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The death of one dog caused riots and shocked a nation

As far as we know, this dog is still alive. (Photo: Rishi Tyagi/EyeEm/Getty)
As far as we know, this dog is still alive. (Photo: Rishi Tyagi/EyeEm/Getty)

With more than 5.4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or looking for scientific proof that every dog has its day. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,419,009-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Brown Dog Affair

What it’s about: On the surface, an uproar over the death of a dog. But go a bit deeper, and you’ll find a years-long scandal that we can’t possibly describe better than Wikipedia does: “It involved the infiltration by Swedish feminists of University of London medical lectures, pitched battles between medical students and the police, police protection for the statue of a dog, a libel trial at the Royal Courts Of Justice, and the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate the use of animals in experiments.”

Strangest fact: The “pitched battle” described above was in fact a riot in which a thousand medical students faced off against cops, trade unionists, and suffragettes. The cause of all this mayhem? In 1903, Sir William Bayliss, a professor of physiology at University College London, vivisected a brown terrier before an audience of 60 med students. Bayliss and his assistants assured the public the dog had been properly anesthetized; protesters insisted it had not, and insisted the experiment had been not just cruel, but illegally so. The university’s medical community rallied behind Bayliss, as Britain’s growing anti-vivisection movement made him a target for protest.

Biggest controversy: As the dog in question was already deceased, the focal point of the ongoing fight over its death was a statue, erected a full three years later by England’s anti-vivisection movement. A plaque reading, “Men and women of England, how long shall these Things be?” angered medical students, and was described by The New York Times as “hysterical language customary of anti-vivisectionists.” The statue prompted so much vandalism that at one point the police stood guard 24/7. In December 1907—nearly five years after the original incident—the aforementioned riot took place, and a few months later, the city council had the statue melted down despite public outcry. Even then, the four workers sent to remove the statue were sent at night, and were accompanied by 120 police officers.

Ernest Starling (Photo: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images)

Thing we were happiest to learn: The dog’s death did help advance medical science. Bayliss, alongside his brother-in-law, Ernest Starling, helped prove the existence of hormones with these experiments. Previous medical science had believed that pancreatic secretions were caused by the nervous system; by examining the pancreas of dogs, the scientists determined that it was in fact a chemical that spurred the pancreas to action, and only a tiny amount was enough to stimulate an organ to act. The two had previously discovered peristalsis by experimenting on dogs.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Whatever the benefits to science, at the end of the day, Starling was still cutting up and killing dogs. Among the medical students who witnessed the Brown Dog incident were Lizzy Lind Af Hageby and Leisa Katherine Schartau, the Swedish feminists of the introduction. In 1900, the two had visited the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and were shocked by the experiments done there on animals. They founded the Anti-Vivisection Society of Sweden, and enrolled in the London School Of Medicine For Women in order to have the medical knowledge necessary to back up their campaign.

As part of their education, they witnessed Bayliss’ vivisection and were horrified. Besides finding the practice itself repugnant, they both witnessed the dog move in a way that suggested it was still conscious. Others in attendance said the dog had merely twitched involuntarily. Starling insisted the dog had been anaesthetized with morphine, chloroform, and ether. The Swedes reported back to the secretary of Britain’s Anti-Vivisection Society, Stephen Coleridge (great-grandson of the poet), who publicly accused Starling of animal cruelty, saying, “If this is not torture… tell us in Heaven’s name what torture is.”

Bayliss sued for libel and won. He admitted to breaking the law by using the same dog in two separate experiments, but said he only did so to spare a second dog. And the judge chastised Coleridge for not corroborating the Swedes’ statements. But the anti-vivisection movement gained enough sympathy that the government convened a Commission on Vivisection, which increased regulation of the practice.

Nicola Hicks’ sculpture now stands in Battersea Park, near the site of the original. (Wikipedia/Tagishsimon)

Also noteworthy: In 1985, after a 75-year absence, the statue of the Brown Dog was restored. The still-active National Anti-Vivisection Society commissioned a new sculpture, by Nicola Hicks, which has been criticized by some because the dog is in a less defiant position. Nonetheless, it remains to this day as a memorial for every animal who has died for science.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One of vivisection’s most high-profile opponents was Mark Twain. In 1903, he wrote a short story (later expanded into a book), A Dog’s Tale, from the point of view of a household pet whose puppy is experimented on by its owner. While Twain is best known for his groundbreaking novels, he was also a prolific essayist and short story writers, and his Wikipedia page includes a full bibliography and links for most of his works.

Further Down the Wormhole: Vivisection remains a controversial form of surgery to this day. In recent years, science has struggled to make surgery less invasive, and has created diagnostic techniques using noninvasive methods such as sound. Sound is how we perceive the vibrations caused by nearly everything (although many things’ sounds are out of the range of human hearing). However, some sounds’ origins remain mysterious. (For example, the identity of the person or persons who put the bomp in the bomp-she-bomp-she-bomp may forever remain unknown.) We’ll listen to the list of unexplained sounds next week.