Main menu
Select a language

Research and the Community

Delivered 21st June 1927
By Professor Julian S. Huxley M.A.
I do not think that people to-day quite realise how fast the problems of the world are moving. In spite of the fact that our knowledge is advancing at a greater rate than ever before, the problems to which that knowledge should be applied are multiplying, and knowledge is often advancing faster than we can think out the ways in which it can be applied. One of the paths for research in the future will be as to the way to use research in connection with the pure sciences.

I will not presume, this afternoon, to speak about research in pure physics and chemistry. For one thing, I am not an expert, and, for another, the public realises to a much greater extent its debt to research in these fields; all the applications of technology, physics, chemistry, which give us our remarkable modern methods of communication and locomotion, the electric light, wireless telegraphy, and innumerable other inventions, which are altering the whole aspect of civilization. I wish rather, to-day, to restrict myself to biology, considered in its broad sense as including the sciences of plant, animal, and human life, embracing, therefore, medicine.

Research there can affect the course of. events in a number of ways ; it can affect it in a way the public, often, do not realise, though they will when they reflect, namely, as regards the general atmosphere of thought and knowledge in which we live and move and have our being. It can affect medicine and hygiene; it has done so and it will do so still more. It can affect agriculture and kindred arts, such as fisheries. It can affect animal and plant breeding. That is a young science, in which not a great deal has been done, but a great future is to be hoped for. And it can affect biology and the social sciences, including human heredity and the best way to realise the psychological resources of the individual, and so forth. I will begin with a few of the less familiar examples. Let us consider agriculture.

Let us remind ourselves that agriculture seems to be less than 10,000 years old, geologically speaking a mere trifle in evolutionary time. And let us remind ourselves that as civilization, and agriculture itself, progresses, these bring with them two difficulties. In the first place, they increase the density of a particular crop over an area, and this very increased density makes it  easier for enemies of that crop, and possibly of others, to multiply and spread. An analogous example from another field was discovered when the Grouse Disease Commission investigated grouse disease in Scotland. It was conclusively shown that the mere crowding of more birds than normal on a moor made it easier for certain parasites to spread from bird to bird, and so what would have been a mild incidence of the disease was converted into an epidemic.

Sir Ronald Ross showed that the same sort of thing occurred in malaria ; if you could reduce the density of infected human beings or infected mosquitoes below a certain point, malaria would automatically die out in that area. The second difficulty which is brought about by progress is due to increase of travel and transport facilities, which leads to animals being brought over to new areas, where, freed from their normal checks on multiplication, and without their normal parasites, they can spread and do enormous damage. Some very startling facts bearing on this were dealt with in an interesting article by Major Elliott in The Times of this morning. He referred to the way in which insects, such as the cotton boll-weevil or the phylloxera spread over the globe so that special measures were demanded if the crop was to survive. One of the most important of such measures discovered by research was biological control by means of parasites.

The effects with regard to plants were not so well known. Dr. Tillyard last autumn gave a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts about conditions in New Zealand. There various European  plants have been introduced, and some of them have become serious pests. The blackberry, for instance, has grown into jungles which have spread over some of the best lands in New Zealand, ten or twelve feet high, and in one place there is an impassable thicket 50 miles wide and 70 miles long. An even worse problem is provided by the prickly pear in Australia. These disastrous introductions, ironically enough, have often been made with the best of motives. It was a patriotic Scotsman who introduced the thistle into California, and now the effects of its growth are extremely serious.

Only patient research can enable us to cope with them. The best known way is by introducing special parasites to prey upon these creatures and keep them in their places. Major Elliott's article referred to the fact that the Empire Marketing Board are establishing a " parasite zoo " in this country, in which enormous numbers of parasitic and other insects will be bred, tested out, and shipped to different countries as occasion requires, to keep down weeds, or to restrain the multiplication of noxious insects. It may be said that without research on an extensive and intensive scale in these fields a large measure of our agriculture, especially tropical agriculture (because insects are more serious in the Tropics, where the high temperature favours their growth), will become impossible. It is clear that we need institutes of, this nature, and even more comprehensive ones, institutes applied biology or applied ecology, to study these relationships between animals and their environments, to see what the dangers may be of exterminating certain creatures. A proposal was made, the other day, to exterminate squirrels in the New Forest, because of their damage to trees; and there was a proposal to exterminate pelicans in America owing to the damage they cause to fish. Such proposals are often made in a very off-hand way. If we are not to do more harm than good, they must be settled by a reference to knowledge which has been accumulated by patient and painstaking research.

To take another example in this field, there are the remarkable recurrent plagues of rodents, such as mice and rats, which from time to time are reported all over the world. These may do enormous damage. It was reported that millions of dollars' worth of damage was done in California by a plague of mice, and, in other cases, rats when the damage was greater, as would be expected.

But what are we to do about these outbreaks? They have been investigated, and have been shown to recur in regular cycles or periods of about eleven years. Apparently there is something in the weather conditions which favours the working up by these animals to a great maximum, and then apparently their density becomes so great that epidemics occur and they are wiped out to almost zero, when the cycle is begun again. If that is an automatic phenomenon you will see what is the practical bearing of that knowledge. If the end of overmultiplication is disease and if steps which are taken may prevent animals arriving at their maximum numbers and so delay the automatic check which comes in with the epidemic, then many campaigns of destruction against periodic pests are only so much time and money wasted. It is clear we need knowledge and experiment to unravel this condition.

Another field in which research is important to agriculture is through animal and plant breeding. When I was a student the whole question of the theory of heredity was still being debated, whether Mendelism was an isolated fact or whether it was a general law. We know now, many years later, that it is a general law, and that, theoretically at least, if we have enough patience and knowledge, we can build up plants and animals mote or less to order since their heredity and the constitution which determines what they shall be is composed of many independent units, and these can be shuffled and re-combined by consciously-planned selection and mating. In passing, the same is true for human beings-. That has been applied practically in many ways. The best known example is that of Biffen at Cambridge. He was able to take a number of characters in one strain of wheat and pick out of a strain which was otherwise undesirable an inherited resistance to disease, and by his deliberate operations of crossing, combined this one desirable character of rust-resistance with all the other desirable characters. It was a resistance to rust which resulted. Man therefore controlled the nature of the creatures with which he works and by which he lives. This has its bearing in the field of man, just as it has in the field of animals, and it has its bearing on medicine. Let me remind you that there is great need, in these days, for a rapproachment between pure medicine and the broader aspects of biology, especially with regard to this question of heredity, which has come so quickly that we are not quite awake to the implications which arise when the two fields are brought into contact. Let me give an example. In America, recently, it was found, by selective breeding from a single strain of mice, that different strains could be selected, some of which were more resistant, and some considerably less resistant, than usual to cancer. And similar hereditary predisposition to tumours has been found in regard to certain insects. Doubtless the same kind of thing will be found with regard to cancer in man and with regard to  other diseases also. If so, then a detailed knowledge of heredity will be more and more of really first-class importance to medicine.

Then we have the bearing on the race, and here again medicine, I think— (speaking as an outsider, who in spite of being an outsider can often see the general trend of things)— medicine will have more and more to organize its long-range or preventive side, the side which thinks in terms of society and in terms of the race, as well as thinking in terms of curing the individual. And there a knowledge of heredity will be of first-class importance, and the branch which we speak of as that of social hygiene will be gradually enlarged.

What is clear, to those who study the question, is that every large nation is changing its hereditary make-up, the composition of its racial stock; there are different proportions of the old characters, and sometimes new combinations, or wholly new characters are coming into being. And when we speak of “race” we are only using a very approximate term. There is no doubt that the population of England is changing its hereditary possibilities; whether it is changing for the worse, as many imagine, or for the better, is a matter for investigation. But here, in relation to social and racial hygiene, it seems something is needed in the nature of a national stocktaking on a large scale, otherwise the short range, the necessary dealing with the individual, will not be sufficient.

There are also remarkable effects going on in regard to crossing of races. We do not know whether those results are desirable or undesirable; research is needed. There are races under British and other flags which are dying out, such as Melanesan tribes. That is largely due to psychological causes. They have lost in some way their will to live and reproduce. Do we desire that? If we do not, we must stop it, but we cannot unless we find out the causes and the possible ways to obviate those causes. And in this field some Imperial Research Bureau is as clearly indicated in the subject of anthropology as in those of agriculture and entomology where Bureaus have been recently established.

Coming finally, to the medicine, I think it is true that, in spite of the long range of some of the points I have been raising, the purely medical side still remains that of the most intense and the gravest import for most of us. Here enormous changes have been brought about in the last century entirely through the achievements of science. Medicine has become a science as well as an art. The new outlook has come chiefly in three ways : from our knowledge of pure physiology, that is to say, of the way the normal body works ; from our knowledge of pathology, or the way the body works when it is disordered, and also through the discovery of drugs such as chloroform and their effects on the body ; and in large measure it has come through our discovery of what are known as germs and the whole germ theory of disease, the discovery that a large number of diseases are due to specific organisms, usually microscopic,  mostly plants, but some animals. If we can get rid of them, or inhibit their activities, we shall be able to cure the diseases.

Let us contrast the state of affairs in antiquity or in the Middle Ages with that to-day. How many people are aware that the expectation of life to-day is almost double what it was in the time of the early Roman Empire, or even of the later Middle Ages? That in itself is a remarkable fact. And let us remember what relief of suffering has been brought in addition to this lengthening of life, by discoveries such as chloroform and antiseptic and aseptic surgery. The discoveries I have mentioned have been made possible through the methods of science, that is, observation and experiment: first observation, then experiment, then more experiment, and then back again to observation, the one being incomplete without the other, but experiment always being the final arbiter as to the immutability of the truth. Experiments may be made in the test-tube in the laboratory; they may be made on animals; they may be made on human beings. It does not matter, from the point of view of advancing knowledge, in which way they are made. Sometimes one is indicated as the only or the best method, sometimes another.

Let us think of one or two examples. I have already mentioned chloroform. In that case, of course, experiments were first made on man, and then various details were worked out on animals. In regard to antisepsis and asepsis, the noble figure of Lord Lister was a great pioneer. Perhaps I may be allowed to read some of the remarks he made in a letter in 1875, which seem to bear on the question at issue. He received a letter from Queen Victoria's private secretary asking him to make some authoritative statement opposing vivisection. He replied that he deeply regretted he could not see his way to comply with this, and he felt bound to express why. He said: “I should deeply regret that I cannot see my way to complying with this request, where I not persuaded that my doing so would not promote the real good of the community, which I know to be Her Majesty's only object in the matter. And I feel bound to endeavour to express shortly the reasons for my opinion.

"With this object I can hardly do better than begin by saying that I have myself often performed experiments upon the lower animals, and that, if I have been privileged in my professional career to do anything for the good of my fellow men, more is to be attributed to these experiments than to any other work in which I have engaged. When they were performed without chloroform, as has not infrequently been the case, they have been done at a very great sacrifice of my own feelings; but the greatness of the object in view has appeared to me to over-ride such considerations." *

Then, again, let us think of Pasteur's work in this connection, because Pasteur and Lister were at opposite poles; Pasteur first of all working out the theoretical basis, Lister seeing its applicability and with both hands seizing this opportunity to apply it to the relief of human suffering. Pasteur's experiments were done to advance pure knowledge. He simply wished to know whether life must arise from pre-existing life, or whether it could arise spontaneously; and his discovery that it could not arise spontaneously was the basis of the germ theory, and therefore of antisepsis and asepsis. And, again, think of another branch of the work of Pasteur, rabies, and his attack on it. The whole of that work was only made possible by experiments on rabbits and dogs, and it has been of enormous benefit, both to human beings and to animals themselves.

Think of small-pox. In connection with that, experiments on men and animals were made in various ways. In view of the fact that a great deal of - I hesitate to say it - misrepresentation, or at any rate lack of knowledge, is revealed in dealing with this question, I think it is right to mention certain facts. For instance, in the epidemic of small-pox which occurred some years ago in Canada, in a total of 67 cases of small-pox, among those who had been vaccinated successfully 12 to 65 years before, there were 10 cases, no deaths. Among those vaccinated successfully in the incubation period, 12 cases, no deaths; among those who had never been vaccinated successfully, 45 cases, 32 deaths. And the same thing this year in this country.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, replying to a question in the House of Commons, said that of 28 cases which had ended fatally in this country, 21 were unvaccinated at the time they acquired the infection, and 7 had been vaccinated in infancy only and not for 15 or 16 years afterwards. These are striking figures.

Think of diphtheria, and the experiments of Behring and others, which showed that an antitoxin could be prepared. That brought down the mortality enormously. Then there ensued a stationary period. And now the discovery of the Schick test allows us to discover those who are naturally immune to diphtheria; we can then, if we wish, immunise the rest, and so altogether prevent outbreaks of diphtheria in a whole community.

Think of diabetes. I have seen a promising and brilliant young man, at the point of death from diabetes. It was at the time when insulin was discovered; he was one of the first patients to have insulin treatment. I saw him six months later, and he was then preparing to take up his work again in the University where he was studying. Insulin could not have been discovered without human, and still more, animal experimentation; it was physically impossible for it to have been discovered otherwise. Think of yellow fever, in which observation was the beginning of the research, but finally experiments were done on human volunteers. Think, again, of sleeping sickness, malaria, hookworm disease, in which research, of one form or another, showed how to get rid of these diseases. I think there is very little doubt that the spread of malaria was a contributory cause of the downfall of Greece and Rome, and there is no doubt that in regard to our great Empire in India that disease is the most serious single factor with which we have to cope. I have been unable to get the accurate figures, but I am assured I am under-stating the case when I say that over 75 % of the native population of India are suffering from either malaria or hook-worm disease, or both. Those who have, as I have in the Southern United States, seen something of hook-worm disease, know what it means. It affects the whole personality, it makes a previously active and energetic citizen the subject of constant languor so that he cannot properly carry on in the community, and a community so afflicted cannot realise the potentialities that are in it. If we could provide all the  native inhabitants of India with mosquito curtains and boots, and ensure that they should be properly employed, we should have done more to change the face of the globe than by any other single act.

When a person is apparently drowned and artificial respiration is attempted, there are two chief methods which have been in use. One is the Sylvester method, the other is the Schafer method. The first is not so much used now as it used to be. Why? Because it has certain possible dangers connected with damage to the liver. The Schafer method is more successful, and is not attended by the same dangers. That was perfected by Schafer, the eminent physiologist, as a result of experiments on half-a-dozen dogs, and it is used all over the world to-day in connection with rescuing people from death by drowning, from suffocation  in mines, and so forth.

I will take another example, but not of specific disease. As everybody knows, if they have a routine medical examination they will probably have their blood-pressure tested, and it is very important in cases in which operation is indicated. If the blood-pressure is not right it is dangerous for operation to be performed. The experiments which showed that the method was reliable, accurate and constant were carried out on animals, with extremely little pain, and without them it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the accuracy, speed and applicability of this method.

With regard to animals themselves, I have already pointed out that stamping out rabies in animals is a most important task, and that it has been helped by experiments on animals. There are further, anthrax and glanders, terrible diseases which have a serious human background too, but in which experimentation on animals has been the means of saving a large amount of suffering and of loss of animal life.

There is distemper, in which animal experimentation is giving hope of relief to dogs and dog-lovers. The matter is controversial, and I think we shall all admit that the opponents of animal research have a right to demand that there shall be adequate supervision to prevent possible abuses. What we have to say in answer to that, is that supervision does exist; it is carried out by his Majesty's Government inspectors, * and, so far as I am aware, cases of abuse have never turned up.

It is our main duty, to continue the good work which has been done, and to keep up the defences behind which knowledge, the saviour of humanity and of animals, can go on quietly being added to. There are so many problems to solve, and solution cannot be found without exploring every possible field of experiment. There were over 50,000 deaths from cancer in this country last year, the highest number and the highest rate on record. There is sleepy sickness, which may change the patient's whole character for the worse. We know that it is due to a virus, but we do not know how to deal with it. Then there is tuberculosis. We are improving our methods of dealing with it, but experiment alone can bring us to the goal.

There is distemper in dogs; there is foot-and-mouth disease, both of them accounting for terrible losses. And there is the question of diet. We all know how vital correct diet is, and what it means to people who have to live in slums and in crowded cities. How can work be carried on in that without experiments on animals?

But even that is not enough; we must continue to think of the wider implications, and fight against apathy, against ignorance, against bureaucracy and red-tape. We must fight also - and I feel this is a vital thing - against exploitation of research, gained by idealistic and hardworking men at the expense of labour and difficulty, for base purposes. We must see to it that research is recognised as one of the props necessary to an advanced and complex civilization.

* The full text of Lord Lister's reply to Queen Victoria was published in The Fight Against Disease, April, 1927, and may be had in leaflet form from the Secretary.

Last edited: 18 November 2014 15:55

Main menu
Select a language