By: Robert Speth, PhD  Date: 01/15/2012 Category: | Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare |


The animal rights movement occasionally recruits individuals with medical training who then attempt to lend a scientific credibility to the animal rights philosophy. Such individuals represent a minute fraction of medical professionals. However, the arguments they make are often characterized by the animal rights movement as being representative of the opinions of the entire medical profession. One such individual, Nedim Buyukmihci, an academic veterinarian and the President of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, recently referred to the development of antibiotics saying: "There is absolutely no proof that nonhuman animal research was integral to that development nor was it pivotal to that development." That a person with medical training would make such an outrageously inaccurate statement about medical history, is a sad commentary to the so-called medical expertise basis for the animal rights philosophy.

The Penicillin Story: The Eight Mice that Roared

In what might be one of the most famous animal experiments every conducted, Sir Howard Florey and his associates at Oxford University experimentally infected 8 mice with a lethal dose of streptococci, on May 25, 1940. Three mice were given multiple doses of penicillin, one mouse received only one dose of penicillin, and the remaining mice were left untreated. Only the three mice treated with multiple doses of penicillin survived. This single experiment so clearly defined the value of penicillin as an antibiotic, that it led to its widespread use during World War II, and set the stage for our modern day understanding of the use of antibiotics to treat infectious diseases. Thus this statement that animal research was not integral to the development of antibiotics indicates that Dr. Buyukmihci is either grossly ignorant in his knowledge of medicine, or that he is deliberately lying to his audience.

The Prohibition Against Animal Research

However, there is a matter of even greater concern. In this same interview, Buyukmihci stated a common theme of the animal rights movement: if we would not do an experiment on humans, than we should also not do it on animals. Thus if this Doctor of Animal Rights and his cohorts had had their way, Florey would have been prohibited from infecting the mice with the lethal dose of streptococci and this Nobel Prize winning demonstration of the ability of penicillin to cure streptococcal infections would not have been done. It is impossible to calculate how much human pain, suffering and death was prevented by this experiment with 8 mice. This is because we can not predict how much longer it would have taken to attain this appreciation of the value of penicillin: if indeed we would even have that knowledge now! But, in view of the 20 million deaths that occurred as a result of bacterial pneumonia secondary to the flu epidemic of 1918-1919, an estimate in the range of millions of human lives saved is not unreasonable. As will be noted below, there was yet another human toll that might have been avoided had penicillin been recognized for its antibiotic capabilities sooner.

A Fallacy of the Logic of the Animal Rightists Exposed

In his anti-animal research arguments Buyukmihci claimed that we can not know what would have happened if we had not done animal research, suggesting that we could have gained our medical knowledge in some other way. Once again the penicillin story refutes his arguments. The first indication that products formed by the Penicillium mold had antibiotic properties dates back to the 1870's, a time when Pasteur's germ theory of infectious disease was still a hotly debated topic. In "Murder, Magic and Medicine" John Mann credits Sir John Burdon-Sanderson as being the first to demonstrate "that certain Penicillium molds would prevent the growth of bacteria in culture." Private correspondence of Joseph Tyndall and Thomas Huxley between 1874 and 1876 (cited by John Crellin, in "The History of Antibiotics") suggests that they had also observed this phenomenon. However, neither of these observations could be applied to infectious disease until Koch's studies of anthrax transmission in animals. Koch demonstrated that anthrax bacteria, taken from an infected animal and injected into a healthy animal, caused the healthy animal to develop anthrax. This experiment, which validated Pasteur's germ theory of disease, is yet another experiment that would have been forbidden by Dr. Buyukmihci et al. It is noteworthy that neither Pasteur nor Koch worked in Great Britain.

Threats Against Animal Researchers is Nothing New

The story unfolds further with the subsequent work of Pasteur who showed that injection of some bacteria into animals could inhibit the growth of anthrax bacilli, leading him to suggest in 1877 that this could "justify perhaps the greatest hopes for therapeutics." Unfortunately, this prophetic statement was not to come to fruition for more than 60 years, in part due to the fact that the anti-vivisectionist movement became very powerful in Europe. Pasteur's work was vigorously opposed by British anti-vivisectionists. According to Rene Vallery-Radot in "The Life of Pasteur", the British anti-vivisectionists wrote torrents of hate mail to Pasteur: "-letters full of threats, insults and maledictions, devoting him to eternal torments for having multiplied his crimes on the hens, guinea pigs, dogs and sheep of the laboratory." Crellin describes it as, ". anti-vivisectionist attacks upon Louis Pasteur and his rabies vaccine became almost a monomania in Britain." Of note, the ire of the anti-vivisectionists was inflicted upon many other researchers and their wrath interfered with far more than the study of infectious diseases. Crellin describes how this anti-animal research sentiment inhibited mare than just studies of antibiotics in Britain, causing researchers to search for 'alternative approaches' to using animals. Quoting Baron Joseph Lister, physician to Queen Victoria, in a letter dated 1898, describing a much earlier breakthrough he had made with regard to surgical procedures, ".I frequently had recourse to experiment on animals. One of these occurs to me which yielded particularly valuable results, but which I certainly should not have obtained if the present law [the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act] had been in force." So as we can see, the anti-vivisectionist forerunners of today's animal rights activists had a chilling effect on animal research. Had it not been for this suppression of research, Florey's experiment might have been done in the 19th century, rather than the 20th century!

Another Sophism of Animal Rightism

Another fallacious argument put forth by Buyukmihci and the animal rights movement is: that studies of human diseases can better be done on humans. Here again the example of the recognition of the value of penicillin as an antibiotic clearly repudiates their argument. Lister himself is said to have used a Penicillium mold extract as a salve to heal an abscess afflicting a nurse in 1884. But, in the absence of systematic study, it was viewed as a curiosity rather than a breakthrough. Since the penicillin in those early extracts was highly unstable, there is little doubt that a preponderance of failures of the mould to cure infections contributed to the lack of interest.

Even when Fleming described the value of penicillium mold to inhibit the growth of staphylococci and many other pathogenic bacteria in 1928, his first two efforts to use it to treat human infections were failures. The third and last attempt by Fleming to use the mold extract to treat an eye infection was successful, but was not enough to convince the medical community of the value of penicillin as an antibiotic.

Incredibly, even following Florey's documentation of the curative values of penicillin for treating infections in mice in 1940, the first effort to use it in a human again resulted in failure. However, because of the compelling results obtained with the mice, Florey and his colleagues developed procedures to purify penicillin from the mould extract and to stabilize it. This then lead to the convincing demonstration of its efficacy in humans in 1941.

The Price of Ignorance: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Millions of people suffered and died prematurely because penicillin was not discovered in a timely manner. But, the most compelling example of the horrible fate that befell a segment of our population because we did not have penicillin is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In 1932 when the Tuskegee Syphilis study was begun, the only therapy for syphilis were the arsenic containing drugs Salvarsan and its close congener, Neosalvarsan. These drugs were extremely toxic, and it was necessary to use them for a long period of time, requiring an extraordinary degree of patient compliance. In addition, the cost of this therapy was extremely high. Since many people could not sustain the therapy and oftimes the cure appeared to be worse than the disease, public health officials decided to select a population of men afflicted with chronic syphilis to determine how harmful the disease would be if left untreated. Hence, we incurred the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. We now know that penicillin would have cured those men quickly, efficiently and with little adverse effects. Thus, if we had had penicillin available to cure syphilis in 1932, there would have been no need to even consider a study such as the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study!

From the Past to the Future

In reviewing this historical example relating to the timeliness of the discovery of penicillin, we should recall the words of George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Today's animal rights activists are even more monomaniacal than their anti-vivisectionist predecessors, and present an even greater threat to biomedical research. They misrepresent the value and importance of animal research, they use force and intimidation to obstruct animal research, and some even resort to terrorist actions to burn and destroy research facilities. They sanctify their actions by viewing their criminal activities as morally justified, because they consider the value of the lives of animals as equal to or greater than that of humans. When forced to acknowledge the possible value of animal research, the leader of one of the most extreme animal rights groups dismissed its value, claiming: "Even if animal research led to a cure for AIDS . we'd be against it!"

Today there are many researchers who follow in the footsteps of Pasteur and Lister and Florey in their desire to cure the diseases that cause such pain and suffering. Yet their efforts to find cures for disease are threatened far more than those of their predecessors. Do we want to see the work of these dedicated and heroic pioneers quashed by a philosophical principle that is so unfeasible that its supporters must rely on deceit and terrorism to sustain it? To give in to the pressures of the animal rights movement will doom millions more people, as well as animals, to suffering and premature death that could be prevented through animal research. So, the next time an animal rights activist tries to tell you that animal research is worthless and inhumane, remember how 8 mice saved countless millions of lives. Then, think about how your life, or the lives of your children, maybe even the lives of their pets, may be dependent on the mice in today's research labs. Do not fall prey to the misguided and ill-conceived notions of the animal rightists who will try to turn you against the animal research that is critical to finding cures not only for the diseases that afflict us today, but for diseases that may also arise in the future.


Further readings and citations:

  • John Mann, Murder, Magic and Medicine, Oxford Univ. Press, New York 1994 pp. 122-134.
  • John K, Crellin, Antibiosis in the nineteenth century, in: The History of Antibiotics, John Parascandola, Editor, American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, Madison, WI, 1980, pp. 5-13.
  • Rene Vallery-Radot, The Life of Pasteur, Doubleday, Page & Co., Garden City, NY, 1927, p. 334.

About The Author

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Robert Speth, PhD -

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

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