One hundred and six years ago today, on December 10, 1907, a riot occurred at the Latchmere Estate, in a section of London called Battersea. About 100 medical students from University College London stormed a small square at Latchmere, trying to tear down a bronze statue of a dog. Thwarted in this attempt, the students continued to march across London, their ranks swelling with fellow college students and men emerging from pubs, while worried police moved to intercept them. At Trafalgar Square the police charged the demonstrators on horseback, resulting in an epic street battle that lasted for several hours. Although police put down the riot, various other disturbances erupted throughout December in various places, some degenerating into pitched brawls involving thrown furniture and smoke bombs.

Yes, you read that right. These riots were incited by medical students over a statue of a dog–a terrier, in fact. The obvious question: why?

The real issue was vivisection, which was an explosive controversy in early 20th century England. The strange story of the Brown Dog Riots begins with the animal who ended up being depicted in the statue, who was used in medical research. In December 1902 the dog was dissected, alive and anesthetized, in front of an audience of medical students at University College by one Dr. Edward Starling, a physiologist. He was conducting an experiment on the dog’s pancreas. The brown terrier survived this procedure, and was used again in February 1903 by Starling, another physician named William Bayliss, and a medical student, Henry Dale, who years later would go on to win a Nobel Prize for medicine. The terrier had its neck cut open to expose the salivary glands. The experiment was unsuccessful, and Dale killed the dog at the end of it.

anti vivisectionists 1913

Anti-vivisectionists, such as this group pictured in Washington in 1913, were often active for feminist causes too. Lizzy Lind af Hageby is in the front row center.

There were two problems with the February 1903 experiment. The first was that a law, the Cruelty to Animals Act, prohibited animals from being used in more than one experiment. The second was that the operating theater had been infiltrated by two Swedish animal rights activists, Lizzy Lind af Hageby and Leisa Schartau, who had enrolled in medical school in London specifically to gain visibility for the anti-vivisection issue. In July they published a sensationalistic account of the experiments that killed the terrier, and, with publicity being fanned by influential lawyer Stephen Coleridge, the issue erupted onto the front pages. Dr. Bayliss sued Coleridge for libel as a result of publishing the Swedish women’s story. The verdict, in Bayliss’s favor, was handed down in November 1903, but this was hardly the end of the controversy.

The anti-vivisectionists refused to give up. They took up a collection to build a monument to the brown terrier that had been killed in Starling and Bayliss’s experiments, and somehow persuaded the borough of Batterslea to give the space for it. The statue of the dog was unveiled in September 1906. What really angered the medical professionals of London–who insisted that animal experimentation, though unpleasant, was necessary for medical research–was a plaque attached to the statue that seemed to cast blame on the entire medical profession for the cruelties done to the brown terrier as well as many others killed at University College. Resentment against the plaque grew among London’s medical students, and the first organized attempt by a group of them to destroy the statue occurred in late November 1907. The riots that eventually happened on December 10 were the culmination of five days of increasing rancor between anti-vivisectionists and irate college students.

cute dog

I don’t get to post “Awww!”-inducing pictures very often, so I’m going to seize my chance to do it here. 

Was it really this simple, though? Granted, medical experimentation on animals is a contentious issue, in our time as well as in 1907. But was this enough to get medical students–the vast majority of them well-educated, upper-class men–to literally riot in the streets, attacking public property with hammers and chisels and brawling with police?

There may be more to it than that. The anti-vivisection lobby, noisy and hyperbolic though they were seen by the British public, heavily overlapped with another interest group: those advocating women’s suffrage. Not all anti-vivisectionists were suffragists nor vice-versa, but the medical students appealed to anti-suffrage sentiment in order to gain adherents to their cause against the brown dog statue. For example, a public meeting of suffragists on December 5, at which noted British feminist Millicent Fawcett was the speaker, was stormed by medical students carrying effigies of brown dogs on sticks, and many of these agitators later wound up storming Trafalgar Square five days later. The disproportionate gender identities of the groups–the medical students were overwhelmingly men, the high-profile vivisectionists counting a high number of women among them–suggests there were sexual politics at work here.

millicent fawcett

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) is regarded as an instrumental figure in gaining British women the vote in 1918. She was tangentially caught up in the Brown Dog affair.

After the riots were put down the city fathers of Battersea were eager to wash their hands of the explosive issue. It took a while, but in March 1910 the statue of the brown terrier vanished from the Latchmere Estate and was reportedly broken into pieces. Anti-vivisectionists continued to campaign for its return but without success–at least not for a long time. In 1985, a revived animal rights movement succeeded in getting a new dog statue unveiled in a nearby park. That statue too, which also includes a pretty strongly-worded plaque criticizing animal experimentation, has had its share of controversy, but at least it hasn’t sparked any riots. It was moved even further out of sight in 1994.

The world has moved on since 1907. Today it’s pretty far-fetched to imagine medical students rioting like hooligans in the streets, and of course women finally did get the vote decades ago in Britain and every other Western country. The issue of using animals in medical research, however, continues today–though we can hope it plays out a little less violently than it did in Trafalgar Square in December 1907.