into the human body, has saved many human lives. Bovine and porcine heart valves are commonly used to replace dysfunctional human heart valves, for example. Pig skin can be grafted onto human tissue that has been severely damaged by burns. There are even animal tissues and fluids that are used in the making of modern vaccines which are then injected into human bodies.

Elizabeth: There are ethical and safety issues involved in using animal tissues and organs in humans. Some ethical issues are obvious: animals can’t consent to the use of their tissues. But others are less obvious or, at least, they don’t apply to everyone. One can imagine objections to the use of pig tissues by kosher Jews, or an objection to bovine tissues by Hindu patients, or objections to vaccines by vegans who eschew animal products.

Then there’s the issue of disease. We’re still identifying new zoonoses today (COVID-19 anyone?!?!). There is evidence that some pathogenic zoonoses remain latent for years only to flare up at some later date. Are we putting humans at risk for these mysterious infections? Still, medical scientists argue that it’s only a matter of time before xenotransplantation becomes the norm.

Marissa: The COVID-19 pandemic (COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease) reinforced the need for a One Health approach among the scientific community. Even with all of the medical advancements we’ve made in the 21st century; humans were still vulnerable to a pandemic zoonotic disease. While the integration of human and animal medicine has a long history but it appears that it will continue to be a concept that we’ll need to contend with today and in the future.


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