Medical Research & Animal Genocide In Colonial India

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Animals were tortured for medical research; their teeth, nails, eye muscles and anus snipped under chloroform.

When you hear the story of modern anaesthesia, the details of its rise can gloss over certain points – such as that of animal genocide. Chloroform, the go to anaesthesia of the 1800s and early twentieth-century, was billed as a wonder drug after its invention in 1847. But the popular narrative around it talks, of doctors who self-administered the chemical; of pregnant women saved the pain of labour – but not of the hundreds of dogs that died in colonial India to convince the world that chloroform was safe.

In 1889, the medical community was engaged in a debate about whether chloroform killed you by paralysing your heart, or by paralysing your respiration. To answer this, a team of doctors in the princely state of Hyderabad set up the Hyderabad Chloroform Commission in 1888. It was led by Edward Lawrie of the Indian Medical Service, then the resident physician of the Nizam’s state. The experiment involved 141 animals. Edward’s findings were conclusive.

I have killed scores of dogs with chloroform … and I have never seen syncope or failure of the heart’s action produced by it.

The medical journal, Lancet, was uncomfortable that Edward’s research disagreed with that of many prominent physicians in Europe. In a published article, they wrote:

We should require more than the scanty statements of experiments performed upon dogs – notoriously non-susceptible to chloroform syncope – before we could accept the conclusions of the Hyderabad Commission…

Edward disagreed.  In his letter to the Lancet, he wrote of chloroform that, “the public dread its administration much more than they dread surgical operations, and fainting from mere fright in the early stages of inhalation is no less intelligible that it is easy to prevent in case where it is likely to occur by a preliminary dose of alcohol.”

His next course of action was to increase the scale of his experiments. He roped the Nizam into offering £1000 to the Lancet to see if they would send an expert to observe the next wave of animal testing. The Second Hyderabad Commission of 1889 was born. Between October 23 and December 18, 500 animals were deliberately killed to test how chloroform could kill a living being. The experiment also involved 54 human subjects – none of whom died.

To test the effectiveness of the anaesthesia on animals, they were subject to outright torture. The experiments included “…extractions of teeth, evulsion of nails, a section of the muscles of the eye, snipping off the skin of the anus… In many cases, the operation was performed when the animal was merely stupefied by the chloroform and not fully insensible.”

Lancet responded to the Commission, saying:

The experiments of the Second Hyderabad Commission have supplied us with a mass of experimental data such as never been obtained before, and is not likely to be obtained again, at least for many years.

Such acts would have been difficult to perform in Britain – which had passed the Cruelty to Animals Act requiring licensing for animal experimentation. India already had an Act – but it didn’t cover research experiments.

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Very little has been studied about the animal experimentation during colonial rule in India. Pratik Chakrabarti’s paper “Beasts Of Burden: Animals And Laboratory Research In Colonial India,” presents one of the only deep insights into the place and position of animals in the colonising mission.

Colonial medical science in the late nineteenth century led to revolutions in epidemiology. But these revolutions came at a cost – a single Semple vaccine from a Pasteur institute required six thousand rabbits each year to make. The Pasteur research institutes faced opposition in Europe – where a movement against the cruel treatment of animals accompanied industrialisation – but in colonial India, anything went.Colesworthy Grant, the English artist and painter championed the cause of cruelty against animals. He was driven to action after seeing the state of the animals on the street. And, the first society for animal welfare was started in Kolkata in 1861.

Colesworthy Grant, the English artist and painter championed the cause of cruelty against animals. He was driven to action after seeing the state of the animals on the street. And, the first society for animal welfare was started in Kolkata in 1861.

But concern for the animal on the street was through a colonised lens. It was fairly early, in 1869, that the Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for  Bengal was enacted. It was later amended to cover the whole country in 1890 – but this could not prevent animals from being used for medical research.

The colonialist Rudyard Kipling was surprised that there was confusion over the need for such an act in India. He wrote “Beast and Man in India” as a response. He sought to make a point that despite many religious doctrines abhorring the unnecessary taking of life, the life of an animal in India was rife with many cruelties and that it was the Indian people who were inherently cruel thereof.

He was not far from the mark when it comes to the everyday hypocrisies of cow-worship when contrasted with the lives cows face in dairy farms or on the streets. But it does not justify the genocide of animals in the name of medical science.

In an article published in the British Medical Journal in 1933 titled “What Tropical Medicine Owes to Animal Experiments”, Leonard Rogers argues that advancements in testing snake anti-venom and cholera vaccinations in India owed their success to trials conducted on cats and pigeons.

The reduction of the sufferings of animals as a class was many thousand times greater than any suffering inflicted on them in the discovery and preparation of these substances.

Today, laws on animal testing are stricter in India – on paper. Yet, the effective lack of implementation is cause for concern. On paper, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies can no longer test their drugs, soaps and shampoos on animals. Yet, rescue stories of dogs and other animals used for experimentation are just a click away. Animals are used as bait for ‘research’, their ethics are justified in the name of ‘greater common good for human beings’.

It’s a larger argument, that mankind’s upliftment must come at the cost of all else, that is really debated here. We may have gotten this far by abusing and skinning our fellow living beings, forcibly taking their milk, killing them for meat, and subjecting them to experiments that we don’t subject ourselves to. But when we take a life-saving medicine, we should also remember the genocide against thousands of animals that were killed to manufacture it. The medicines and cosmetics we use are a constant reminder of human cruelty towards animals.

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