Friday, January 22, 2010


As I continue to read about dissection in the preparation of my next book, I learn more and more about vivisection - the dissection of live subjects. In modern times, the term is applied to many forms of animal experimentation and many organizations exist to oppose it, including the American Anti-Vivisection Society (est.1883), National Anti-Vivisection Society (est. 1929), and In Defense of Animals (campaigning since 1983). But back in the day, it was not about product testing and instead about gaining anatomical knowledge. Vivisection dates back to ancient Greece (c. 500 B.C.), when optic nerves were cut to determine their relationship to vision. In classical antiquity, apes were used because their anatomy corresponded to humans. In the Middle Ages, vivisectionists tended to use pigs, while dogs were favored in the Renaissance. The procedures were performed to show the action of the heart, the motions of respiration, and the intricacies of generation.

Greek physician working in Rome, Galen (129 A.D.-199/217 A.D.), is known as the "father of vivisection." He is depicted in a 1541 illustration vivisecting a pig (2nd image) to show that severing the laryngeal nerves renders an animal voiceless. The founder of modern human anatomy, Belgian physician Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), vivisected animals, notably a pregnant dog. His student, Italian anatomy professor Realdo Colombo (c. 1516-1559), found the vivisection of dogs and other animals indispensible for acquiring physiologic knowledge - and sometimes performed them in his own home - but drew the line at dissecting humans. Colombo also objected to dissecting pigs, but only because they were too fat and noisy. English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) performed vivisections to accurately describe the circulation of blood by the heart, and to debunk many of Galen's beliefs.

Italian surgeon Marco Aurelio Severino (1580-1656) thought vivisection was invaluable, particularly in comparative anatomy, and established the discipline of zootomy, the dissection of animals. The belief of French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) that animals do not feel real pain influenced many vivisectionists, but by the 17th c. there were vocal objections, not only out of pity for the creatures but out of concern about the effect that their inhumane treatment had on their dissectors. Today's vivisection techniques require anesthesia and usually approval as "scientifically necessary" by an ethics review board. In biology classrooms, frogs are still vivisected to demonstrate the beating heart (click 3rd image for animation).

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