The Morality of Medicine

The rise of laboratory science in the late 19th century put stark focus on the moral cost of medical innovation.

‘Science and Stupidity’, Punch, 29 July 1876 © Punch/Topfoto.

‘Modern medical science has given us a choice where there was once none.’ So said John Simon at the International Medical Congress in London in 1881. Simon, who had been the UK’s first Chief Medical Officer, was speaking about the purpose and value of state medicine, the government funding and direction of medical research and public health policy. 

The choice of which he spoke concerned the means of producing new knowledge that would permit the ‘prevention and cure of diseases’. Such knowledge had always been the product of experiments, he said, but, before the development and expansion of laboratory-based experimental medicine involving animals, they were ‘ad hoc and uncontrolled’ social experiments: new knowledge was gained at the expense of human suffering. The laboratory offered the opportunity to take the experiment in hand, to remove ‘human suffering, misery and death’ and replace it with the cost of ‘a quantity of experimental animals, who serve humans by taking our stead as the experimental subject’.

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