William Russell & Rex Burch

William Russell & Rex Burch (Image published courtesy of Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments. www.frame.org.uk)

By David Morton (DM) and Michael Balls (MB)
(David Morton and Michael Balls have both known Russell and Burch personally)

Russell and Burch were best known to us as the authors of a book published in 1959, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. In it, amongst many other thoughtful ideas, the concept of inhumanity and the promise of the Three Rs were expounded. The Three Rs have gained worldwide acceptance over the past 20-30 years, now being incorporated into all the legislation controlling the use of laboratory animals, but between 1959 and the early 1980s, neither the authors nor their book were well known. In fact, both Russell and Burch were almost completely absent from the world of animal research, as they went their separate ways after the book was published and lost contact with each other. Bill was a sociologist, based at the University of Reading, where he stayed until he retired. He married his psychoanalyst, Claire, and his eclecticism took him in many different directions. David Morton writes, “I particularly remember when he took part in a national radio programme, Round Britain Quiz - a contest between teams from various regions in the UK, where obscure clues were given to the teams to disentangle”. Bill sang one of his answers in the operetta style of Gilbert & Sullivan. Rex, on the other hand, went on to establish his own microbiology laboratory, in Sheringham, Norfolk, UK, where, amongst other things, he tested the bacterial contents of seawater and Dr Scholl foot pads. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Martin Stephens of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) took it upon himself to find out what had happened to them, as the HSUS wanted to establish a Russell & Burch Award in their name and he thought they should be asked for their permission. As a result, much to their delight, they were reunited after more than 30 years, and took part in a memorable meeting in Sheringham in 1995, along with 20 or so others from various part of the world, on The Three Rs: The Way Forward (see Balls et al., The Report and Recommendations of ECVAM Workshop 11. ATLA 23, 838 – 866, 1995).

Michael Balls recalls that Bill’s enthusiasm was infectious, and every contact with him made one feel much better about oneself and life in general. Bill never threw anything away. The three-story house he and Claire shared, in Reading, was packed with tens of thousands of books and thousands of box files, plus accumulations of about 15 manual typewriters and 15 vacuum cleaners. Their papers are now held in the William and Claire Russell Archive at the University of Nottingham. As I grow older, I find that my impressions and views are more and more like Bill’s, and I have a long list of things I wish I had discussed with him when I had the chance. Rex was a very different character, but was also unique. Although he was a very gentle person, he was a very experienced scientist and it would be a mistake to consider him to be Bill’s junior partner. His laboratory was in the Sheringham town hall, and, since my brother was manager of Barclays Bank, a couple of streets away, I must have walked within a few metres of Rex on hundreds of occasions, without ever noticing the nameplate on the door. Had I done so, I think both our lives would have been very different.

David Morton recalls a time in Bologna at the 4th World Congress on Alternatives in 1999, that as I was accompanying Bill back to his hotel, I suggested we had an ice cream as we passed a gelateria. I did not know that was one of his favourite treats, and 3 ice creams later we proceeded to his hotel. By that time Rex was too frail to go conferences but when we were in Sheringham we had some interesting debates. One of which was why non-recovery experiments were not to be counted in the UK Annual Statistics. His view was that as we ate meat, there was really no need to count such experiments. The discussion revolved around the value of an animal’s life, vegetarianism, zoos, companion animals and so on. As you can imagine it was interesting!


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David Morton

David Morton is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham since 2006. He is a strong advocate of the Three Rs and was a trustee of FRAME for over 15 years. He is among others a founder member of the British Veterinary Association's Ethics Committee, currently a Foundation Diplomate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine, and from the mid-nineties a member of Europe's various Animal Health and Welfare Committees.

Michael Balls

Michael Balls became a Trustee of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME) in 1979, and was Chairman of the Trustees from 1981 until his resignation in June 2013. In 1993, Balls became the first Head of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods. He retired from this position in 2002. Since 1995, he has been an Emeritus Professor at Nottingham University.