by Roberta Kalechovsky, Ph.D.
(225 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945), 2009.
230 pages, paperback. $22.00.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Visiting with the renowned author Roberta Kalechovsky and her husband Bob at the recent AR-2015 animal rights conference in Alexandria, Virginia, I recalled and mentioned to her The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer, my favorite among her many books, the one I wish I had written, and yet the most overlooked and under-appreciated of her books, even among her most devoted readers.
Apparently no one else had mentioned The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer in quite a long time. This is to me inexplicable, not only because I read it cover-to-cover at one sitting years ago and still vividly remember much of it, but also because it explains a great deal about the evolution of animal advocacy and how we came to be where we are today.
From childhood Kalechovsky was at heart an animal advocate. Yet, discouraged by her family and other elders, she long pushed that part of herself aside while pursuing her “serious” career as author and publisher.
Literary, feminist, and religious studies nonetheless led Kalechovsky back time and again to the topics that became five previous non-fiction books about the intersections of animal rights, human rights, vegetarianism, and Judaism.
Legacy from Marie Carosello
All the while Kalechovsky gathered the material that coalesced over more than 20 years into The Poet-Physician & The Healer Killer. In particular, Marie Carosello, director of the 1983 film Tools for Research, in 1997 bequeathed to Kalechovsky a collection pertaining to the life and times of the 19th century feminist, mystic, and anti-vivisectionist Anna Kingsford.
Eventually Kalechovsky realized that her jigsaw puzzle of evidence presented a new perspective about how vivisection came to be the chief mode of biomedical research.
The traditional defense of vivisectors, from Rene Descartes (1596-1650) on, has always been that animal studies, no matter how cruel, are essential to gaining knowledge that may improve both human and animal health. The historical fault in that argument is that vivisection became the basic method of biomedical research even as other approaches to preventing and curing disease produced much more demonstrable results.
Louis Pasteur’s demonstrations of the vaccination principle were the first really big practical success attributed to vivisection, but came more than 200 years into the rise of vivisection as a research method, and even at that, vaccination for the next several generations protected just a fraction as many humans and animals as improvements to sanitation and diet.
80% of top minds were AV circa 1900
The traditional lament of anti-vivisectionists is that pro-vivisectionists have always held control over public policy and access to research funding. Yet as recently as the end of the 19th century, Kalechovsky shows, about 80% of the world’s leading intellectuals were anti-vivisectionists, as were many prominent political figures. Had anti-vivisectionism followed the same trajectory as other causes, science might long ago have turned decisively away from most animal experimentation.
Kalechovsky has probably imagined her literary works becoming films, but The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer might have the most cinematic potential. Kalechovsky thoroughly develops characters including Kingsford; Pasteur; the French vivisector Claude Bernard, a Faustian figure who all but admitted selling his soul to the devil; the proto-feminist politician and anti-vivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe; and the pioneering female physician Elizabeth Blackwell, who was enduringly influential in many respects but not in her opposition to vivisection.
Making cameo appearances are vivisector Jean Guillotine, best remembered for his role in the French Revolution, and Swedish activists Liesa Schartou and Luise Lind-af-Hageby, who enrolled in medical school in 1903 to expose vivisection.
The “poet/physician” was John Keats. At his death in 1817, at only 25 years old, Keats was as well-known as a medical doctor as he was as a poet. His medical education, Kalechovsky explains, emphasized deriving medicines through botany and the equivalent of a modern-day hospital internship. Surgery was part of Keats’ medical training and experience, but not a large part, generations before the development of reliable anesthetics. Dissection and vivisection were not part of Keats’ training at all.
The theoretical understanding of disease that Keats learned was incorrect in almost every detail. Yet Keats’ approach to preventing and treating common diseases was not greatly different from the state of the healing arts today. Keats believed in listening to his patients. Keats understood the value of empathy and sympathy in helping patients to rally their immune response. His basic prescription was essentially “Take two aspirin and get some rest.”
Both in his medical practice and in his poetry, Keats emphasized the healing value of nature, and deplored the unhealthful effects of the Industrial Revolution.
Like the other poets now known as as the English Romantics, Keats was a proto-environmentalist. Today he would probably have become a holistic practitioner.
“Reduction, refinement, replacement”
Animal studies have been used to validate most of the medical breakthroughs since Keats’ time. In particular, animal studies have furthered the development of surgery and toxicology. But vivisection might not have been the only way to gain much of this knowledge. The gradual scientific acceptance of “reduction, refinement, replacement” as the most ethical approach to designing animal studies has markedly reduced the numbers of animals used per study over the past 50 years, with no sacrifice of scientific validity or rigor.
Perhaps this could not have been done with earlier technology; but perhaps medical research technology could have advanced more rapidly if the most commonly used tool for so long had not been the knife.
In truth, Kalechovsky explains, vivisection before the first half of the 20th century often had a motive beyond scientific rationale. Neither was this motive hidden by many of the most fervent vivisectors, including in debate with opponents as outspoken and prominent as Anna Kingsford.
“Clerics & moralists”
“Speaking for myself and my brethren of the Faculté,” Facultié de Médicine d’Paris professor Léon LeFort wrote to Kingsford, “I do not mean to say that we claim for that method of investigation [vivisection] that it has been of any practical utility to medical science, or that we expect it to be so. But it is necessary as a protest on behalf of the independence of science against interference by clerics and moralists. When all of the world has reached the high intellectual level of France, and no longer believes in God, the soul, moral responsibility, or any nonsense of that kind, but makes practical utility the only rule of conduct, then and not until then can science afford to dispense with vivisection.”
One may hear in LeFort’s words an echo of the French Revolution rallying cry “Man will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Uttered first by the atheist priest Jean Meslier, 1664-1789, the phrase was popularized by Denis Diderot, 1713-1784.
Diderot made use of information obtained from vivisection in his translation of Robert James’ Medical Dictionary and in his opus, the first encyclopedia, but––ironically––he opposed the Cartesian view that animals are mere machines, questioned human consumption of animals, and contributed to the philosophical basis of later arguments for animal rights.
Allegedly necessary catharsis
Vivisection, like the ruthless doctrines that later fueled Marxism and Nazism, was introduced, promoted, and defended as an allegedly necessary catharsis to institutions that obstructed progress–or at least thwarted certain ambitious young men.
At issue for LeFort, Bernard, and many of their peers and successors was who would control interventions in life and death, from birth and baptism to last rites. Their struggle continues today in ethical and legal disputes over abortion, euthanasia, and––still ––the use of animals in experiments.
But vivisectors were––and are––scarcely the only aspirants to dethrone “clerics and moralists.”
Wrote Kingsford, “As I am against the orthodox priest, I am against the orthodox doctor. True prophylactics consist not in the inoculation of disease, but in living so as to make disease impossible.”
Her view might have prevailed, despite her penchant for bizarre behavior, including claiming to have willed Bernard and another notorious vivisector to their deaths. But, widespread though opposition to vivisection was, the cause was split between “clerics and moralists,” whose focus was preventing cruelty to both humans and animals, and innumerable proponents of alternative approaches to health and medicine, including faith healers and out-and-out quacks.
The devil himself
If Bernard sold his soul to the devil, Kalechovsky hints, the devil himself might have been Stephen Paget, who founded the Research Defense Society in 1906.
“Stephen Paget cleverly disunited the broad class structure from which anti-vivisectionism drew support,” explains Kalechovsky. “The cause was popular with working class and unemployed, the disenfranchised and the politically powerless who had been preyed upon as charity patients, along with orphans in public institutions. Because of this Stephen Paget could accuse the anti-vivisection movement of appealing to class hatred.”
“Neither poets nor prophets nor political protest”
That wasn’t all.
“The anti-vivisection movement and the feminist movement crossed each other’s paths in the Victorian Age, and for a brief period galvanized each other,” Kelechovsky relates, but “Paget severed the feminist movement from the anti-vivisection movement. Without women, whom Paget managed to convince the public were retrograde sentimentalists, the argument that vivisection was necessary became respectable.”
Within less than a decade of anti-vivisectionism reaching heights of influence, Kalechovsky writes, “Neither prophets nor poets nor political protest could halt the momentum toward animal experimentation and scientific medicine,” even when the ‘science’ was eventually shown by new approaches to have often been shaky and sometimes falsified.
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