Antivivisection and the charge of zoophil-psychosis in the early twentieth century

Antivivisection and the charge of zoophil-psychosis in the early twentieth century

Craig Buettinger

In 1909, at a time of great controversy over the practice of vivisection, American neurologist Charles Loomis Dana proclaimed heightened concern for animals to be a form of mental illness, which he called “zoophilpsychosis.” Advocates of animal experimentation immediately employed Dana’s diagnosis in vivisection’s defense, claiming that antivivisectionists were afflicted by this malady. This diagnosis, however, reveals more about the minds of the men who supported vivisection than it does about the mental health of their adversaries. When challenged by the lay and predominantly female antivivisection movement, scientists brimmed with condescension and misogyny; and, in the case of the zoophil-psychosis concept, so too did their science.(1)

Opposition to the use of animals in medical research first arose in the United States during the 1860s in the person of Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Criticism of the practice centered on anticruelty societies until the first antivivisection societies were formed, beginning with the American AntiVivisection Society (AAVS) in Philadelphia in 1883. The antivivisection movement in the United States was inspired by a similar movement in Great Britain, where in 1876 Parliament had enacted a mild regulatory bill. American antivivisection was eastern, urban, and female, led by such women as Caroline E. White of the AAVS. Few antivivisectionists pursued the abolition of animal experimentation, but even the limited goal of regulation proved unattainable. Repeated defeat in both statehouses and Congress sent the movement into decline by 1925, where it remained until after World War II, the age of “Big Science,” when medical researchers’ facilities, claims, and demand for laboratory animals all expanded enormously and stirred resurgent antivivisection activity.(2)

The early antivivisectionists used the term “zoophily” to describe the ethical premise upon which the movement was based. Implying more than simply love for animals, zoophily conveyed the reformers’ conviction that the spread of mercy was the great cause of civilization. To them, cruelty – the opposite of mercy – had taken hold of medical science. Animal experimentation, often called “torture’ by the antivivisectionists, demoralized practitioners and retarded the advance of civilization.(3)

In response, the experimenters denied the charge of cruelty, stressed the benefits of medical research, pointed out the frequent inaccuracies in the antivivisection argument, and showered ridicule on their opponents. “I used to consider them ill-informed, but well-meaning and kind-hearted people,” wrote Dr. William J. Robinson in 1897. “I [now] know them to be hard-hearted fanatics (as fanatics are likely to be), deliberate prevaricators, and impudent ignoramuses, who deserve no consideration and are to be handled without gloves.”(4)

Envisioning themselves as rational men, vivisectionists were particularly inclined to accuse their opponents of being fanatics, ill-balanced people, cranks, or perverts. Most antivivisectionists were women, which made charges of hysteria common. But these insults all lacked the clinical ring that would have done more to discredit the rationality of the vivisectionists. (“Hysteria” was used free of any scientific context.) Dana, a clinician and a member of the medical faculty at Cornell University, subsequently invented a distinct psychosis with which to flail the zoophilists.(5)

Dana was born in Woodstock, Vermont, in 1852. He graduated from Dartmouth and the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons. Entering the field of neurology, Dana rose steadily and joined the faculty of the Cornell Medical College in New York City in 1898. He published his Text-Book of Nervous Diseases in 1893, which in 1925, a few years before Dana’s death, reached its tenth edition. Dana, a president of the American Neurological Society, was considered “the dean of American neurologists.”(6)

Neurologists of Dana’s generation argued that modern times had given rise to what an 1890 text called the “modern malady, or sufferers from nerves.” Business and professional “brain workers,” who carried the burden of modern enterprise, were the likely victims. Neurologists maintained that nervous exhaustion, or neurasthenia, manifested itself in a plethora of physical and mental woes, from itching to various obsessions. Neurologists never gave much attention to the study of the exact causes of specific ailments: it seemed sufficient to diagnose a depletion of the “nerve force” under the pressure of modern life. They concentrated instead on developing a variety of restorative cures, which typically involved isolation, rest, and the application of electric currents.(7)

By the 1890s, neurologists focused more on mental than physical disturbances as evidence of neurasthenia. Depression, irrational fears, and obsessions gained importance in neurasthenia’s updated symptomatology. Physical problems were increasingly thought to be imaginary. Dana described the likely plight of the neurasthenic as one characterized by periods of depression and morbid fears about both important and trivial subjects: “Some idea fixes itself upon him, and he cannot rid himself of it.” Dana extensively revised the 1904 edition of his textbook to give more attention to obsessions. According to the updated text, victims of obsessive disorders, while generally functional, suffered from “a defect in the inhibition” and had “a peculiar incapacity for self-control.”(8)

Neurologists believed that women were inherently inferior, an assumption deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century science. Neurologists attributed male neurasthenia to fatiguing levels of “brain work,” but blamed the suffering of neurasthenic women primarily on biology. Women were said to have smaller brains and weaker nervous systems than men, predisposing them to nervous exhaustion. Mental activity or emotional trauma that men could master women could not. Dana concluded that “Neurasthenia is a severer disorder in women than in men, for the reason that the nervous system of women is naturally less stable and less under volitional control.” However, Dana, dissenting from the consensus among his colleagues, insisted that idleness among women commonly caused their nervous maladies. Women’s unstable systems needed to be kept busy (within their sphere) lest irrationality and obsession take over. To Dana, male neurasthenics, disabled from doing useful work, were sympathetic figures; female neurasthenics were unproductive, disruptive, and manipulative.(9)

In the early twentieth century, the discipline of neurology was challenged by advances in psychology, which threatened to undermine the explanations of minor mental illness that neurology had successfully touted for almost a half-century. Freudian psychology of the turn of the century, which located mental disturbances in the subconscious, not the nervous system, had a much more refined etiology to offer, giving it an explanatory power that neurology lacked. As talk of neurasthenia gave way to psychology-based discussion of neuroses, patients increasingly sought treatment in psychologists’ offices.(10)

Dana remained unreceptive to the new paradigm for decades. He continued to defend the etiology of his embattled discipline, discounting any role for “psychic factors.” Dana also felt it inappropriate to ask women, as the psychoanalysts did, to recall long-dormant emotional traumas. As late as 1917 he still referred to psychoanalysis as a cult devoid of scientific standards and did not give it serious consideration in his text until the 1920s. In the meantime he called on neurologists to perfect their explanations of the role of the nervous system in various mental disorders.”

Dana believed that experiments on animal nervous systems could play a crucial role in the rescue of the beleaguered concept of neurasthenia. In a tract for the Committee on Experimental Medicine of the Medical Society of the State of New York, Dana predicted “catastrophe” should antivivisectionists succeed in regulating labs. According to him, “Animal experimentation …is a most beneficit instrument in human progress” and the antivivisectionists “have a kind of morality not preached by holy men.”(12)

Dana expressed his opposition to regulation at a time when vivisectionists had cause for concern. In 1906, the establishment of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) galvanized antivivisection sentiment in New York City. Like the European institutes on which it was modeled, the Rockefeller Institute was a center for vivisection. The New York Anti-Vivisection Society (NYAVS) arose in response. In January 1908, two bills regulating animal experimentation, the more stringent coming from the NYAVS, were introduced in the state legislature. Diana Belais, the NYAVS president, proved skillful at arousing public opinion against the practice of vivisection. A mass meeting of over a thousand people on 14 February called on Rockefeller to withdraw his funding of the institute. Even more exasperating to experimenters, just down the street from the institute the NYAVS established an exhibit that dramatized the horrors of animal laboratories. The New York Herald, with the Hearst flair for lurid sensationalism, supported Belais. Antivivisection societies in other cities began conducting similar campaigns.(13)

Vivisectionists ridiculed the antivivisection offensive. Science magazine reported that “As antagonism to vivisection is a form of incurable insanity, those who suffer from it are wholly indifferent to argument or facts, and their delusional convictions urge them irresistibly to constant repetition of the same mad acts.” Another journal coyly opined, “We have not thought of applying such terms as sentimental and hysterical to the promoters of the movement” and concluded that the antivivisectionists were not Christians but Buddhists.(14)

Amid this fury, and at a time when neurologists were relying on animal experimentation to recoup their profession’s fortunes, Dana, writing for the Medical Record, announced that animal activists were victims of zoophil-psychosis. Dana placed this illness among the “obsessive insanities.”(15)

Dana used the terminology of the new psychology throughout the article, but it was neurology’s shopworn etiology that he was primarily employing. “Obsessive psychosis,” said Dana, “seems to be the disease of our civilization – a kind of occupation[al] psychosis of modern life.” He claimed obsessive psychosis was essentially the intensification of a condition of neurasthenia, striking “minds lacking [the] power to handle the problems of life, and to see things in their right proportion. Modern activities are too strenuous for this kind of mental organism which is meant for a life of simplicity, moderation, and restraint.”(16)

Dana’s thinking about affection for animals was guided by French psychology, which questioned the mental balance of persons whose great compassion for animals seemingly left little for humans. In Les obsessions et la psychasthinie (1903), Pierre Janet described the case of a young woman suffering from what they called la zoophilie. The psychologist determined that the woman was filled with more remorse over the death of her cat than when she lost one of her children. In Traite de pathologie mentale (1903), Gilbert Ballet noted the case of a man who fainted at the sight of sick animals, but ordered his domestics to watch public executions. Dana cited the French works approvingly as support for his theory.(17)

“To prove at once that the condition is most real,” Dana offered two case studies of zoophil-psychosis from his clinical experience. The first case involved a 35-year-old man, married, without children, who went to Dana suffering from general neurasthenic symptoms. Business and family troubles had left him fatigued and suffering from headaches, and turned his concern for horses into an obsession.

His concern for horses, originally a natural and humane one, grew on

him as his health failed; so that he finally gave up keeping or using

them, because their possible discomforts worried him so much. A

little trouble with his horse would keep him awake at nights. He

came to the city, but now the horses of other people bothered him. it

gave him real suffering to see a horse checked up, or whipped, or

docked, or driven fast. At last he could not travel about in the city

with any comfort.

Consultation with Dana cured this man.

He would discuss his feelings with great candor, and recognized that

it was an unnatural and unreasonable state of mind. But he could not

shake it off. It was his only morbid psychosis, and in every other line

he was an intelligent and cheerful sort of person. In the course of two

or three years he got stronger and better, and finally to a large extent

mastered his morbid worry.(18)

In the second case, Dana found a woman’s obsession more severe.

A lady about 40 years old, married but childless and not desirous of

children, lived with her husband and sister in a quiet suburb…. Her

interest in life … was mostly in sick cats. She could not bear to have a cat

suffer. She made her home a hospital for stray cats, and the house was

always full of them. If she heard a |meowing’ at night she was unhappy

and would wake her husband and make him go out and catch

the animal, if he could, and bring it home. The man’s life was made

utterly wretched by this condition of affairs, and I was consulted.

The patient herself was a woman in good general health, fairly intelligent,

but unsocial, unsexual, and interested only in [cats]….

[S]he was of a very jealous and exacting disposition, ruling the situation

by her selfish querulence. The cat obsession was only one phase,

though the most disturbing one, of an unstable constitution…. She

did not, like my other patient, have any ‘insight’ or appreciation of

her lack of consideration for the human side of her household, or of

the real folly of her point of view… She naturally belonged to some

kind of zoophilic society… This patient had a sister living with her

who had been insane twice, but was now well. She was, if possible, a

little more affected by the cat-love than my patient. It would be

difficult to imagine a more morbid household.

Dana had less sympathy for this patient than for her “wretched” husband.(19)

Although Dana cured the man in the first case with several years’ effort, in the second case Dana declined to undertake any treatment. For the woman, Dana recommended surgery rather than therapy: “She was advised [to seek] treatment by a gynecologist, for there was some absence or perversion of instinct in her case.” Later in the article, Dana’s poor opinion of women became clear when he wrote that concern for animals was a form of female laziness, it being “much easier to pet a dog or nurse a kitten” than to “nurse the sick, provide thoughtfully for the poor, or keep watch over the temper and make a household comfortable.”(20)

Dana summed up by arguing that because animals in the modern world were the beneficiaries of an “enormous advance” in concern for their welfare, the obsessions manifested in zoophil-psychosis were necessarily blown out of proportion. Invoking a standard vivisectionist refrain, Dana claimed that zoophilists cared nothing for human suffering, only animal suffering. He ominously warned that zoophil-psychosis could lead to “the development of more psychopathic states.” The “enormous mass” of obsessive concern for “suppositious suffering” could result in a psychotic concern for plants.(21)

Vivisectionists applauded Dana’s discovery of zoophil-psychosis. “Passion for Animals Really a Disease,” the New York Times announced in the summer of 1909. An editor wrote that he was pleased with Dana’s “particularly able article…. We saw the coolness and skill with which the doctor’s sharp knife uncovered and held up to view one intimate organ after another of the zoophilic mind and showed just what is the matter with it.” The newspaper was especially gratified that Dana pointed out how little antivivisectionists supposedly cared for human suffering. “This is because animals make a small and strictly limited demand for affection and care, and therefore are favorite objects of those with little to bestow.” This, concluded the New York Times, was the “whole secret of the antivivisectionist cult.”(22)

“Zoophil-psychosis” became a standard charge levied against the antivivisectionists as the conflict over the practice continued to rage. When the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress convened in London in the autumn of 1909, the New York Times cited Dana as the authority for the claim that the delegates possessed a “preposterous love of pet animals – dogs, cats, and horses – pushed to the verge of insanity.” The gender of a majority of the delegates prompted the observation that “women, especially, are susceptible to the affliction.” Commenting on the visit of the British antivivisectionist Stephen Coleridge to America in 1910, the New York Times editorialized, “They are a queer people – the antivivisectionists. Unhappy victims of what Dr. Dana called the zoophil-neurosis, their love of animals seems to involve an actual hatred of human beings.” Diana Belais’ antivivisection exhibit appeared at the state fair in Syracuse in the summer of 1910, provoking the Medical Record to cry, “These people are afflicted with the mental disease which the alienists [psychiatrists] diagnose as zoophil-psychosis.” They consist of “women who coddle their pets and love them more than babies.”(23)

In 1911, a bill to establish a commission of inquiry into the practice of vivisection came before the New York legislature. A physician argued that the element “suffering from zoophil-psychosis rises to the top in all vivisection questions,” and he diagnosed Belais as sorely afflicted. He continued, Zoopsys are largely people without children or serious occupation in life” and consequently possessed of neurotic habits. When an English professor from Wellesley College argued that vivisection was a moral issue over which the medical profession should not be sole arbiters, she met with a derisive reply from one of Dana’s colleagues at the Cornell Medical College.

It is a singular coincidence, of great interest, both from the physiological

and the psychological point of view, that few of the anti-vivisectionists

have any children. The zoophil-psychosis, as Dr. Dana terms

the abnormal love for animals, it would seem comes on as a rule after

the usual age of parenthood and in many instances can be explained as

replacing the normal |psychosis’ which we call maternal love.

By 1914, the charge of zoophil-psychosis had so often been repeated that physiologist Frederic S. Lee could matter-of-factly testify before the New York legislature that “the antivivisection mania [is] recognized as a welldeveloped form of mental disease.”(24)

The charge of zoophil-psychosis anchored the concluding chapter of the 1910 work that served as the vivisectionists’ handbook, The Conquest of Disease through Animal Experimentation by physician James P. Warbasse. The general manager of the Rockefeller Institute thought the book so useful that he urged its re-publication “in a dieaper form for wholesale distribution.” Summarizing Dana, Warbasse wrote, “The neurologists have studied and described a disease condition, which has been designated by the name, zoophilic psychosis, in which there is an inordinate and exaggerated sympathy for the lower animals often associated with the delusion that they are persecuted by man.” He concluded that such people filled the ranks of the antivivisectionists “and kindred cults.” Warbasse also included the argument of a German scientist that there were two kinds of women – the “mother-type” and the “prostitute-type.” He put those who were fond of petting and caressing animals under the latter heading.(25)

Defenders of animal experimentation continued to employ the concept of zoophil-psychosis during the conflicts of the late 1910s through the early 1920s. The charge was so commonplace that critics of the antivivisectionists applied the labels “victims of the zoophil-psychosis,” “unfortunate victims of the zoophil-psychosis,” and “unfortunate victims of a form of perversion with which alienists and psychiatrists long have been familiar” to their foes without further elaboration.(26)

Vivisectionists around the country applauded Ernest Harold Baynes when he decried the “psychotic” antivivisectionists during a lecture tour in 1921-22. Baynes was a noted nature writer who had extolled animal experimentation in the July 1921 issue of Woman’s Home Companion. He then toured under vivisectionist auspices. Well versed in the provivisection argument, Baynes repeatedly used the charge of zoophil-psychosis. As a member of one audience noted, “the main tenor of his remarks was that persons who believed in anti-vivisection were mentally psychopathic.”(27)

Antivivisectionists refused to be baited by Dana’s harsh characterization. In June 1909, the Journal of Zoophily, the organ of the AAVS, listed twelve arguments from the vivisectionist side as to “why vivisection is right,” each manifestly flimsy. The charge of zoophil-psychosis made the list. In a 1918 article in the New York Evening Mail, a writer humorously told the story of kindly Mrs. Heminway, who “had always been looked on as sane by her friends and neighbors and relatives, but one day in the fall of the year she was seized by this new discovery of Dr. Charles L. Dana, called zoophil-psychosis, and the purpose of this article is simply to show how quickly this dread disease can seize you.” In 1911, a conference held by the ASPCA and representatives of the medical profession broke down when the latter refused to agree to any regulation of vivisection. Afterward, Henry Bergh, Jr., the nephew and namesake of the founder of the ASPCA, promised, “We may be afflicted with the ‘sick excesses of zoophil-psychosis,’ but … we are in this fight to stay and it has only just begun.”(28)

Despite their aplomb, the antivivisectionists’ efforts were defeated in every legislature, overwhelmed by the arguments, superior organization, and influence of the medical community. By 1925, the early antivivisection movement had little life left, and as conflict subsided, the much-used charge of zoophil-psychosis fell into disuse. However, it was not completely forgotten. As late as 1966, amid the controversy over the passage of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, at least one vivisection advocate tried to get some mileage out of the zoophil-psychosis accusation.(29)

In 1924, physiologist and historian Jonathan Wright argued that the antivivisection movement represented a modern link with ancient pantheistic beliefs. Science “is up against one of the greatest and most powerful tenets that have ever swayed the minds of mankind,” wrote Wright, explaining the antivivisectionist “trouble” in cultural rather than psychological terms. This “modern pantheist” interpretation of the antivivisectionists never became part of the provivisection argument. Skeptical of Wright’s thesis, the New York Times promoted the concept of zoophil-psychosis in its report on his work.(30)

The concept of zoophil-psychosis combined neurological theory with the alarm and contempt men in scientific circles felt for the antivivisection movement. Zoophil-psychosis gave clinical credentials to the vivisectionists’ charge that criticism of medical science was a product of mental disorder. It is not surprising, then, that vivisectionists took little interest in Wright’s analysis, which did not explain the antivivisectionist agitation in terms of mental breakdown. Dana claimed antivivisection sentiment sprang from flaws of the female mind and a mental malfunction in some males. For the vivisectionists of Dana’s day, his diagnosis was the preferred way to characterize the opposition.

(1) Charles L. Dana, “The Zoophil-Psychosis: A Modern Malady,” Medical Record 75 (6 March 1909): 381-83. (2) Susan E. Lederer, “The Controversy over Animal Experimentation in America, 1880-1914,” in Vivisection in Historical Perspective, ed. Nicolaas A. Rupke (London, 1987), 236-58. (3) For a representative statement of the antivivisection view, see Caroline E. White, “Is Vivisection Morally Justifiable?” Journal of Zoophily 4 (May 1895): 55-57. (4) William J. Robinson, “The Malice and Vindictiveness of the Antivivisectionists,” Medical Record 51 (29 May 1897): 791. (5) “Antivivisection Hysteria,” Scientific American 109 (27 December 1913): 486; “The Antivivisectionists,” Science 33 (17 March 1911): 429-30; E. C. Levy to William W. Keen, 2 February 1900, William W. Keen Papers, uncataloged box, College of Physicians of Philadelphia; Saul Benison, A. Clifford Barger, and Elin L. Wolfe, Walter B. Cannon: The Life and Times of a Young Scientist (Cambridge, Mass., 1987),180. (6) New York Times, 13 December 1935, 25; National Cyclopedia of American Biography, (New York, 1906),13:528. (7) John S. Haller and Robin M. Haller, The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America (Urbana, Ill., 1974), chap. 1, “The Nervous Century”; Barbara Sicherman, “The Uses of a Diagnosis: Doctors, Patients, and Neurasthenia,” in Sickness and Health in America, ed. Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers (Madison, Wis., 1978), 25-38; Francis G. Gosling, Before Freud: Neurasthenia and the American Medical Community, 1870-1910 (Urbana, 1987). (8) Gosling, Before Freud, 81; Charles L. Dana, Text-Book of Nervous Diseases, 6th ed. (New York, 1904),628-29. (9) On misogyny in late nineteenth-century science, see Cynthia E. Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge, Mass., 1989). On women and neurasthenia, see Haller and Haller, Physician and Sexuality; Gosling, Before Freud, 55-63, 97-100. (10) Gosling, Before Freud, 164-65. (11) Nathan G. Hale, Jr., Freud and the Americans (New York, 1971), 81, 88, 299, 450. (12) Charles L. Dana, The Service of Animal Experimentation to the Knowledge and Treatment of Nervous Diseases (n.p., 1909). A copy of this unpaginated, four-page tract can be found in the William H. Welch Papers, box 126, Alan Mason Chesney Archives, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. (13) These events can be followed in the New York Times and the Journal of Zoophily. See also George W. Corner, A History of the Rockefeller Institute. 1901-1953, Origins and Growth (New York, 1964). (14) “Ammunition against the Anti-Vivisectionists,” Science 29 (26 February 1909): 342; “The Crusade against Vivisection and the Crusade against Rats,” Harper’s Weekly 52 (March 1908):6. (15) Dana, “Zoophil-Psychosis,” 381. (16) lbid., 381. (17) lbid., 381. (18) lbid., 381-82. (19) lbid., 382. (20) Ibid., 382, 383. (21) lbid. (22) New York Times, 8 March 1909, 11; ibid., 9 March 1909,8. (23) New York Times, 11 July 1909, 6; ibid., 10 February 1910, 6; Medical Record 78 (24 September 1910): 538. (24) New York Times, 28 January 1911, 10; ibid., 10 February 1911, 8; ibid., 25 February 1914,1. (25) Jerome D. Greene to Walter B. Cannon, 21 February 1911, Rockefeller University Archives, RG 199.11 (single folder), Rockefeller Archive Center; James P. Warbasse, The Control of Disease through Animal Experimentation (New York, 1910),158-61. (26) New York Times, 31 December 1917,6; ibid., 23 April 1919,16; ibid., 13 August 1921,8. (27) Ernest Harold Baynes, “The Truth about Vivisection,” Woman’s Home Companion 48 July 1921):9-10; clipping from the Boston Sunday Herald, undated, Rockefeller University Archives, RG 600-1, box 6, folder 1; clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 January 1922, 1920s scrapbook, American Anti-Vivisection Society; The Starry Cross (successor to the Journal of Zoophily) 31 (April 1922): 59-60. (28) Journal of Zoophily 18 (June 1909): 60; New York Evening Mail quoted in Journal of Zoophily 27 (June 1918): 91; New York Times, 25 January 1911, 8. (29) Clarence Dennis,” America’s Littlewood Crisis: The Sentimental Threat to Animal Research,” Surgery 60 (October 1966): 832. (30) Jonathan Wright, “Medicine and Philosophy in Virgil,” Medical Journal and Record 119 (2 April 1924): 360-62; New York Times, 3 April 1924, 20.

Charles Buettinger is associate professor of history at Jacksonville University Florida.

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