Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Trixy, and the Vivisection Question

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Trixy, and the Vivisection Question

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was a prolific nineteenth-century American writer who, by the time of her death in 1911, had published over fifty books as well as hundreds of articles, poems, and short stories in some of the leading magazines of her day. Phelps's novels and essays pushed the boundaries for women, advocating for their right to economic independence and access to higher education as well as to professions in areas traditionally closed to them, like the ministry and medicine. Toward the end of her life, Phelps turned her attention to a new cause. Beginning in the 1890s, she and her husband, Herbert Ward, aligned themselves with the antivivisection movement in Massachusetts, then a leading center of animal rights activism. Between 1896 and 1902, they were instrumental in promoting legislation to regulate this practice, which involved conducting experiments on live animals. In connection with that work, she wrote several letters to William W. Keen, a distinguished Philadelphia surgeon and medical researcher, seeking his support. (1) However, Keen pointedly rejected Phelps's request, observing in his letter to her dated 21 November 1902, "There seems to be no common ground for minds holding positions so far apart as yours and mine. Those who would abolish or even restrict the progress of knowledge by vivisection, kind as they may believe their motives to be, are to my mind guilty of the most horrible cruelty to animals and to man." (2) This rejection, combined with the failure of the efforts to secure passage of the bills in Massachusetts, seems to have contributed to Phelps's decision to engage the topic in a way that was familiar to her: She wrote a novel. In 1904, she published Trixy, a book whose entire plot is constructed around the topic of vivisection. As a novel, Trixy functions on one level as a standard polemic against vivisection and the suffering it inflicts on animals. However, to this standard plot Phelps adds a strikingly innovative story line that was both intensely personal for this long-term invalid yet also consistent with her lifelong interrogation of a male-dominated medical establishment. In Trixy, Phelps argues that the widespread practice of training physicians in vivisection laboratories actually contributed to making them bad doctors.

Phelps had explored the topic of vivisection before Trixy, most notably in a sentimental short story, "Loveliness" (1889), in which a dog escapes the vivisector's laboratory and is reunited with its owner, an invalid child who languishes and nearly dies in its absence. She wrote several pamphlets on the topic, A Plea for the Helpless (1901), Vivisection and Legislation in Massachusetts (1902), and Vivisection Denounced (1902); was active in antivivisection campaigns; and had even addressed several committees of the Massachusetts Legislature, voicing her opposition to a practice she found to be intolerable (Kelly, Life 19). Trixy is a logical outgrowth of all of these threads. The title character of her novel, a little white dog, abducted and later sold to Galen Medical School, is the lens through which Phelps explores the animal perspective on vivisection. However, by weaving into this plot a story line illustrating how training in vivisection ultimately impacted patient care, Phelps expands the issue in a way that goes beyond the narrow parameters of a debate between scientists and animal lovers to include a much broader demographic--the consumer of medical services.

By incorporating the patient's perspective into her narrative, Phelps capitalizes on an anxiety she shared with many of her contemporaries about receiving treatment from a cold and indifferent laboratory-trained clinician, the end product of a shift in how physicians in the latter half of the nineteenth century were being trained. Illness and invalidism were aspects of life that Phelps knew intimately, and perhaps that is why characters who are consigned to the sickroom frequently appear in her work. …

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