Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, the FDA scientist who kept thalidomide off U.S. market, has died at age 101.  You may not know her name, but she played a pivotal role in drug development requirements generally and the importance of animal research specifically. In fact, it was Dr. Kelsey who continually rejected approval of thalidomide from the US market when it was causing birth defects in women across the world.

How is this an animal research issue? Thalidomide was prescribed for pregnant women, yet Dr. Kelsey noted studies had not included testing in pregnant animals.  Today, it is a requirement that Rx drugs which may be used by pregnant women include affects in pregnant animals.  However, in the early ‘60’s, this was a novel concept. Her obituary explains this in detail.

Animal rights activists often point to thalidomide as a failure of animal models to predict drug reactions in people.  And, of course, the opposite is true.  Dr. Kelsey’s handling of thalidomide in the US is one of the most important examples of the value and importance of sound animal and human (clinical trials) studies.

Thalidomide is but one example of the medical historical facts vs animal rights fiction.  Below are some examples spouted by those who will never be accused of being slowed down by the truth.

Historical Revisionism and Intellectual Dishonesty

Animal rights activists often take scientists’ statements out of context to press their thesis that animal research is irrelevant, unnecessary or harmful to medical advancement. Most of their misguided and false claims have been addressed before, but we at FBR thought it would be helpful to combine them for future reference should you choose to refute animal rights claims.

Some Historical Myths

Thalidomide was tested on animals, yet its potential for causing birth defects went undetected. Thalidomide was not tested on pregnant animals before being put on the market because such tests were not required then. Thalidomide was not available in this country because the animal test data were considered incomplete. When tested on pregnant animals, including rats, mice, rabbits, dogs and monkeys, thalidomide produced birth defects similar to that in humans.

The discovery of insulin and its role was made without the aid of animal research. This argument is put forth often by Brandon Reines, D.V.M., who has even claimed that a book by Michael Bliss called The Discovery of Insulin supports this argument. In 1989, Bliss denied Reines’ claim in the strongest possible terms, writing “Reines’ interpretation of my work is thoroughly distorted, wrong-headed and silly. I informed him of this several years ago when I first read his mindless writing on the subject. I utterly repudiate his misunderstandings of my work. The discovery of insulin in the early 1920s stands as one of the outstanding examples in medical history of the successful use of animal experimentation to improve the human condition. Insulin would not have been isolated, at Toronto or anywhere else, without the sacrifice of thousands of dogs. These dogs made it possible for millions of humans to live.”[1]

Research with the animal model of polio resulted in a misunderstanding of the mechanism of infection. Stephen Kaufman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee (MRMC) cites Dr. J.R. Paul’s book, The History of Polio, as supporting this conclusion about animal research. But Dr. Paul’s book refutes, rather than supports, Kaufman’s claim.[2] Also, there is support for animal research from the very man credited with the oral polio vaccine–Dr. Albert Sabin. In a Sept. 13, 1991 letter, Dr. Sabin wrote: “My own experience of over 60 years in biomedical research amply demonstrated that without the use of animals and of human beings, it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.”[3]

Penicillin is very toxic to guinea pigs and hamsters. It is not harmful to hamsters when given in doses (relative to body weight) comparable to that given humans. The effect of penicillin on guinea pigs is similar, but it causes death indirectly. The British Research Defence Society addressed this in detail in the RDS Newsletter, June 1991.

William Harvey formulated his theory of the circulation of blood without depending on animal studies. This claim, made by Brandon Reines, was refuted by Adrian Morrison in the April 1993 issue of The American Biology Teacher. Morrison referred to Harvey’s book, entitled Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, which in English translates to Anatomical Studies on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals. As Morrison points out, Harvey states in Chapter 1 that although he experienced early difficulties in his experiments, “Finally, using greater care every day, with very frequent experimentation, observing a variety of animals and comparing many observations, I felt my way out of this labyrinth, and gained accurate information, which I desired, of the motions and functions of the heart and arteries.”[4]

The commonly cited 1989 survey taken by the American Medical Association (AMA) showing overwhelming support for animal research among doctors is suspect because AMA members are not representative of all doctors in the country. Although the survey found that 99 percent of doctors agreed that animal experimentation had contributed to medical progress, animal rights activists try to discredit the study, implying that AMA members benefit financially from animal research and so hold a markedly different view of the practice. A little math shows how absurd this claim is: The population of the AMA survey was a random sample representative of all doctors in the U.S.; about half of those surveyed (52.1 percent) were AMA members and about half (47.9 percent) were not.[5] Since the sizes of the two groups were roughly equal, to end up with 99 percent overall supporting animal research, any difference between them would be minuscule, with both groups showing overwhelming support. Even if 100 percent of AMA members said animal research had contributed to medical progress, the non-AMA members agreeing with this would not be lower than 97.8 percent.

Eminent Scientists Supposedly Opposed to Animal Research

 Charles Darwin: Darwin’s name surfaces occasionally in antivivisectionist literature, although his support for animal research could not be more explicit. In a letter to a Swedish professor of physiology in 1881, Darwin wrote: “I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals, and I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind.”[6]

Albert Schweitzer: In a letter to the New York Times, James A. Pittman, M.D., recalled visiting Schweitzer in 1957 in French Equatorial Africa; “At that time, I asked him specifically about his views on the use of laboratory animals for biomedical research. His response (as translated from the German) was: ‘It is necessary for the advancement of medical understanding.’ There was absolutely no equivocation in his statement.”[7] For those who want Schweitzer’s written words on animal research, they may consult The Teaching of Reverence for Life (Holt, Rinehart, Winston; 1965) Passages in the book show that the distinction made by Schweitzer is the same moral distinction made by the research community: while all life is meaningful, the goal of improving human and animal health requires the sacrifice of some life in order to preserve others.

[1]Letter from Michael Bliss to Charles S. Nicoll, & Sharon M. Russell, 1989.

[2]Miller, Psychological Science, Vol 2, No. 6, November 1991.

[3]Letter from Albert Sabin to Sharon M. Russell, Sept. 13, 1991.

[4]Harvey, W. (1928). Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, with an English translation and annotations by C.D. Leake. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, p. 26.

[5]American Medical Association, Survey of Physicians’ Attitudes Toward The Use of Animals In Biomedical Research, 1989, p. 8.

[6]The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1959) Darwin, Francis, ed. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 382-383.

[7]Letter from James A. Pittman, M.D., Dean, University of Alabama School of Medicine, to the New York Times, May 26, 1990, p. 22.


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