A Brief Overview of the History of Animal Testing & Experimentation

The use of animals in scientific research has a surprisingly long history, dating back to the fourth century BCE – Aristotle is one of the first known to have performed experiments on living animals. In the second century a Roman physician named Galen dissected goats and pigs, a practice which later earned him the title “the father of vivisection.”

Early Animal Research

The first observations of significance to modern science were made in the 1600s, when William Harvey used animals to observe and describe the blood circulatory system. In the following century, Stephen Hales used a horse to demonstrate the measurement of blood pressure, and Antoine Lavoisier used a calorimeter and a guinea pig to demonstrate that respiration was a type of combustion.

In the early nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur infected sheep with anthrax, thus proving the germ theory of medicine – an important advancement which proved once and for all that infections did not arise spontaneously.

A classic animal experiment, conducted by Ivan Pavlov, was carried out in the 1890s. Pavlov trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, by teaching them to associate the sound with food.

Advances Made through Animal Experimentation

Many advances in medical research could not have been made without the use of animals in some way, and many have been of enormous benefit to humanity.

  • In the late nineteenth century Emil von Behring isolated diphtheria toxin and used a mixture of toxin and anti-toxin to protect guinea pigs from developing the disease. Around fifteen years later he had developed a vaccine which could be used in humans.
  • In the 1920s, experiments in dogs allowed Frederick Banting to determine the functions of the pancreas in producing insulin. Prior to this discovery, a diagnosis of diabetes was more or less a death sentence.
  • In the 1940s and 1950s, a group of researchers used streptomycin to cure tuberculosis in guinea pigs. These experiments were followed by human trials which demonstrated that antibiotics could halt and even reverse the spread of the disease.
  • Jonas Salk used Rhesus monkeys to isolate the polio virus and use the isolates to create the Salk vaccine, which markedly reduced the incidence of polio in the U.S. Later, Albert Sabin made a live vaccine by infecting animal hosts to “grow” the virus. By 1965, polio had been virtually eradicated in the U.S.
  • The first non-volatile anesthetics were developed in the 1950s using a range of mammals as test subjects.
  • Heart valve replacement surgery was pioneered by Albert Starr in 1960.
  • Antibiotic treatments for leprosy were developed in armadillos.
  • Primates have been used extensively for AIDS research, with anti-viral and prophylactic treatments evaluated in several types of monkeys.

This post is part of the series: Animal Experimentation

A six-part series which examines practical and ethical issues involved in the use of animals for scientific research.
  1. An Introduction to the Use of Animal Experimentation in Medical Science
  2. A History of How Scientists Used Animal Testing to Make Medical Advances
  3. Animal Experimentation: Uses of Animals in Research
  4. Animal Experimentation: Practical and Ethical Issues
  5. Animal Experimentation: Alternatives to the Use of Animals in Research
  6. Animal Experimentation: Regulations for the Use of Animals in Research