Historical Perspectives

A wonderful book entitled Cattle, Priests and Progress by Calvin W. Schwabe, D.V.M., M.P.H., Sc.D. is a fascinating and wonderful description of the evolution of medicine and especially veterinary medicine. The following shares a few of the ideas provided by Dr. Schwabe.

The idea of stewardship of animals developed in ancient times, as early humans domesticated animals. Additionally in early cultures, priests or shaman began to observe the relationship between human health and animal diseases (for example Judaic Law prohibiting the eating of pork). In Roman times Galen, the father of anatomy, dissected animals learning about their internal structures and then using them to teach others. However, it was not until the time of the American Revolution that we begin to see experimentation on animals rather than experimentation on humans.

In Western Europe in the late 1700’s an event of major economic consequence was in part responsible for the emergence of the research process as we know it today. Rinderpest (a fatal plague of cattle) was introduced to Europe from southern Russia by returning soldiers. In a decade the disease swept westward and reduced the cattle herds of Europe “in orders of several millions.” The first quarter of the 18th century had already witnessed a dynamic expansion of efforts to promote (human) medical sciences. There was wide spread public outcry about Rinderpest and other little understood and devastating epidemic diseases like anthrax, foot and mouth disease, and pleuropneumonia. These were threats to the economic existence of not only household but of countries. Remember that during this time the economic base of most European countries was grounded in agriculture.

Rinderpest caused monarchs and governments of most European states to pressure their medical and scientific establishments for action. In France in 1762, we see the creation of the first Veterinary College at Lyon and it was based on the training already in existence in the study of human medicine. In Germany rural physicians were encouraged to obtain instruction in Veterinary Medicine, which at that time was a skilled trade like horse-shoeing is today. In 1787, following the example of the French we see the creation of the Veterinary College at Berlin. In the 1800’s noted researchers who came to be associated with this new interest in a holistic approach to biomedical research included: the Frenchmen- Claude Bernard, and Louis Pasture, Robert Koch of Germany. With animal research many disease-causing organisms were identified before the end of the century, as well as spectacular medical advances with such procedures as ether anesthesia and surgical antisepsis.

In Europe and in the US by the early 1900’s and especially during and following World War I the benefits of animal research continued to be recognized. Following the Nuremberg Trials for atrocities by the Nazi’s during World War II, society spoke loudly demanding no research on humans until animal research had made such research a reasonable risk. Today, the majority of people in our society do agree with the idea of the humane and responsible use of animals in research.

Scientific Perspectives

There are 4 reasons why animals are used in research:

  1. The principles of anatomy and physiology are true for humans and animals, especially mammals. Once scientists learned that animals were similar to humans, in physiology and anatomy, it became preferable to use animals rather than humans for preliminary research.
  2. Certain strains or breeds of animals get the same diseases or conditions as humans. “Animal Models” are frequently critical to understanding a disease and developing appropriate treatments.
  3. Research meant introducing one variable and observing the results of that one item. With animals we can control their environment (temperature, humidity, etc.), andshield them from diseases or conditions not related to the research (control their health). Although human and animals get the disease that may be the subject of a research investigation, the different life styles or living conditions make them poor subjects until preliminary research under controlled conditions has been done.
  4. We can use scientifically-valid numbers of animals. Data from one animal or human is not research; it is a case study. To scientifically test a hypothesis, an adequate number of subjects must be used to statistically test the results of the research.

Some individuals claim that we should use human or animals that have a disease to study that disease. Certainly, epidemiological studies (tracking the occurrence of a disease or condition) have provided many important insights into the cause of a disease or a condition, especially when an environmental aspect is responsible. However, epidemiological studies are successful in only a limited number of situations. As noted earlier, the study of a disease is severely hindered or not possible when the research subjects have been/are exposed to a variety of environmental factors.

It is important to note that, according to the American Medical Association, humans are the most frequently used animal in research. However, research studies conducted on humans follow preliminary studies conducted in animals. These animal studies make human studies a reasonable risk. The animal studies are not a guarantee of success, but they do tell us that the human research has a reasonable probability of success.

For additional perspectives, visit the following sites. Most provide both historical and current outlooks on this and other questions.

Americans for Medical Progress Educational Foundation (AMPEF)http://www.ampef.org/
You’ll find lots of background material at this site. These folks monitor and post news items about these issues, so it’s a good place to go for current events info.

Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR)http://www.FBResearch.org/
This organization provides good information on the role of animal tests in medical advances. They also provide background information on animal rights organizations.

Research Defense Society (RDS)http://www.rds-online.org.uk/
This British site provides lots of background info and tracks key news events. Remember, if you use this site for a homework assignment, check your spelling — Americans have swapped some consonents around and dropped a few vowels since the Brits first taught us how to read and write.