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In 1876, the British Parliament passed the first anti-vivisection law, the Cruelty to Animals Act. The result of public outcry against vivisection led by Frances Power Cobbe and her Victoria Street Society, the Act was passed by Parliament to regulate the use of animals in scientific research and experimentation in Great Britain. By 1883, the readers of Science, the organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), were warned that American scientists in the United States faced a similar publicity and legislation. In the face of this threat, the author advised the medical profession to “inform the laity” how and why animal experimentation was used in scientific research.[1]

While many animal welfare advocates on both sides of the Atlantic lamented the weaknesses of the Cruelty to Animals Act, the authors of Science recognized a nascent movement forming among Philadelphians in 1883. Inspired by their relationships with British leaders like Cobbe, a group of Philadelphians formed the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) in 1883 with the goal of regulating the use of animals in science and society. In the following years, however, AAVS refocused its mission, dedicating itself to the complete abolition of vivisection in the United States. Over the past 125 years, AAVS has continued to speak for the prohibition of animal experimentation, by advocating legislation, education and public awareness, and alternative research methods.

The women we recognize today as the founders of AAVS were pioneers in the world of animal welfare but not in the sphere of reform movements. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a rise in reform movements known as the Progressive Era. Inspired by the new science of sociology and cultural movements like the social gospel, middle and upper class Americans increasingly engaged in reform movements aimed at uplifting the downtrodden and improving society. Women were central to the Progressive Era reforms. In the late nineteenth century, women made great strides in reform movements like Temperance, Sunday Schools, food and drug regulation, women’s suffrage, and child-labor laws. In a world where women were supposed to be relegated to their own ‘separate sphere,’ many elite women joined reform movements where in they acted as the ‘moral compass’ of American society. Caring for the weak and voiceless in society was the focus of progressive era reforms. Animal welfare fit into this category perfectly.

Into this progressive era milieu stepped Caroline Earle White and Mary Frances Lovell—both elite women of Philadelphia inspired by their work alongside their husbands in the Pennsylvania Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA). Feeling that they had more to offer to the cause than they could within the PSPCA, White and Lovell founded an auxiliary organization—the Women’s Branch of the PSPCA (WBPSPCA), known today as the Women’s Humane Society—in 1869. Both White and Lovell believed the humane treatment of animals was a moral issue that Americans could not ignore. The WBSPCA and PSPCA focused their early activities on fighting cruelty to horses and service animals as well as humane treatment and sheltering for dogs and cats.

As the first animal experimentation laboratories opened in the 1860s and 1870s, White and Lovell realized that their efforts were also needed on this front. Inspired by the legislative success of Cobbe and the Animal Cruelty Act, White traveled to London to meet the pioneer animal advocate. In 1883, White returned to Philadelphia and called a special meeting of the WBPSPCA during which the American Anti-Vivisection Society was formed. White and Lovell were convinced that “preventing torture in the labs should be the exclusive work of a concerned organization.”[2] Though the President and other founding officers of AAVS were men, White became the Corresponding Secretary, and both she and Lovell remained the organization’s greatest advocates.

Feeding the fears of Science readers, AAVS wasted no time in pursuing its goals of anti-vivisection legislation. In 1885, AAVS proposed its first legislation. The Bill to Restrict Vivisection was defeated, but it marked the first attempt made by AAVS to seek legislation to end vivisection. In 1900, AAVS president Dr. Matthew Woods testified before the U.S. Congress in favor of the Gallinger Bill, an act to regulate vivisection, based upon the British Cruelty to Animals Act. Though the bill did not pass, the publicity surrounding Woods’ testimony encouraged many members of the medical profession to join AAVS.

The Society encouraged readers to contact their Congressmen in 1907 when AAVS successfully kept Congress from altering the 28-Hour Law, which ensured livestock would be fed, watered, and rested at least every 28 hours during transport.[3] Through the efforts of AAVS and the American Humane Association, Congress not only upheld the 28-Hour Law but also worked to enforce it. Throughout AAVS history, this interest in legislative solutions has persisted. Throughout the twentieth century, the society proposed and supported legislation to end pound seizure and regulate and restrict the use of animals in research. In recent history, AAVS called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to comply with the Animal Welfare Act by providing minimal standards of care and treatment to a wider range of animals, including over 95 percent of animals used in research—birds, mice, and rats. AAVS has also promoted student choice legislation in states around the country.

While AAVS’s early legislative attempts were not always successful, its voice got louder as the nineteenth century came to a close. To this end, in 1892, the society began publication of its first magazine, The Journal of Zoophily—printed in conjunction with the Women’s Branch of PSPCA. With education as its mission, Zoophily included news on vivisection and animal welfare issues, encouraged readers to support humane education (i.e. teaching children the importance of treating animals with kindness), and informed members about the society’s latest legislative ventures. For example, in the spring of 1905, readers learned that the society’s recently proposed bill to encourage humane education in the U.S. Congress had gained committee approval.

Meanwhile, AAVS continued in its crusade for public awareness by notifying the public on the “evils” of vivisection. In 1910, the society formed an Exhibit Committee, charged with creating a traveling exhibit displaying the instruments and practices involved in animal experimentation. Convinced that viewers could not help but be appalled by vivisection practices, AAVS opened its first exhibit in Philadelphia in 1910, and was soon sending materials to supporters around the country to display at state fairs and public gatherings. Also in 1910, AAVS and other anti-vivisection organizations reprinted an account found in the New York Herald, reporting on the use of vivisection on orphans in a Philadelphia orphanage. Citing an article in The Archives of Internal Medicine, the Herald (and later the Journal of Zoophily) reported that eyes of children at St. Vincent’s home were infected with tuberculosis, causing severe pain and even permanent blindness for some of the children.[4] Public outcry resulted, and Americans called for stricter accounting of medical research.

Raising public awareness continued to play a major role in AAVS history throughout the twentieth century. Throughout the 1950s, President Owen B. Hunt brought the AAVS message into American living rooms through his regular radio broadcasts, “Have You a Dog?,” and occasional spots on radio and television talk shows into the 1970s. In 1973, AAVS supported Congressman Les Aspin in bringing public attention to the military’s use of beagles in testing poisonous gases and other chemicals. The Department of Defense was forced to change this practice when the issue created the heaviest volume of public letters and outrage the department had ever seen. AAVS continues to raise public awareness of vivisection’s extremes through advertisements and articles in the AV Magazine.

Realizing the importance of education in changing public perceptions about vivisection, AAVS engaged in various humane education programs throughout the twentieth century. In addition to the Journal of Zoophily (which changed its name to The Starry Cross in 1922, The A-V in 1939, and later the AV Magazine), the society published pamphlets and booklets describing the horrors of vivisection, and leaflets that reminded pet owners to safeguard their animals from brokers that sold animals to laboratories. AAVS literature asked readers to consider the moral implications of torturing animals for the soul of the vivisector and for society as a whole. Early efforts included attempts to eliminate classroom dissections and demonstrations using animals, as well as legislation to encourage humane education in public schools.

In 1927, AAVS secretary Nina Halvey continued the charge for education by registering to teach humane education in schools throughout the Philadelphia area as Miss B’Kind. Over the ensuing two decades, Halvey led a children’s anti-vivisection society known as the Miss B’Kind Club, which met regularly at AAVS headquarters, and even hosted parties for children who promised to “be kind to animals now and when I grow up.”[5] In 1942, AAVS held a three-day Anti-Vivisection School in Philadelphia. Led by then AAVS President Robert R. Logan, students were treated to lectures and practical instruction on the legislative process, public speaking, and running publicity campaigns. The school was held annually for several years. This emphasis on humane education for children and adults continues to be a goal of AAVS today, as seen through the Animalearn program.

Related to the goals of strong legislation, public awareness, and humane education, AAVS has spent much of its history seeking alternatives to the use of animals in science and society. In 1936, President Robert R. Logan began a campaign against trapping by promoting the wearing of fake fur. Logan himself wore faux fur coats to exhibitions and speeches. Beginning in the 1970s, the society began to raise awareness and advocate for alternatives to animal testing by cosmetic companies. In the 1980s, AAVS began making direct grants for alternatives-driven research. The first of these was given to Dr. Joseph Leighton and his research team at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, who worked to create an alternative to the Draize test that often blinded animals in cosmetic testing. This support of alternative research methods continues today through the efforts of the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation (ARDF), an affiliate of AAVS.

Throughout the past 140 years, commitment to AAVS’s mission has driven the Society’s public outreach as well as its many programs and campaigns. With each new generation, the organization has adapted to the times, yet in a very real sense, has remained remarkably consistent in striving for its goal of ending the use of animals in science.

Written by Lily Santoro, Ph.D., AAVS Archives Intern


[1] “The Vivisection Question,” Science, Vol. 2, No. 38. (Oct. 26, 1883), pp. 551-552.

[2] Craig Buettinger, “Women and Antivivisection in Late Nineteenth Century America,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 30, No. 40 (June 1997), p. 858.

[3] Journal of Zoophily, Vol. 14, No. 3 (March 1905), p. 26; Vol.15, No. 1 (Jan. 1906), pp. 5-6.

[4] Journal of Zoophily, Vol. 19, No. 5 (May 1910), pp. 55-58. “St. Vincent’s Home Experiments,” The Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 2, No 5.

[5] “Miss B’Kind Club” pamphlets. AAVS publication, ca. 1940s. Found in AAVS Archives, Series 5, Folder 8.

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