History of animal research

The use of animals in scientific experiments in the UK can be traced back at least as far as the 17th Century with Harvey’s experiments on numerous animal species aiming to demonstrate blood circulation. Across Europe, the use of animals in scientific research began to expand over the 19th Century, in part supported by the development of anaesthetics which had previously made animal research impossible. In 1876, parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, the first legislation aimed at regulating animal experiments.

Over the late 19th and the 20th centuries, the expansion of medical science meant that the numbers of animals used in research expanded steadily, accelerated by the Medicines Act, 1968, which provided a clearer guide to the use of animals in safety testing in the wake of the Thalidomide tragedy. The number of animals used rose  to over 5.5 million in 1970 after which point the numbers began to decline rapidly. This large expansion reflected a growing medical field; animals had played a part in most medical advances of the 20th century including insulin, the polio vaccine, penicillin and the elimination of smallpox. In 1986 the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act was passed, which ensured higher animal welfare standards in laboratories across the UK.

In 2010, EU Directive 2010/63 was passed. This regulation harmonises European animal laboratory standards, improving animal welfare across the EU, and is currently being transposed into the laws of the member countries. It passed into UK law on 1st January 2013.


Animal Research in Medicine: 100 Years of Politics, Protests and Progress (John Illman) provides a history of animal research legislation and the context in which they were developed. 
- Illman, J., 2008. Aninmal Research in Medicine: 100 years of Politics, Protests and Progress. The Story of the Research Defence Society. London: Research Defence Society.

A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (Jim Endersby) tells the story of modern biology through the stories of the animals and plants that made it possible. 
- Endersby, J., 2007. A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology. Heinemann.

Online resources

Medical Advances and Animal Research (RDS & CMP) is an excellent booklet outlining the role of animals in many of the medical developments we see around us. It provides full references to the scientific literature it mentions throughout. 
- Research Defence Society & Coalition for Medical Progress, 2007. Medical Advances and Animal Research: The Contribution of Animal Science to the Medical Revolution: Some Case Histories. London: RDS. Available from our document library here.

The Animal Research Timeline (AR.info) provides an outline of many of the major medical discoveries since 1881, as well as explaining the role of animals in each of these developments. 
- AnimalResearch.Info. Timeline. Available at: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/medical-advances/timeline/

Animal Research Info: Nobel Prizes (AR.info) provides a breakdown of all the Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine since 1901 and includes how animals were involved in the discoveries. 
- AnimalResearch.Info. Nobel Prizes. Available at: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/medical-advances/nobel-prizes/

Pro-Test: Tackling Animal Rights (SR) is an essay following the battle over the building of the Oxford University Biomedical Facility from 2005-2008. It covers the rise of the animal rights group SPEAK, and the student counter-movement, Pro-Test. It also covers some of the issues which helped change public opinion from 2006. 
- Speaking of Research, 2008. Pro-Test Tackling Animal Rights in the UK. Available at: http://speakingofresearch.com/about/the-uk-experience/

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