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History of Animal Testing

The Fascinating History of Animal Testing You Should Read About

Not many people must be aware of this, but the history of animal testing can be traced back to 4th century BCE, i.e., during the times of Aristotle. Its journey to become a multimillion dollar industry that it is today, has been long, interesting, and controversial.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Apr 23, 2018
Fast Fact

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which makes it mandatory for companies to test their products on animals, was passed in 1938.

One of the most controversial topics in the world today, animal testing (also known as animal experimentation or animal research) refers to the practice of using animals in the field of scientific research. Though the practice of using animals to learn about humans became popular with the theory of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin in 1859, documented evidence suggests that it began way back in 4th century BCE, when renowned Athenian philosopher, Aristotle began using living animals for experiments.
Aristotle and Erasistratus
Aristotle is considered one of the earliest natural historians of the world. His research has been documented in the form of writings titled History of Animals, Generation of Animals, and Parts of Animals. Though not all, a significant number of observations and interpretations that were documented by him were true.
While Aristotle carried out his experiments on animals in the 4th century BCE, the 3rd century BCE was marked by the works of Greek anatomist, Erasistratus. It was Erasistratus who―on the basis of his research on animals―asserted that spleen and bile were of no use to animals.
Galen: Father of Vivisection
Next came Aelius Galenus (also known as Galen of Pergamon), a Roman physician, surgeon, and philosopher of Greek ethnic origin. His field of interest was human anatomy, but since the Roman law didn't permit dissection of human bodies in the 2nd century BCE, he resorted to dissection of animals―both, living and dead―for his anatomical studies.
Galen most often used pigs and primates for his research work. As animal anatomy resembled human anatomy to a certain extent, most of his observations turned out to be true. It was his practice of performing experiments on live animals that earned him the title 'Father of Vivisection'.
Testing Surgical Procedures on Animals
During the 12th century, Ibn Zuhr, the Arabic physician, went a step ahead and resorted to animal testing to test scientific procedures before using the same on humans. It was Zuhr who first carried out dissection and postmortem autopsy on humans other than animals. He practiced surgical procedures by experimenting them on a goat.
In course of time, the use of animals in the field of research became even more common, reaching its peak by 18th and 19th century. The same continues even today with an estimated hundred million animals being used in animal testing every year in the United States alone.
Products Testing on Animals
The history of products testing on animals can be traced back to 1933, wherein an untowardly incident of a woman losing her eyesight after applying mascara forced the federal government to opt for the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The Act, which was passed by the federal government in 1938, made it mandatory for companies to test their products on animals before making them available in the market. Of the numerous testing measures used on animals, the two most common measures were ...
  • Draize Test: In this test, a drop of the substance that was to be tested was dropped in the animal's eye and the observations were recorded.
  • LD50 Test: A group of animals was fed a particular substance until half of the animals in the group died.
These and other similar product testing procedures are in use even today. That, however, doesn't mean that a particular product which didn't affect animals will not affect humans. There have been quite a few disasters in the past. An example of this will be the thalidomide tragedy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where the administration of a so-called a 'wonder drug' for insomnia led to more than 10,000 children being born without limbs across 46 countries. Approximately 92 percent of experimental drugs that are safe for animals fail in human trials.
Animal Testing in Other Fields
In spite of being costly, time-consuming, and somewhat unreliable as shown by cases like the thalidomide tragedy, the practice began spreading from the field of medicine to other fields over the course of time.
  • In 1890s, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, demonstrated 'classical conditioning' in dogs.
  • In November 1957, the Soviet dog, Laika became the first animal to go into the outer space.
  • In 1996, the first mammal was successfully cloned in the form of Dolly the sheep.
In the field of medicine, animal-based research has thrown up cures for several diseases, including cancer (lung cancer and breast cancer), tuberculosis, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, and asthma. Even penicillin and insulin are products of animal-based research. Alongside these milestones also came new laws and controversies.
Animal Testing Laws and Criticism
In 1876, the first law specifically directed at regulation of animal testing, the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 came into existence in Europe. In contrast, in the United States, the first law on animal rights, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was passed by the federal government only in 1966. Other than the general guidelines for the treatment of animals, it also laid specific guidelines for exhibition and transport of animals. More importantly, it was the first and the only law in the history of animal testing in the US which regulated the use of animals in research.
Even though the AWA has been amended on different occasions, it hasn't gone down well with animal rights activists who argue that it stills falls short of the required standard. Though the use of animals for research continues on a large scale, criticism by animal welfare groups, like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), has forced scientists to find alternatives to this practice.
In April 2013, the Harvard Medical School announced that the Harvard primate research center will be 'largely shut down' by 2015. This came after the research facility was fined USD 24,000 by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for 11 violations of animal welfare rules between February 2011 and July 2012. In a sense, Harvard has showed the world the way forward.

While the statistical evidence proves that the use of animals in research labs has been on a decline, animal rights activists are of the opinion that it is premature to say anything concrete as of now. It is difficult to collect reliable data on animals used in laboratories with no monitoring authority to keep a check on agencies which resort to this practice. While estimates put the number of animals used in scientific research every year in the United States at a hundred million, the actual figure is expected to be well beyond that.