W.W. Keen and Caroline Earle White – Across the Lines of Battle

Note: This was taken from my rough book draft, so please excuse any typos.

William Williams Keen – The Epitome of Brain without Heart

The speedy disposition of so many uninjected animals in summer, when the world was mainly done, presented many serious obstacles, until, at last, during the regime of one ingenious assistant (who generally superintended such matters), nothing was heard of them either in the way of trouble or expense. On inquiry, a true stroke of genius was discovered. The baggage trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad used to go out Market Street at night, and he simply tied them by a rope to the tail of the train. Those dogs never needed sepulture. (25-26)”
Dr. William Williams Keen
The History of the Philadelphia School of Anatomy and Its Relationship to Medical Teaching -1875

Of all those of the medical profession that would clash head-on with Caroline Earle White, Dr. William Williams Keen was the most outspoken and prolific. Dr. Keen, who was born in Philadelphia in 1837, just four years after White, is most well-known to medical historians for his work in brain surgery (he was purportedly the first brain surgeon in the United States) and his consultations with American presidents. Dr. Keen was an intimate of the Philadelphia medical ‘esprit de corps,’ and shared with them many views regarding vivisection, women and race. Not as frequently researched as other pro-vivisectionists of his time, such as S. Weir Mitchell (another fierce opponent of White), and Alexis Carrel, Keen’s memoirs are a revealing insight into an individual whose personal ethics were not as lofty he purported them to be.

One of the most telling lectures given by W.W. Keen that is documented in the records was given on March 1, 1875 at the dissolution of the Philadelphia School of Anatomy. The lecture, which intended to be a discussion of the school’s role in medical teaching included passages that were racist, insensitive, and in at least one case, supported the role of Dr. William S. Forbes, the creator of the Anatomy Act that Forbes would later be prosecuted from breaking. Along with Dr. Forbes, Keen would praise Dr. Agnew, a notorious misogynist; it was clear that within this inner circle, which would fall under dire scrutiny in the 1880 “Philadelphia Physician Factory” events, everyone was likely aware of the less than savory activities of their compatriots, at least so some degree.

Even more troubling, however, was the degree to which Keen showed openly his lack of respect toward human and animal life. Although it was fairly admitted by his own apologists that his sense of humor could be rather unsuited for pleasant company, his ‘jests’ in this speech cannot be accounted for as just mere lapses of judgment. This was more than gallows humor. Aside from the quote that opens this chapter, Keen also made a statement that belied his inherent racism:

“It can now be easily understood how not so much even as a chip has ever been stolen from me with such occupants in the building, both dead and alive, although the inhabitants of Chant Street, when I first began, as Bret Harted described them, of “blazing ruins,” and though the door has often gone unlocked and the cellar was almost always accessible. Even a former office-boy (of African extraction) could not be induced to put foot inside the building, alleging that “he’d heerd of their layin’ for colored boys before now! (26)”

Considering the fact that this statement was made just five years before Dr. Forbes and his unruly and racist students would mock the African American families who sought justice for the instances of grave-robbing that had affected their own families, it was not only an example of insensitive humor, but a clear revelation of how African Americans and others were viewed in the eyes of these ‘upstanding representatives’ of the medical community. 

His antics with the dead bodies and his irreverence toward the feelings of those whom had not been deadened to empathy was defended by Lederer as not “further evidence of the demoralisation that vivisection necessarily entailed,” but, “rather than a means to alleviate anxiety. (247-8)”

However, the usage of humor and ‘pranks’ has often been used in the most malefic organizations to make unethical deeds more palatable.

Take for example the tone of the following passage, which, while it may have been amusing to the doctors involved would have likely resulted in a lawsuit in our current times, had such details been known:

“My friend Dr. Weir, of New York, tells an amusing story of a patient he was once etherizing for the late Dr. Gordon Buck. Touching the eye and finding no response from the lids, he said, “The patient is ready, Dr. Buck.” At the first touch of the knife, the patient drew the leg sharply away. ‘A little more ether, Dr.Weir,” said Buck. Again, after the same test, “The patient is ready now, sire,” and again the leg was drawn away. “Can’t you give the patient enough ether so that I can operate, sir?” was the surgeon’s reproach. “But sir, the corneal reflex is entirely gone” was the excuse tendered. “Which eye did you test?” asked Buck. “The right eye, sire.” “Oh, that’s a glass eye.” ((158=9)”

Another, perhaps unintentional, Keen apologist, Amy Werbel, in her book on the artist Thomas Eakins, described “William Williams Keen, Eakins’ colleague in teaching artistic anatomy, in particular shared “humorous” anecdotes in his copious writings,…Keen’s willingness to share amusement at the gory vision of a sawed-off head, jaws chomping and the comic relief of the brain finally “in hand,” indicates his expectation of an appreciative audience. (33)”

It was in this 1886 speech that White’s own words refute some scholar’s assessment of her as an extremist compared to other anti-vivisectionists such as Dr. Alfred Leffingwell (who actually worked closely with White for many years). Rather than exhibiting “stridency” when expressing her beliefs, as suggested by Dr. Susan E. Lederer in her work The Controversy Over Animal Experimentation in America, 1880-1914, White often expressed that she did not wish for a complete abolition of vivisection, but, rather, that experiments be conducted with attention paid to anaesthetization and transparency.  “Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, of Boston, and Dr. Leffingwell (whom Lederer indicates was more moderate), both of whom I have quoted,” White stated in her address, “unite in believing that vivisectional experiments should be restricted to those that can be performed entirely without pain, by the through administration of anesthetics and the killing of the animal operated on, before the return of consciousness. (24)” While it is true that White’s AAVS had, for some time, advocated complete abolition, it was for a limited period of time.* * There is some suggestion that the decision to learn toward abolition was the result of another doctor’s letter to the AAVS, Dr. Matthew Wood. In Wood’s letter, he that stated he would ally with the group only if it worked to eliminate vivisection in its entirety.* Interestingly enough, it was Woods who later had to resign his position due to the fact that he felt he could get more done if not associated with the very AAVS he himself felt was once not abolitionist enough.

One of Keen’s most popular tactics when it came to White and the AAVS was to publicly state misrepresentations of facts. In 1893, he claimed that long time AAVS ally, Lawson Tait had “had recanted and had admitted that great benefits had been gained by vivisection, (82)” a statement which was later disproven by Tait’s own words. In a letter published by the Rock newspaper, “where he had been attacked by Mr. Horsley, on the 24th of Feburary, 1893, he stated this his “professional bretheren know perfectly well that he had not changed his mind on the subject of Vivisection. (31)” When denying the reality of Dr. Finger’s infamous experiments upon women who had given birth to children, Keen stated that the article that detailed the experiments were false, and that “No such paper by Finger is published in that journal, at least from 1890 to the present time.” However, the Journal of Zoophily called Keen’s bluff, producing the report which had been released in 1885. By dodging the dates, Keen attempted to lead people astray. In 1914, just months after the well-publicized trial of Dr. Sweet and four other University of Pennsylvania employees, Dr. Keen claimed “”minute care” [was] shown for animals by surgeons, physiologists and pathologists, when they have performed on them.”  

Interestingly, in 1900, when Keen was President of the American Medical Association, “a Dr. Bernhein, of Philadelphia, presented to one of the Sections an account of some twelve experiments he had made upon human beings, — six upon a mulattoe and six on a “woman patient.”” Anti-vivisectionists openly stated while these were not the worst cases of human experimentation, it was troubling because of its “expressions of tendency toward that disregard of human rights which underlies all such experiments on the ignorant and poor.” Keen also discounted experimentation done on insane patients; explaining that “they were probably incurable,” and offered no further condemnation of the fact that poisonous substances were given to them.  

 Other doctors also were wary of Keen’s claims. In response to his article on brain surgery in Harper’s Magazine, an English surgeon stated “Dr. Keen would like us to believe, only one third reco ver, and of that third nearly every one is subsequently afflicted with paralysis. He adds that the treatment for abscesses of the brain, has been much more successful, but that in the localization necessary to this treatemnt, experiments upon animals have been of no use whatsoever. (105)”  In 1903, Dr. Frank Woodbury, “although saying he did not like to be quoted in opposition to Dr. Keen” denied that Keen’s assertion that methods of brain localization was achieved solely through vivisection and said “Methods were long ago learned by the results of disease…. (5)” Others denied that surgery on dogs had helped improve surgery on humans, with Dr. Tait and Dr. Frederick Treves stating that such experiments had “led them astray” (CEW 125)” Dr. William Osler, when asked whether the abolition of Yellow Fever (an event trumpeted by Keen as an example of vivisection) had anything to do with animal testing, he replied “It is not absolutely, unless you speak of man as an animal. (12)”

When one doctor, who was certainly not a supporter of anti-vivisection, but was in support of regulation made the ‘mistake’ of saying that “the anti-vivisectionist agitation, ‘with all its expensiveness, idiocy, bad temper, untruth and vexatiousness,’ continued because the medical profession as an organized body refused to recognize the legitimacy of the concern for animal and failed to act responsibly by establishing a code of ethics, enforcing the rules and condemning those practitioners who transgressed, “Keen was wrathful. Like Ahab and the ‘Great White Whale,’ Keen “wrote letters to several anti-vivisectionist publications challenging the veracity of James’ assertions and continued in his own articles and books to dispute James’s reading of the corporate responsibilities of American physicians and physiologists.” For Keen, anti-vivisection and his personal animosity toward White would continue long after White’s death.

In 1910, it was Keen who had masterminded the silencing of anti-vivisection discussion at the meeting of the American Humane Association. Using his influence over President Taft (Keen was known as a doctor to at least six Presidents), he wrote to “[call] his attention to this and expressing the hope that he would not take such an anti-scientific (and also anti-human) attitude.* Taft not only agreed to block the discussion, but immediately sent a copy of his own letter to the President of the Humane Association (Dr. Stillman), who “pledged that no discussion of vivisection would be permitted at the congress.” Gloating in victory, Keen stated in his memoirs “Thus, fortunately, I was able to block their game. Dr. Stillman was true to his promise. But in their journals, the antivivisectionist fumed and frothed at being this muzzled. (215-216)”

*Again, another misrepresentation. Anti-vivisectionists were generally not anti-human, and White most certainly cared about the lives of human beings.

In 1916, Keen attacked The Journal of Zoophily over an old interchange that had concerned testing of an antidote for snake bite. When White suggested antidotes to snake bites be researched and administered to those whom had been bitten, he failed to take her entire statement into context, and, instead, attempted to use one of the pro-vivisectionists favorite arguments, that she valued animals above humans. What had actually been discussed was not whether animals were more important than humans, but, rather, whether or not the drugs could be put to more immediate and helpful use if attempted on the lives that needed them most at the time – not after taking extended periods of time on animals, tests which may or may not conclusively show that the same curative effect would take place on animals. Keen’s assertion that White and the Journal of Zoophily was “is the last paper which should urge any objection to “human vivisection,” for its late editor-in-chief, Mrs. Caroline Earle White, was an avowed advocate of “human vivisection.”” It was one of his many biting criticisms which seemed to emerge after the passing of White, and, as was typical, did not at all accurately represent White’s views, and, coming after her death, one that may be suspected of cowardice as his old nemesis was dead.

Another event that occurred after White’s passing in 1916 was the inappropriate honor bestowed upon Keen in 1922:  Henry Jacob Bigelow Medal. While the awarding committee stated ot Keen that he “deserved [the medal] not only for your accomplishments and services to medicine, but for that which means more than these – for that more enduring quality – your professional character,” the reality was that Henry J. Bigelow* would not have approved of the committee’s selection. Bigelow was known as an ardent and vocal opponent of vivisection. As in the case of S. Weir Mitchell and Alexis Carrel, many honors were bestowed on men whose personal beliefs would certainly disqualify them for such an honor today.

*Memoirs: “The first murder trial I remember as a boy (and I read every word of it), was that of Prof. Webster for the murder of Prof. Parkman, both of Harvard Medical School. (110)” played a minor role in the apprehension of the culprit in the Parkman–Webster murder case.

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