Early Animal Rights Poem Discovered: A Mouse's Plea
April 21, 2010
There were lots of mice in Priestley's lab. He had made his reputation as one
of the first scientists to identify oxygen. He studied mice to figure out what
happens inside animals as they breathe. This meant he regularly opened them to
examine lungs, veins, arteries, to see that blood changed color when it moved
through lungs. And since tuberculosis -- or "consumption" -- was the scourge of
that era, lung research seemed like a valuable thing to do.
"There's this extraordinary moment," says historian Richard Holmes. It's
1773. "Priestley packs up for the day, and he leaves that next mouse in a cage
on his desk for the next morning. He will put it [in a breathing tank] and
remove the oxygen, and the mouse will almost certainly die. And Anna Barbauld,
who's cleaning up, she just looks at the mouse, and she thinks, wait a minute,
wait a minute ... and she sits down and writes a poem."
It is a poem, he says in a footnote in his prize-winning book The Age of
Wonder, in which "a freeborn mouse, cruelly imprisoned in its laboratory cage,
appeals for its right to life." It is written from the mouse's point of view.
Special thanks to Benjamin Arthur for imagining Anna Barbauld's mouse in
watercolor, and to actress Anne Bobby for her performance (including her
outburst in our studio -- you can hear her losing it on our radio story, and her
obviously broken heart is on display; just hit the "listen" button). Richard
Holmes' book is called The Age of Wonder. It won the Critics Circle Award for
Best Nonfiction 2009.