The Brown Dog Rioters

This week, we celebrate the medical students prepared to take their battle with anti-vivisectionists on to the streets of London.

The anti-vivisection movement, the forerunners of today’s animal-rights lobby, looked to be in rather rude health towards the end of the nineteenth century. Supported by numerous wealthy backers, and underpinned by a combination of reactionary romanticism and a late-nineteenth-century disillusionment with science and progress, anti-vivisection societies were numerous – indeed, there were said to be over 100 in existence across the globe. And their centre of gravity was London.

But that was only half the story. The scientific and medical establishment was starting to fight back. Timidity in the face of the righteous anti-vivisectionists was gradually being replaced by scientific confidence in the human benefits of animal experimentation. And little wonder: biomedical research was bearing much-needed fruit, be it a treatment for diphtheria or the discovery of the causes of malaria. According to surveys undertaken as part of the Cruelty to Animals Act (1876), there were 311 procedures undertaken using animals in 1876; by 1910, that figure was up to 95,000.


The original
Brown Dog statue

Chief among those expanding the sum of human knowledge, and using animal testing to do so, was Sir William Maddock Bayliss (1860-1924), a physiologist at University College, London, who, along with his colleague Ernest Starling, was responsible for discovering hormones. In a famous experiment in 1902, in which Bayliss and Starling used an anaesthetised dog, they showed that dilute hydrochloric acid, mixed with partially digested food, activates a chemical substance in the epithelial cells of the duodenum (the first section of the small intestines). As one account put it: ‘[Bayliss and Starling] found that this activated substance, which they called secretin, released into the bloodstream, comes into contact with the pancreas, where it stimulates secretion of digestive juice into the intestine through the pancreatic duct. They coined the term hormone (Greek horman, ‘to set in motion’) to describe specific chemicals, such as secretin, that stimulate an organ at a distance from the chemical’s site of origin.’

The anti-vivisectionists were not convinced, however. They could only see a suffering dog. In 1903, two upper-class Swedish women, Louise Lind-af-Hageby and Leisa Shartau, seeking to back up the anti-vivisectionists’ view of biomedical research as little more than wilful cruelty, inveigled their way on to a University College lecture course. As far as they were concerned, Bayliss and Starling were not pursuing a scientific objective when cutting into a dog; they were perpetrating wanton cruelty. Lind-af-Hageby and Shartau’s experiences of Bayliss and Starling’s experiments were written up and published in The Shambles of Science: Extracts from the Diary of Two Students of Physiology, which was then seized upon by Stephen Coleridge, the secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, as proof that Bayliss has broken the law by allegedly experimenting on an unanaesthetised animal more than once.

Bayliss successfully sued Coleridge for libel and won £2,000; but the anti-vivisectionists raised more than double that amount. And with the money left over from the court case, they did something that was to draw the battle lines between those in favour of animal testing and those against. That’s right - in Battersea Park, on 15 December 1906, anti-vivisectionists, supported by local dignitaries, councillors, Suffragettes and trade unionists, unveiled a statue of a brown dog, sat atop that embodiment of temperance-society condescension, the drinking fountain. The inscription read as follows: ‘In memory of the brown terrier dog done to death in the laboratories of University College in February 1903 after having endured vivisections extending over more than two months and having been handed over from one vivisector to another till death came to his release. Also in memory of the 232 dogs vivisected in the same place during the year 1902. Men and women of England: how long shall these things be?’

But those who objected to the anti-vivisectionists’ presentation of their work – the scientific and medical practitioners trying to improve the lot of man – were not to be beaten. The statue of the brown dog was not taken as a reprimand; it was treated as a provocation.

Over the course of the following year, the police and judiciary tried their best to quell the anger, especially that of medical students. But it was to no avail. Those in favour of animal testing took to the streets in protest, and repeatedly attacked the memorial. The discontent reached its peak on 10 December 1907 in what are now known as the Brown Dog Riots. Medical students, having marched through London carrying effigies of brown dogs on sticks, fought with police and anti-vivisection protesters both in Trafalgar Square and in Battersea itself, where one group of students was determined to destroy the statue.

Although many students were arrested as the fighting died down, their cause was far from lost. First, the council decided to take down the statue in 1909 because it was costing so much to police it. And second, the Brown Dog Riots marked a definitive shift in the balance between the previously emboldened anti-vivisectionists and those hitherto shy about challenging them. As odd as it might seem today, in those strange December days 106 years ago, students fought in the name of science and medical progress.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

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