William Russell: Polymath, Wordsmith, Classicist and Humourist

Michael Balls

Reading the The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique is a very special
privilege, not only because of the importance of the messages it conveys,
but because of the unique character and qualities of its principal author

The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique1 was based on a report submitted to the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) in 1956, and was completed in 1958. Rex Burch had left UFAW’s employment in 1956, but it is likely that it was always the intention that William Russell would write the text of the book. He owned the copyright, but always insisted that Burch be regarded as a full co-author and should share the meagre royalties that were received.2

Methuen & Co. were reluctant to publish it at all, possibly because of the resistance of its author to  suggestions for modifying its length or content.2 At one point, in 1957, Charles Hume, the founder of UFAW and the originator of the project, intervened, telling Russell that, while the book “contains factual matter of great importance and also original thinking which is quite fundamental” … “the style is high-falutin’, complicated and obscure, and too long-winded. The references to psychoanalysis are of great interest to psychoanalysts, but hardly interesting to readers who have no knowledge of psychoanalysis, who will be in the majority. Many of the sentences have to be read more than once before the readers can construe them and see the point.” He suggested that the book should “be revised, little by little over the next year or two … one thinks of improvements in one’s bath, and then again the whole thing matures — and maturation means simplification and abridgement, rather than proliferation”.

I have read the complete Principles at least 30 times, and I have some sympathy with what Hume was trying to say, not least because I edited a number of Russell’s later manuscripts. This included the first joint Russell & Burch publication since 1959,3  which was submitted to ATLA along with a letter, which said, “We don’t want the wording fiddled with and split infinitives introduced”. It was because The Principles is not an easy read that, to mark its 50th anniversary, I produced the abridged version, with explanations of some of the most difficult passages and concepts.4

Nevertheless, that having been said, in addition to the importance of The Principles in terms of the Three Rs, it also represents a remarkable legacy, left to us by a unique scientist, who was also a polymath, wordsmith, classicist and humourist. In this brief comment, I would like to give some illustrations of what made William Russell so very special.

A polymath is somebody who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields. Russell was an author, classicist, composer, entertainer, linguist, philosopher, pianist, psychologist, psychotherapist, raconteur, singer, sociologist and soldier.5 His publications covered animal behaviour, comparative sociology, demography, ecology, ethology, evolution, folklore, genetics, geography, history, human behaviour, mythology, primate sociology, science fiction, statistics, population control, and zoology.

A wordsmith is a skilled user of words. I have been an author and editor for more than 50 years, but I could not claim to approach his skill in using the English language. For example, two words, in particular, made me immediately reach for my dictionary — adumbrate and limn. Adumbrate can be used to mean “represent in outline”, “foreshadow” and “overshadow”. Russell clearly meant the first of these, when he wrote, “An attempt has been made to adumbrate the outlines of such a theory [of replacement]”. Limn means to depict in painting or in words, and Russell wrote, “We have sought only to limn the barest of outlines [on humane experimental technique]”. I also appreciate his use of the “bludgeon of stress” to describe the unnecessarily severe procedures used in some studies on animal behaviour.

After he returned from the Second World War, Russell had been expected to go to Oxford University to read Classics, but he changed his mind and studied Zoology instead. Nevertheless, his classicist leanings come to the surface at various points in The Principles. In a section on Choice of Species, he makes the following comment: “This subtle matching of procedure to species, and species in turn to objectives, is more significant than appears at first sight for the humanity of technique. For the only alternative is to try to correct the mistaken choice of a wrong species by forcing it to conform to the requirements of the investigation. This results in just those roundabout methods we should guard against, and is
all too liable to end in gross inhumanity. It is the method of Procrustes, and Procrustes would have been less deservedly unpopular if he had selected his guests instead of dissecting them.”

Procrustes was a cruel figure in Greek mythology. He invited guests into his stronghold, where he had an adjustable bed, so he could make sure that his guests were either too long or too short for it. He amputated the excess length of the former, and stretched the latter on a rack!

Russell referred to refinement as “protean in its aspects”, which means displaying great diversity. Proteus was a Greek god of rivers and oceans, who knew all things — past, present, and future — but was reluctant to divulge what he knew. He would try to escape enquirers by assuming all sorts of shapes, but, if caught while asleep and bound, he would return to his proper shape, give the desired answer, and, on being released, plunge into the sea.

Another historical, although not strictly classical, reference is used to illustrate the point that we cannot extend the concept of inhumanity to non-sentient material, in which “we include higher plants, microorganisms, and the more degenerate metazoan endoparasites, in which nervous and sensory systems are almost atrophied. To shed obsessional tears over the fate of these organisms would bring the whole concept of humanity into contempt by Samuel Butler’s famous reductio ad absurdum — the Erewhonian philosopher who inquired whether salt can feel”.

Erewhon is the title of a book by Butler, published in 1872, which is a satire of Victorian society. Erewhon is a fictional country and its name is based on Nowhere backwards, albeit with the letters “h” and “w” transposed. In the book, among many other adventures, the narrator visits the Colleges of Unreason and meets, among others, the Professor of Worldly Wisdom, who was also the President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge. The Professor of Botany there contended that “vegetables are only animals under another name”, so, “if it was sinful to kill and eat animals, it was not less sinful to do the like by vegetables or their seeds”.

Russell was well known as a humourist to all those who met him or witnessed his performances at, for example, the world congresses on the Three Rs, held in Utrecht in 1996 and in Bologna in 1999. The Principles is essentially a serious a book, but Russell’s sense of humour comes through at various points. For example, in referring to discrepancies between his analysis of data from the 1952 Laboratory Animals Bureau Survey and the published figures, he says, “I seem to have produced rather more rabbits from the common hat, and my conjuring skill is further attested by the transformation of 108 canaries into 78 ducks”. Later on, in a discussion on the use of lower vertebrates, including birds, instead of  mammals, he says that, “In its recruiting campaign, experimental psychiatry would be ill-advised to look the humblest gift-finch in the beak”. This is an analogy with “don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth”, where it is considered ungrateful to look inside the mouth of a horse given as a gift, although this is a common practice in judging the age and state of health of horses.

The Principles conveys very useful messages. Perhaps we should be more concerned about worldly wisdom and useless knowledge, especially when animals are used as models of humans. The problem is that we rarely know whether or not the models are relevant and reliable. Russell referred to an oft quoted remark attributed to Lord Kelvin, who so said, “If ye canna mak’ a model, ye dinna understan’ it” [if you can’t make a model, you don’t understand it], which could also be paraphrased as, “If ye dinna understan’ it, ye canna mak’ a model” [if you don’t understand it, you can’t make a model]. Lord Kelvin (1824–1907)6 was a physicist and mathematician, but the problem is much worse in our world of biomedical
research and testing. Why is that? Because we rarely have sufficient understanding of what we are trying to model (e.g. carcinogenesis, embryotoxicity, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease) or of the model we are trying to use (e.g. the rat, mouse, rabbit, dog, macaque). That is the point that Russell made, very forcefully, in his excellent and vitally important discussion of fidelity and discrimination, and the danger of the high-fidelity fallacy.6

References and Notes
1 Russell, W.M.S. & Burch, R.L. (1959). The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, xiv + 238pp. London, UK: Methuen.
2 Balls, M. (2009). The origins and early days of the Three Rs concept. ATLA 37, 255–265.
3 Russell, W.M.S. & Burch, R.L. (1995). Prefatory note. ATLA 23, 11–13.
4 Balls, M. (2009). The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion, 19 + 131pp. Nottingham, UK: FRAME.
5 Paskal, C. (2006). Bill Russell: The singing scientific detective. ATLA 34, 470–472.
6 It is not surprising that Russell quoted Lord Kelvin, who, like Russell himself, was a polymath. William Thomson, first Baron Kelvin of Largs, was one of the most famous scientists of his time. He was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow for 53 years, having been appointed in 1846, at the age of 22. He was as famous for his inventions as for his academic work on mathematical physics and electrical engineering. His research on the nature of heat led him to formulate the second law of thermodynamics. He proposed an absolute scale of temperature, now known as the Kelvin Scale, worked on planning a Trans-Atlantic Telegraph cable, and invented the Kelvin Compass. He was the first scientist to be elevated to the peerage, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Isaac Newton. Further information can be found at: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/Kelvin/kelvinindex.html
7 Balls, M. (2013). The Wisdom of Russell and Burch. 3. Fidelity and discrimination. ATLA 41, P42–P43.
The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique is now out of print, but the full text can be found at http://altweb.jhsph.edu/pubs/books/humane_exp/het-toc. The abridged version, The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion, can be obtained from FRAME.

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