Founder, The Vegan Society (UK)
2 September 1910 – 16 November 2005
The word ‘vegan’ represents the principles of nonviolence, sociological consciousness, and empathy without restriction or caveat. It is a word we have rallied around, as a tangible handle for a broad and inclusive perspective. It signifies both the beginning of our activism and the conclusion we work toward.
Donald Watson’s legacy extends beyond providing a name for our movement, but creating the term ‘vegan’ is certainly one of the most salient and perhaps widest reaching of his contributions. Though it may be difficult to cite a definitive forebear in a philosophy whose values and ethics have been implicit in every peaceful movement that has embraced nonviolence, the vegans of today and tomorrow can look to Watson as a major catalyst for the formation and proliferation of our principles.
Watson grew up, as many still do, amongst family and neighbors who regularly consumed animal products and regarded the practice as a fact of life, in which routine and ubiquity elided the sentience and suffering of animals. In a 2003 interview with George D. Rodger, he recalls visiting an uncle’s farm and learning about the ‘purpose’ assigned to each species of animal who resided there:
“One of my earliest recollections is of holidays on my Uncle George’s farm where I was surrounded by interesting animals. They all ‘gave’ something: the farm horse pulled the plough, the lighter horse pulled the trap, the cows ‘gave’ milk, the hens ‘gave’ eggs and the cockerel was a useful ‘alarm clock’ – I didn’t realise at that time that he had another function too. The sheep ‘gave’ wool. I could never understand what the pigs ‘gave’, but they seemed such friendly creatures – always glad to see me.”
His relationship with these animals would become the basis for questioning their subservient position within the human world. Watson became a vegetarian in 1924 after witnessing the pig slaughter on his uncle’s farm when he was fourteen years old. He describes the cognitive dissonance that this pivotal moment engendered for him as a child, torn between the bucolic façade of the farm and the painful reality of its purpose:
“Then the day came when one of the pigs was killed: I still have vivid recollections of the whole process – including the screams, of course. One thing that shocked me was that my Uncle George, of whom I thought very highly, was part of the crew. I decided that farms – and uncles – had to be reassessed: the idyllic scene was nothing more than Death Row, where every creature’s days were numbered by the point at which it was no longer of service to human beings.”
With his decision to become vegetarian, Watson was quickly thrust into the minority. And while his parents never embraced his choices, his siblings eventually adopted vegetarianism, as well as becoming teetotallers and conscientious objectors during the war. These progressive politics prompted Watson’s mother to remark that she “felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs.”
Watson’s observations of farm life and his relationship with the animals raised and confined there are full pathos and meaning. Later in his young life, after taking a woodworking apprenticeship, he comes to meet a gander, with whom he formed an attachment. He recalls their daily ritual of sharing his lunch together in the workshop and speaks frankly about the gander’s death:
“[The gander] used to come into the workshop, as I was having my lunch, sitting on the sawing stool, it would share my lunch with me, and we became very friendly. I’ve still got a photograph of him somewhere. Well, one day, after I suppose two or three years, old Albert came into the workshop with this gander under his arm and then put the body between his legs and the gander was rebelling, not knowing what was going to happen, and I heard Albert say “Not this time, boy”. The gander went the same way as all the hens, and he was hung up, fluttering for I suppose the best part of five minutes, and that was the end of my friendship with him.”
These moments of contrast and discord encouraged Watson to question normative practices and to seek a more peaceful, more consistent and rational existence during his time on Earth. While he never espoused or rejected religion outright, quipping that he was too timid for atheism and so remained agnostic, he did remark with some astonishment that the individuals and institutions responsible for passing morality onto the next generation were myopic in determining the extent of the sphere of moral concern.
“I never heard a word, from my parents, or from my grandparents, of from my 22 uncles and aunts, or my 16 cousins, or my teachers or my vicar, on anything remotely associated with any duties we may have to what the religious people call ‘God’s Creation.’”
Watson became active in vegetarian circles as he grew into adulthood, meeting for the first time a few peculiar vegetarians who eschewed both eggs and dairy as well as animal flesh. Adopting this practice for himself after learning about the ‘biological mechanics’ of the dairy industry, he attempted to create a section for these ‘non-dairy vegetarians’ within the Vegetarian Society, but was met with resistance and hostility. A number of critiques suggested that this new diet was at best unhealthful and at worst damaging; perhaps the mid-century equivalent of “where do you get your protein?” Of course, an impressive amount of scientific research since this time has shown that a sensible vegan diet is perfectly healthy and has many advantages over diets that include animal products.
During World War II, Watson registered as a conscientious objector, hoping to find a way to “work for the life of the nation, and not kill people I’d never met, and leave their descendants bereaved.” Remaining in England as a teacher, he was able to continue developing his vegan advocacy.
In 1944, Watson abdicated his efforts to create a nondairy section within the conservative vegetarian movement and elected instead to form a new and completely autonomous advocacy group with other ‘non-dairy vegetarians.’ Thankfully for their philosophical progeny, this incipient group decided to improve upon their name. Discussing the matter with his then-fiance Dorothy Morgan, the couple came up with the word ‘vegan’, that is, the beginning and the end of vegetarian. Even so, the word ‘vegan’ began as something of a place holder. In the very first issue of his touchstone publication, The Vegan News, Watson solicited additional names from his readership. The responses were varied and colorful, including “dairyban, vitan, benevore, sanivore, beaumangeur.” Happily, they decided to stick with vegan.
Watson was the driving force behind the Vegan Society for the first two years of its inception, writing and editing its newsletter The Vegan News almost single-handedly. The first issue of The Vegan News presents a stirring and lucid call for change, critical thinking, and deliberate choices. Veganism entered the sphere of public discourse with this four-page publication. Though it may have lacked production value, The Vegan News took a bold and unwavering stance, noting without evasion or euphemism the present state of animal exploitation:
“We can see quite plainly that our present civilization is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilizations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.”
This first issue of The Vegan News begins by citing research published in the Vegetarian Messenger on the subject of dairy, bringing attention to the “very strong evidence to show that the production of these foods involves much cruel exploitation and slaughter of highly sentient life. The excuse that it is not necessary to kill in order to obtain dairy produce is untenable for those with knowledge of livestock farming methods.” This is no less true today. Any system in which one class of beings so thoroughly dominates – even owns – another is built on violence and subjugation, regardless of idyllic trappings and bucolic fantasies.
Watson’s Vegan News goes on to state, unequivocally, that “the object of our Group is to state a case for a reform that we think is moral, safe and logical. In doing so we shall, of course, say strongly why we condemn the use of dairy produce and eggs. In return we shall expect to be criticized. It will be no concern of ours if we fail to convert others, but we do think it should concern them if, deep in their hearts, they know we are right.”
This bears further reflection as it cuts to the center of an ongoing debate. Many vegans struggle with how to approach others about veganism, how to draw attention to moral and logical inconsistencies, and advocate for the billions of animals unjustifiably slaughtered year after year. Some vegans and vegan organizations have approached these encounters by taking what might best be described as an ‘accomodationist’ strategy, rather than advocating veganism as the first step.
Anticipating the possibility of reluctance, Watson adds:
“A common criticism is that the time is not yet ripe for our reform. Can time ever be ripe for any reform unless it is ripened by human determination? Did Wilberforce wait for the ‘ripening’ of time before he commenced his fight against slavery? Did Edwin Chadwick, Lord Shaftesbury, and Charles Kingsley wait for such a non-existent moment before trying to convince the great dead weight of public opinion that clean water and bathrooms would be an improvement?”
Watson brings gravity to animal exploitation, and explicitly connects veganism, in the broadest sense of the term, to other struggles for essential social justice. Change, he reminds us, does not occur without substantial effort and determination, individually as well as collectively. The first issue of The Vegan News, in addition to marking the beginning of a truly comprehensive movement toward nonviolence, is a pithy rejection of moral complacency.
The Vegan Society has continued to grow in membership and prominence since its founding. But it is unfortunate that the Society’s development has not been untouched by controversy. Recently, Gary Francione, a major proponent of abolitionism, wrote a series of troubling critiques on his website upon learning that the Vegan Society published advertisements promoting vegetarian establishments, noting that this policy “clearly and explicitly conflicts with the very basis and reason for the founding of the Vegan Society in 1944.”
Before he passed, Watson encouraged vegans to take a “broad view of what veganism stands for,” reminding us that far beyond a diet, veganism embraces the principles of nonviolence. To vegetarians, Watson points out that “lacto-vegetarianism is but a half-way house between flesh-eating and a truly humane, civilised diet… during our life on earth we should try to evolve sufficiently to make the ‘full journey’.” Watson died on November 16, 2005 at the full age of 95. It is perhaps most fitting to recall his legacy in his own words. When asked by Rodger what achievements he was most proud of, Watson responded:
“Achieving what I set out to do: to feel that I was instrumental in starting a great new movement which could not only change the course of things for Humanity and the rest of Creation, but alter Man’s expectation of surviving for much longer on this planet.”
Gary Francione. (2011) “I wonder what Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society, would think.” The Abolitionist Approach.
George Rodger. (2002) “Interview with Donald Watson on Sunday 15 December 2002.”
Vegetarians in Paradise. “24 Carrot Award-Interview with Donald Watson.”
The Vegan Society