Deep in Tennessee near the Georgia border, the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga sits in the shadows of the nation's more prominent medical schools. But it holds the distinction of being the last in the United States to use live animals to teach surgical skills to students.
A few days ago, the college quietly marked the end of the controversial practice, and by extension its elimination in the United States and Canada. "Effective immediately, the University of Tennessee College of Medicine Chattanooga has ceased to provide surgical skills training for medical students using live animal models," Robert Fore, its dean, wrote to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which has fought the practice for more than a decade.
Fore said UT Chattanooga will follow nearly 200 other medical schools in the two countries that now rely on surgery simulation and other technology that has rendered the use of dogs, cats and pigs obsolete. Johns Hopkins Medical University Medical School ended its use of live pigs for laboratory classes only a few weeks before the Tennessee school.
Animals which were used by schools to teach students how to apply anesthesia, remove organs, cut incisions, find a large vein and other procedures were routinely destroyed when the lessons were done.
"It's a watershed moment," said John Pippin, a retired cardiologist and director of academic affairs for Physicians Committee. "For anyone who went to medical school in years past, it was a rite of passage, often a disturbing rite of passage, to use a dog or cat or another animal in medical courses.
According to Pippin, the medical school in Chattanooga used 300 pigs per year to train students, but the committee has no idea how many lives will be spared by the termination of the practice because in most cases the death records were not kept.
"It gets animals out of harm's way and it allows medical school students to learn they can be great doctors without harming animals," he said. "The best you can say (is) many thousands of animals a year that would have been killed to train medical students will not be."
Johns Hopkins sacrificed up to 40 pigs a year for a class that teaches surgical skills, said a spokeswoman, Audrey M. Huang. In a May 18 message to students, Roy Ziegelstein, a medical professor, wrote that the Baltimore-based school "will no longer use live animals in your medical school education," following the path of "almost all medical schools" that have eliminated the practice.
The elimination of live animal surgical training by medical schools comes slightly more than a year after The National Institutes of Health quietly ended the federal government's long and controversial history of using chimpanzees for biomedical research.
Director Francis Collins announced that 50 chimpanzees still held by the government for medical research in 2015 would be sent to sanctuaries. That decision followed another by NIH two years earlier to release more than 300 chimps at research facilities across the country and resettle them. NIH's hand was forced when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started and completed a determination to list captured chimpanzees as endangered along with those in the wild.
Ziegelstein said Hopkins did not make its decision lightly. A "majority of students feel that live animal lab is highly valued and is of great benefit to their education," but the practice was "the most publicly controversial aspect of our medical school experience," and Hopkins had become isolated as other schools dropped the practice for simulators of human bodies that they considered superior to animals.
The appeal of using live animals, Hopkins students said, according to Ziegelstein, was the experience of being directly responsible for decisions in life-threatening situations, an opportunity that simulations could not provide.
But the bottom line for animal advocates and the physicians committee was that animals were being slaughtered for that opportunity. A task force that studied the issue at Hopkins concluded that although students valued studies that led to the deaths of pigs, "this laboratory experience is not essential to the professional development of a medical student."
Animal rights advocates started fighting the killing of live animals for medical education 30 years ago before the physicians committee took up the issue in 2005, Pippin said. By that time, the development of medical simulators that evolved from flight simulators for pilots had been around for nearly 15 years.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine and George Washington University School of Medicine was among the first schools to turn to simulators and away from live animals. The University of Central Florida School of Medicine was established in 2006 without a live animal lab. But the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences didn't end the practice until three years ago.
They weren't ethical decisions. "I've found in general that ethics and what people may consider humane to creatures is not a major factor," Pippin said. "Quality of education and the expense are the two things that made a difference."