Use in Science  > Medical Discoveries:


By Andy Breslin -- AAVS Outreach Coordinator -- AV Magazine, Nov-Dec 1995


Proponents of vivisection and the status quo of the scientific community often maintain that our knowledge of nature of health and illness is dependent upon the deliberate infliction of disease and injury upon healthy animals. Indeed, they are almost forced to make this claim, for how else could they attempt to justify such an abhorrent practice? They could not succeed in gaining the public's support for such immense cruelty if they had not so thoroughly gained acceptance of infamous vivisector Claude Bernard's preposterous assertion that "...we can save living beings from death only after sacrificing others."


Though this statement has become a cornerstone of modern science, it is not supported by a shred of evidence. The history of medicine is replete with examples of knowledge freely offering itself to the human mind, like a beautiful piece of fruit waiting to be picked.


About a century ago, a man by the name of Phineas Gage had the great misfortune to be involved in a bizarre accident, ironically of great benefit to the world of medical science. An explosion drove metal pipe through Mr. Gage's skull and brain, but he survived, miraculously, and seemed to have suffered no serious injury. However, it soon became apparent that Phineas was not the same man as he was before. His personality changed dramatically, and he became irritable, moody and sullen. Physicians were able to determine from this evidence the correlation between the region of the human brain which had been injured and human personality.


Another interesting accident greatly advancing our medical knowledge was the case of Alexis St. Martin, a young Canadian man who received a gunshot wound to the abdomen. William Beaumont, an American surgeon, treated Mr. St Martin's injury. The patient recovered well from the injury, but was left with a gastric fistula (a hole which opened directly into his stomach). Beaumont was able to directly sample the gastric juices of his patient's stomach. For over two years, Beaumont observed the digestion process in St. Martin, and essentially laid the entire foundation of our knowledge of gastric digestion. This he did without the deliberate injury of anyone, human or otherwise, but by learning from what was available to him.


It is strange to think of much good coming from the horrors of war, but indeed much has been learned during these unfortunate episodes in history. Obviously, there have been numerous medical developments arising from attempts to treat injuries. What is more interesting, and rather paradoxical, are the advances made from observing possibly beneficial effects from the horrible weapons of war.


Soldiers who had been exposed to the deadly chemical known as mustard gas during WWI were observed to have dramatically reduced levels of white blood cells. This led medical scientists to investigate the possibility of using this compound for treatment of cancers characterized by uncontrolled growth of white blood cells (leukemia and lymphoma). The compound turned out to be too toxic for use, but in 1943, during WWII, German pilots bombed a U.S. supply of nitrogen mustard (which differed from the sulfur mustard which had been previous studied). Clinical observations of the victims exposed to nitrogen mustard suggested immense therapeutic potential against the aforementioned types of cancer, and it has since been one of the most widely used and successful anti-cancer drugs. Related drugs, such as cyclophos-phamide, have also been successfully used against cancer.


Another ironic leap forward in the world of health and medicine resulting from the world at war was the overwhelming clinical evidence of the benefits of a vegetarian diet. During WWI, Denmark had been blockaded from all imports by allied forces. The Danish government decided that food resources had to be stretched to the limit, so of course they couldn't waste grain by feeding it to animals (who would later be consumed), but rather fed it directly to people -- essentially mandating a vegetarian diet for three million people. After the war, scientists were shocked to discover that the death rate in Copenhagen during the time of food restrictions was the lowest in recorded history! Similarly, in WWII, the population of Norway was essentially forced to adopt a vegetarian diet with a corresponding drastic reduction in circulatory disease-related deaths. The death rate climbed back to its former higher levels after the war, when the Norwegian citizenry again opted for a meat-centered diet.


Prior to the development of modern anesthetics, surgery was an excruciatingly painful process. Surgeons were once valued more for the speed with which they could perform operations than any other skill! One of the first widely used anesthetics, which ushered in the new era of painless surgery, was not a product of animal research laboratories, but rather a result of the decadent indulgences of certain privileged 19th century party-goers! The chemical compound nitrous oxide was one of the most important advances in the history of anesthesia, though when it was first discovered its initial application was as a popular recreational drug among the members of the upper class. Parties centered around the inhalation of nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas," were common. At these bacchanals it was discovered that in addition to the initial euphoric effects producing giddiness and laughter, increased doses led to a deep unconsciousness, and this effect was eventually exploited in the operating room. Who would have predicted that from such debauchery such a useful medical tool would emerge?


Some of the most dramatic advances in medicine have come from the serendipitous discoveries of observant and resourceful scientists in completely different fields. Consider the development of the X-ray, which, when used responsibly, is certainly one of the most powerful diagnostic tools in existence. In 1895, Wilhelm Konrad Rontgen, a physicist, was conducting experiments using cathode ray tubes when he unwittingly discovered the existence of what we now know as X-rays. In his continued study of these mysterious rays, Rontgen discovered that certain substances would block these rays, but that they would pass easily through others. He held a small piece of lead between the source of the rays and a photographic plate, and upon development of the film discovered that not only had the lead blocked the rays, but so had the bones in his hand! Thus the diagnostic science of radiology was born.


Of course, no discussion of accidental advances in medicine would be complete without mention of penicillin. In 1928, Alexander Fleming had been growing a culture of bacteria in his laboratory at St. Mary's hospital in London. He left this culture growing while he was absent from the lab for three weeks (normally very unprofessional behavior indeed!). The culture somehow became contaminated with spores of a strange mold, Penicillium notarum. This mold thrives at low temperatures, and, fortunately, the room was unheated during Fleming's absence. The mold was able to flourish. The weather then turned warmer, curtailing growth of the mold, but stimulating the growth of the heat-loving bacteria -- except, that is, in the regions where the mold had grown. Upon his return, Fleming discovered that in the areas surrounding mold growth the bacteria had all been killed. He correctly concluded that the mold had produced an anti-bacterial substance. It was years before Fleming's discovery made an impact. The first attempts to apply his "miracle drug" keynote the role of chance as well as the pitfalls of animal experimentation.


Having developed methods to purify the anti-bacterial substance accidentally discovered by Fleming, scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain wished to test the drug. Standard procedure would have been to deliberately infect guinea pigs with a virulent bacterium and administer the drug to see if it had an effect. As readers of the AV Magazine may well be aware, penicillin is fatal to guinea pigs in minute doses, and such experiments would have been a dismal failure, in all likelihood curtailing further development of the drug, as Florey himself admitted: "Mice were tried in the initial toxicity tests...What a lucky chance it was... If we had used guinea pigs exclusively we should have said that penicillin was toxic, and we probably should not have proceeded to try to overcome the difficulties..." It is only by luck that mice and human beings happen to respond similarly to this drug.


Medical advances are not dependent upon the "sacrifice" of animals, but they rather are dependent upon the flexible and open-minded attitudes of scientists and the scientific community. In a world where the majority of ailments are preventable, but not prevented, it is clear that progress is not so much contingent upon the generation of data, but on the broad-minded application of the data which we have. For the sake of all, we can only hope that the scientists of today will take a lesson from the past.