Vivisection in the 1800s and Today


V0017128 A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil
A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil painting by Emile – Edouard Mouchy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1800s, vivisection—the practice of experimenting on live animals[i]—sparked a massive controversy. Its proponents upheld its necessity and utility. They lauded the progress that had been possible because vivisection allowed doctors to test surgeries and learn about the body in ways that would help them treat human patients. According to its supporters, vivisection served the greater good and was worth the costs of animal pain and lives. [ii] Conversely, its opponents called it purposeless, believing animals and humans were simply too different to obtain valuable information. They claimed that the vast number of animals used did not justify the limited results obtained and objected to the intense pain the animals experienced. Opponents of vivisection appealed to the sense of humanity of researchers and lay members of society alike.[iii][iv]

The use of vivisection continues today. Vivisection is commonly used in conjunction with human studies to gather preliminary data. This past summer, I worked in a lab that used vivisection to study Parkinson’s disease. For a month after the procedure, the mice were treated with either a placebo or a drug, and their progress was recorded. The results from this experiment were used to determine that this drug could provide an effective treatment for Parkinson’s, and this treatment is currently being used in a promising clinical trial on humans. These studies would not have been possible without the use of live mice. The researchers in my lab acknowledged the tragedy of the sacrificed animal lives; however, they felt the significant gains that vivisection could make for humankind surpassed the loss of animal lives.

Source: Wikipedia

Researchers today continue to use vivisection; however, they now partially accommodate the protests of its 19th century opponents. Today, we have a better sense of the similarities between humans and the animals used, so the results are more useful. In addition, before being allowed to perform experiments on animals, researchers must promise to implement the Three R’s of animal research defined by Russell and Branch: replacement, reduction, and refinement. [v] Researchers are required to use non-living models whenever possible, limit the number of animals involved, and cause as little pain as possible. Protests against vivisection have continued as well. Opponents of vivisection are passionate and, at times, violent.[vi] Attempts to free animals are surprisingly common. In addition, these anti-vivisection sentiments seep into some researchers themselves. The field has seen an increasing emphasis placed on the first R: replacement. We have technologies available to us today that did not exist in the 1800s. For example, non-invasive imaging techniques, such as fMRI, can be used to study neurobiology in human volunteers.[vii] We use some alternatives but not enough. Most supporters of vivisection enthusiastically back the search for new replacements. Although our society may not be ready to eliminate vivisection, these new practices can ensure that animal experimentation is made more humane.

Elizabeth Kitt is a potential Psychology major with a focus on Neuroscience from Potomac, Maryland. She can be contacted at



[i] “Vivisection.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.

[ii] Keen, William W. “Our Recent Debts to Vivisection.” Popular Science Monthly 27 (1885).

[iii] Santoro, Lily. “Our History.” American Anti-Vivisection Society. American Anti-Vivisection Society. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.

[iv] “What Is Vivisection?” NEAVS. New England Anti-Vivisection Society. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.

[v] Fenwick, Nicole, Gilly Griffin, and Clément Gauthier. “The Welfare of Animals Used in Science: How the ‘Three Rs’ Ethic Guides Improvements.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 50.5 (2009): 523–530. Print.

[vi] Bennett, Allyson J. “Animal Research: The Bigger Picture.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, 1 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

[vii] “Research Alternatives.” American AntiVivisection Society. American Anti-Vivisection Society. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.


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