Dissecting the Living: Vivisection in Early Modern England

Dissecting the Living: Vivisection in Early Modern England

Fitzharris, Lindsey

Published online: (2012)


In 1664, Robert Hooke—a pioneering member of the Royal Society and lead scientific thinker of his day—decided to investigate the mechanisms involved in breathing. In his laboratory, he strapped a stray dog to his table. Then, taking his scalpel, he proceeded to slice the terrified animal’s chest off so he could peer inside the thoracic cavity.

What Hooke hadn’t realised before he began his experiment was that lungs were not muscles, and that by removing the animal’s chest, he had removed the dog’s ability to breathe on its own.  To keep the animal alive, Hooke pushed a hollow cane down the dog’s throat and into its windpipe. He then pumped air into the animal’s lungs with a bellow for over an hour, carefully studying the way in which the organs expanded and contracted with each artificial breath. All-the-while, the dog stared at him in horror, unable to whimper or cry out in agony.

On 10 November 1664, Hooke wrote to Robert Boyle about his experiment. In his letter, he described how he ‘opened the thorax, and cut off all the ribs’ of the dog, and ‘handled…all the other parts of its body, as I pleased’. But despite these rather horrific details, we see through Hooke’s words a man deeply moved by the suffering he had caused, for he ends, ‘I shall hardly be induced to make any further trials of this kind, because of the torture of this creature’.

The term ‘vivisection’, which refers to the act of dissecting a live animal or human being, was coined in 1709. Yet, it celebrated a long tradition reaching back thousands of years. One of the earliest recorded accounts dates from 500 B.C., when Alcmaeon of Croton severed the optic nerves of live animals in order to understand how it affected their vision. Indeed, William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood around the heart in 1628 was made possible by his use of vivisection; and it is likely that it was Harvey’s work which prompted Hooke to conduct his own experiments several decades later.

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