Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, London

Alan W.H. Bates
London, United Kingdom


 The Anti-Vivisection Hospital in the 1930s. Photograph courtesy of Peter
Maleczec. Source: Flickr

In 1935, the National Anti-Vivisection Hospital was in trouble. Its nurses gave up their holidays to raise money, and residents of London’s deprived district of Battersea, which the hospital served, gave their savings, but it was not enough. The hospital’s chairman, Lord Ernest Hamilton, blamed the King’s Fund, the charity responsible for distributing money to London’s hospitals, for refusing to acknowledge the “Anti-Viv’s” existence: for thirty years it had been a “boycotted hospital,” surviving on donations from supporters.1 It now seemed that the only way forward was to abandon its lone stand against animal experimentation.

What exactly was an anti-vivisection hospital? The question came up in 1908 at an inquest: the hospital’s charter, the Coroner was told, prohibited experiments on animals or patients. Surely, he replied, no hospital experimented on patients? He might have added that, apart from the big teaching hospitals, none experimented on animals either.2 The Anti-Vivisection Hospital’s twelve (mostly honorary) medical staff would scarcely have had time for experiments even if they had approved of them, as they were treating twenty-four thousand outpatients a year. The practical differences from other hospitals were that patients had to give consent for all treatment, and vaccines or antisera produced from live animals were banned.

London’s well-known teaching hospitals tried to conceal their links with animal experiments because potential donors disapproved.3 To provide an alternative, animal-loving philanthropists endowed the Anti-Vivisection Hospital, which opened in 1903 in a converted town house: the rooms made spacious wards, and the former stables became a fully equipped out-patient department, complete with Buisson baths to treat rabies without using vaccine grown in rabbits. The senior physicians and surgeons were happy to sign the required anti-vivisection pledge, but suitable juniors were harder to find. The resident medical officers were overstretched by burgeoning patient numbers, and one unhappy incumbent was found, drunk and incapable, after a three-week binge in the East End. There were inevitable mistakes, but death rates were at least as good as comparable hospitals, and ninety percent of patients were “of the poorest class.”4 The Hospital Sunday Fund, which administered money collected in churches, donated a hundred pounds, but the King’s Fund, which had greater sums at its disposal, refused a grant, on the grounds that the hospital was “not exclusively directed to the welfare of the patients,” though the Fund’s chairman, the Prince of Wales, advised that this reason should not be published.

Sydney Holland of the Research Defence Society was less reticent: at a gala dinner he called the National “a miserable hospital, miserably built and miserably equipped,”6 to which the Medical Times retorted that it was not alone in being badly equipped and complained that “enormous influence” was being used to “crush” it. In 1909, the financier and doyen of hospital charities Sir Henry Burdett called the hospital’s ideology “pretentious humbug,” and suggested that withholding funds might make it “fall into line.”7 The Sunday Fund’s grant that year was accompanied by such “deeply injurious remarks” that the hospital felt obliged to turn it down.8

Shortly afterwards, the Anti-Viv set up its own fundraising committee, and used the income from carnivals and balls to improve facilities to match larger district hospitals: a cancer research department was opened in 1911, and a notice was sent to newspapers pointing out that the Hospital undertook “legitimate and beneficent forms of laboratory research unconnected with Vivisection, such as microscopical investigation of pathological specimens and bacteriological examinations . . . necessary to the interests of medical progress.”9

One of the proscribed treatments, tetanus anti-serum, led to controversy in 1926 when J.F. Peart, a former honorary surgeon who had been sacked the previous year for charging excessive private fees and arguing with the matron, complained that one of his patients had died from tetanus.10 This got the hospital taken off the list for receiving ambulance cases, a decision not reversed until 1932, when its staff were publicly authorized to take “all necessary steps,” including anti-serum, to save lives.11According to the hospital’s chairman, S.C. Turner, the board had privately compromised on the use of anti-serum for emergencies as long ago as 1922. But whether or not Peart had been prevented from giving it, the repercussions were damaging: questions were asked in parliament about the lack of life-saving treatment, while anti-vivisectionists complained of a breach of the hospital’s charter.12

Anti-vivisection had many wealthy supporters, and legacies flowed in: £7,361 in 1927 wiped off the debts accumulated since the Great War, and 1929 (a good year) brought over £38,000.13 The whole hospital was renovated, redecorated, and reequipped “with every essential modern appliance and made as perfect as possible,” and a large building program was initiated to meet “ever-increasing applications for admission.”14 The anti-vivisection code was a liability with the powerful City livery companies, but remained popular with the public: an appeal for subscriptions pledged that “NO ANIMAL SUBSTANCES OR METHODS DERIVED FROM VIVISECTION are used in the treatment of patients.”15

In the financially uncertain 1930s, with the heyday of the anti-vivisection crusade over, funds dwindled and locals planned a “huge” petition asking the Prince of Wales to intervene.16 Lord Ernest knew that the Prince had been told privately, at Ascot racecourse, of the Hospital’s imminent closure, and had supported the King’s Fund’s obduracy.17 But the “geographically essential” hospital could not be allowed to fail, and an offer was tabled: the Fund would pay out if the anti-vivisection rules were dropped. Lord Ernest stepped down in favor of Sidney Parkes, a London builder and boxing promoter who personally guaranteed a loan of £10,000 and disconcertingly promised that his intentions were “absolutely legal.”18 The outgoing chairman lambasted the “fanatical bigotry” and “malice” of the King’s Fund for “starving” the hospital into submission, but his overambitious management was partly to blame: the extension of the hospital from fifty-six beds to a hundred had left debts of £45,000, and in desperation Lord Ernest sacrificed his anti-vivisection principles to save the institution he loved, even selling his treasured stamp collection for £700 to lessen its debts.19

The new regime was not the panacea the directors expected: payment from the King’s Fund was delayed by bureaucracy, and Parkes found that the hospital had lost a great deal of income through abandoning anti-vivisection, despite his continuing to accept legacies for the “Anti-Vivisection Hospital” that no longer was. Board members resigned.20 After two years of attempting “every possible economy,” including replacing the two “lady doctors” with men, at a saving of £275 a year, Parkes stepped down, having tried unsuccessfully to recover his £10,000.21

In 1948 the hospital, then known as Battersea General, was absorbed into the National Health Service, and when it finally closed in 1972 its anti-vivisection origins were largely forgotten. This unique institution had shown not that a hospital could function without experiments on animals—this was true of all except teaching hospitals–but that patients and donors would vote with their feet, and wallets, for compassion. Perhaps the strongest testimony to the popular appeal of its motto Delenda est Crudelitas—“Cruelty Must be Destroyed”—was the unrelenting commitment of the medical establishment to silencing it.



  1. Boycotted hospital. News Chronicle, November 20, 1935.
  2. “No experiments on patients,” but “every kind of operation.” Nottingham Evening Post, December 31, 1908, p. 8.
  3. Stephen Coleridge. The Diversion of Hospital Funds (London: National Anti-Vivisection Society, 1901), p. 17.
  4. Letter, G.W.F. Robbins to King’s Fund, November 11, 1907, A/KE/260/001, London Metropolitan Archives.
  5. King’s Fund Minutes, December 1907, A/KE/260/001, London Metropolitan Archives.
  6. Letter, G.W.F. Robbins to Sydney Holland, December 18, 1907, A/KE/260/001; Hospital Board Minutes, May 5, 1908, H6/BG/A1/1, London Metropolitan Archives.
  7. The Anti-Vivisection Hospital. The Hospital, September 25, 1909, p. 677.
  8. The National Anti-Vivisection Hospital. Medical Times, January 11, 1908, 24; Hospital Board Minutes, August 5, 1909, H6/BG/A1/1, London Metropolitan Archives.
  9. Letter, J. Bench to King’s Fund, March 26, 1912; Hospital Board Minutes, June 14 and December 6, 1911, HO6/BG/A/01/002, pp. 102, 151, London Metropolitan Archives.
  10. Hospital Board Minutes, March and April 1926, H6/BG/A1/4, pp. 34-35, 39; Letter, J.F. Peart to King’s Fund, February 28, 1927, A/KE/260/001, London Metropolitan Archives.
  11. Letters, Montagu H. Cox to the Anti-Vivisection Hospital, August 12, 1927 and March 17, 1932; Hospital Board Minutes, July 1932, H6/BG/A1/5, pp. 212-213, London Metropolitan Archives.
  12. Hospital Board Minutes, May 1928, H6/BG/A1/4, pp. 214-216, 223-225, London Metropolitan Archives.
  13. Hospital and General Purposes Committee Minutes, June 1929, H6/BG/A9/1, p. 105, London Metropolitan Archives.
  14. King’s Fund Memorandum, 1928, A/KE/245/04, London Metropolitan Archives.
  15. Hospital Appeal Flyer, A/KE/512(5), London Metropolitan Archives.
  16. Battersea Hospital is still open, but – . South London Press, June 15, 1935.
  17. Letters, Harold Wernher to H.R. Maynard and Godfrey Thomas to Harold Wernher, June 22, 1935, A/KE/245/04, London Metropolitan Archives.
  18. Hospital Board Minutes, June 1935, H6/BG/A1/6, pp. 41-44, London Metropolitan Archives.
  19. King’s Fund Minutes, June 17, 1935; Memorandum, December 1935, A/KE/245/04, London Metropolitan Archives.
  20. Hospital Board Minutes, November 1935 and January 1936, H6/BG/A1/6, pp. 59, 70, London Metropolitan Archives.
  21. Letter, Sidney Parkes to H.R. Maynard, January 13, 1936, A/KE/512(5), London Metropolitan Archives.






This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust, grant number WT104505MA.

Spring 2016  |  Sections  |  Hospitals of Note

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