Clutton, R. E. 2020. An Anglocentric history of anaesthetics and analgesics in the refinement of animal experiments. Animals 10(10), 1933.

Previous histories of animal experimentation, e.g., Franco (2013) have focused on ethics, the law and the personalities involved, but not on the involvement of anaesthetics or analgesics. Given that these were major subjects of (UK) Parliamentary debates on vivisection in the mid-19th century and viewed as “indisputable refinements in animal experimentation” (Russell and Burch 1959), it seemed that an analysis of their role was overdue. This commentary has, in interweaving the history of animal experimentation in the UK with the evolution of anaesthesia, attempted to: (1) clarify the evidence for Russell and Burch’s view; and (2) evaluate anaesthesia’s ongoing contribution to experimental refinement. The history that emerges reveals that the withholding or misuse of anaesthetics and, or analgesics from laboratory animals in the UK has had a profound effect on scientists and indirectly on the attitudes of the British public in general, becoming a major driver for the establishment of the anti-vivisection movement and subsequently, the Cruelty to Animals Act (1876)—the world’s first legislation for the regulation of animal experimentation. In 1902, the mismanaged anaesthetic of a dog in the Department of Physiology, University College London resulted in numerous events of public disorder initiated by medical students against the police and a political coalition of anti-vivisectionists, trade unionists, socialists, Marxists, liberals and suffragettes. The importance of anaesthesia in animal experiments was sustained over the following 150 years as small mammalian species gradually replaced dogs and cats as the principle subjects for vivisection. In discussing experimental refinement in their 1959 report, “The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique” Russell and Burch described anaesthetics as “… the greatest single advance in humane technique, (which) has at the same time been virtually indispensable for the advance of experimental biology”. Since then, the role of anaesthetics and in particular analgesics has become an unavoidable consideration whenever animal experiments are planned and conducted. This has been accompanied by a proliferation of training and educational programmes in laboratory animal anaesthesia.

Animal Type