Dog Fight: The Animal Experimentation Debate in Twentieth-Century Chicago

One hundred years ago, animal experimentation was just as controversial as it is today. Scientists at universities across the country used animals to study disease, test drugs, research behavior, develop new surgeries, and train aspiring doctors. Critics of animal research, known then as antivivisectionists, condemned these practices on moral, ethical, and religious grounds. For both sides, humanity itself was at stake. Antivivisectionists maintained that animal experimentation compromised what makes us human, while physiologists insisted that these sacrifices were essential to medical progress and that neglecting to use animals to save human lives would be a moral failure. Both sides villainized the other with polarized rhetoric.

Chicago became a central battleground for these debates during the twentieth century. In 1929, when antivivisectionists introduced a bill designed to prohibit animal experimentation in Illinois, representatives from the four major Chicagoland medical schools banded together to form the Illinois Society of Medical Research (ISMR). Helmed by Dr. Anton J. Carlson, a pioneering physiologist and professor at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Andrew C. Ivy, his influential counterpart at Northwestern University, the organization assembled a powerful bloc of Chicago powerbrokers. Leading the antivivisectionists was Irene Castle McLaughlin, a celebrated dancer and doyenne of Chicago society. A friend of the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Castle and her crusade against animal research were frontpage news for decades.

At the heart of the debates in Chicago were stray dogs. In 1931, the ISMR secured the passage of the Arvey Ordinance, which granted universities access to unclaimed pound dogs for experimental purposes. Dogs, more charismatic and familiar to the average citizen than mice or frogs, were a banner around which Chicago antivivisectionists rallied. The Arvey Ordinance formed a template for similar struggles across the United States (by 1966, ten states had similar “pound laws”) and Chicago became a symbol in ongoing disputes about the ethics and legal status of animal experimentation.

Drawing on ISMR records spanning five decades, this exhibition brings together correspondence, newspaper clippings, radio broadcasts, photographs, pamphlets, and propaganda to present both sides of a controversy that continues to shape the way we think about medical ethics and the collateral of scientific progress.

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