BOOKS: The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2010:

The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer:
Vivisection & the Emergence of a Medical Technocracy
by Roberta Kalechovsky, Ph.D.
Micah Publications (225 Humphrey St.,
Marblehead, MA 01945), 2009. 230 pages,
paperback. $22.00.

From childhood Roberta Kalech-ovsky 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.

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.
The traditional lament of 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. Kalechov-sky
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Vivisection, like the ruthless doctrines
that later fueled Marxism and Nazism, was
introduced, promoted, and defended as an
allegedly necessary catharis 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
Wrote Kingsford, “As I am against the
orthodox priest, I am against the orthodox
doctorŠTrue 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.
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 institutionsŠBecause of this Stephen Paget
could accuse the anti-vivisection movement of
appealing to class hatred.”
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
antivivisection 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
antivivisectionism reaching heights of inflence,
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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