Did Soviet scientists actually keep a disembodied dog head alive back in the 1940s? Did those crazed Stalinist Frankensteins then follow up that stunt by surgically creating a two headed dog in 1954? (That is, if "two-headed" is accurate - it's more like two heads, six legs and one-and-a-half torsi.)
Sorry, I just wanted to use the word "torsi."
And forget the Soviets - what about the monkey brain that a Cleveland surgeon transplanted from one primate to another? Are these all Internet hoaxes, or the only known evidence of a subject too taboo to be taken seriously - the research into head and brain transplants that's been going on for decades?
I wish I had definitive answers for you - I don't. But I'm more inclined towards believing that these experiments actually took place than when I first stumbled onto this weird medical sub-culture. After starting off as a skeptic, I've come to believe that organisms have indeed been revived. Heads have been lopped off. Brains have been perfused. Cephalic members transplanted. Glucose permeated in isolated canine craniums. The works.
This all started a few weeks back, while browsing through the Prelinger archives. I came across the movie Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, which purports to show a 1940 Soviet experiment in which a dog's head was kept "alive" after being removed from its body. [download video, 49 meg mp4 file]. If you haven't seen this yet, be careful - it's not for the squeamish. And I might as well say upfront that I'm against the removal and reanimation of heads, even for scientific or culinary purposes. Fascinating though it may be, it amounts to torture. It's one thing to keep a dog's lungs pumping outside of it's deceased body, and quite another to maintain consciousness and pain receptiveness in a disembodied head. Maybe the imagined horror of this is what has kept this research relegated to the status of science fiction and hoaxology for so long.
But that didn't stop me from wanting to find out if this was a hoax or not. When you read the comments on the Prelinger page, you'll see that about half the people who saw the movie felt it was a hoax and half were inclined to believe it. I wanted to find out for myself. Surely, if this film was a hoax, it would be relatively easy to demonstrate that, if somebody hadn't done so already. But rather than uncovering any evidence of a hoax, my hours of hunting led to dozens of medical papers and abstracts which backed the film up, as well as uncovering more cases of head transplant experimentation in the US and Russia, not to mention a crew of scientists that would make Mary Shelley proud.
First, download and watch the movie, since the puzzle starts there. At first glance, Experiments in the Revival of Organisms comes off as a piece of World War Two era Soviet propaganda. The arteries and blood vessels leading in and out of the dog-head aren't made visible to the viewer, and the narration that accompanies the film (by the pro-Communist British Biologist J.B.S. Haldane) leaves much to be desired in terms of medical accuracy, so dumbed down was his description of the experiment. The film supposedly documents experiments performed by Dr. S.S. Bryukhonenko at the Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy in the U.S.S.R. It was premiered in November, 1943, when the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship and the American-Soviet Medical Society showed it to a thousand American scientists in New York City. Here are articles of that 1943 showing from The New York Times (download pdf file) and Time Magazine.
So what about this Bryukhonenko character - did he even exist? He did indeed. He invented the autojector, the artificial circulation machine shown in the film, and he was a well known figure in the field of Human Biology in the 30's and 40's. The National Institute of Health website has indices of papers referencing his work, including this 1969 article which describes (in Russian) some of the same work shown in this film. While I wasn't able to find any papers written by Bryukhonenko himself, I also didn't search using Cyrillic fonts, or go to a medical library to dig up the papers which are references on the National Institute of Health's website.
Despite his significant contributions to science and medicine, Bryukhonenko will forever be remembered as the dog-head doctor, due mostly to his portrayal as the disembodied head of Professor Dowell in Alexander Beliaev's science-fiction novel, "The Head of Professor Dowell," which was later made into the movie "Professor Dowell's Testament."
Bryukhonenko wasn't alone in his fascination with bringing dead things back to life. As one might expect from a country that lost 6 million people to the Nazi's during World War Two, the science of resuscitation was something of a scientific and medical obsession The Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy, where Bryukhonenko's dog experiments took place, was founded in 1936 by Vladimir Negovsky, a Soviet doctor who spent much of the Forties working on the front lines of the war with resuscitation teams, working to revive Soviet soldiers who were bleeding to death, and in some cases, had already bled to death. Negovsky's work prior to the war involved experiments with dogs, and Bryukhonenko was but one of many Soviet scientists working in this field.
In 1961, Negovsky defined his peculiar scientific specialty as "Reanimatology." From his obituary:
"Negovsky was able to develop reanimatology as a new medical discipline in the Soviet Union and trained and mentored several generations of "reanimatologists" in the communist countries, for whom anesthesiology, out-of-hospital emergency care and other acute clinical practices, became sub-specialties of reanimatology. Every hospital in Russia and former Soviet Republics has a Department of Reanimatology lead mostly by Negovsky's trainees."
Bryukhonenko also had protégés of his own, most notably Vladimir Demikhov, who in 1954 reportedly grafted a second head onto a living dog. You can see clips from his experiments here. The best view of Demikhov's creature is in the sixth clip (marked number "005").
It's hard to out-weird a two headed dog, but the odd gentleman who narrates Experiments in the Revival of Organisms has a bizarre back story all his own. JBS Haldane was an influential Scottish Geneticist and Biologist who staked his substantial reputation on Bryukhonenko's work. In this film, Haldane claims to have seen these experiments with his own eyes.
Haldane got his start in genetics by breeding guinea pigs for his scientist father and acting as one himself from time to time. From the Stephen Jay Gould Archive entry on Haldane:
"In one childhood episode, the elder Haldane made him recite a long Shakespearean speech in the depths of a mine shaft to demonstrate the effects of rising gases. When the gasping boy finally fell to the floor, he found he could breathe the air there, a lesson that served him well in the trenches of World War I. A physically courageous 200-pounder, Haldane continued the family tradition of using his own body for dangerous tests. In one experiment, he drank quantities of hydrochloric acid to observe its effects on muscle action; another time he exercised to exhaustion while measuring carbon dioxide pressures in his lungs." His penchant for self-experimentation stayed with him. In his decompression chamber experiments, he and his volunteers suffered perforated eardrums, but, as Haldane stated in his book What is Life, "The drum generally heals up; and if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment."
Haldane was a real renaissance guy; he spoke many languages, wrote extensively on history and politics, and made important research contributions to chemistry, biology, mathematics and genetics. He reshaped modern evolutionary biology with his studies in population genetics. His interest in genetics and biology influenced his 1924 book and essay, Daedalus, or Science and The Future, which imagined a day when people would control their own evolution through ectogenesis - the care and feeding of test tube babies.
Daedalus created quite a sensation in 1924, and Bertrand Russell was so appalled by its implications that he wrote his own book, Icarus or the Future of Science, in response. Another writer and friend of Haldane's named Aldous Huxley was also inspired enough by Daedalus and Russell's response to it that he based his own 1932 novel Brave New World on the questions raised by Haldane and Russell.
Ten years earlier, Huxley had used his friend Haldane as the inspiration for the character Shearwater in his novel Antic Hay (1923), as "the biologist too absorbed in his experiments to notice his friends bedding his wife."
Haldane was a committed Marxist for much of his career, which is why we find him narrating a film distributed by The National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. But by the end of World War Two, Haldane disavowed Marxism and moved to India to continue his studies and writing until his death in 1964.
Maybe you're thinking that there could be something to all this head removal business back in the U.S.S.R, but it couldn't possibly happen in the USA, with our long history of mostly ethical medical practices.
In the Sixties and Seventies, Dr. David Gilboe of the University of Wisconsin removed the brains of over 40 dogs, removing their blood to suffocate them, then reviving them by pumping the blood back in, not unlike Bryukhonenko's experiments in the 30's and 40's. Measuring the activity of the dog brains with an electroencephalograph, Gilboe concluded that it was possible to keep the dog brains functioning for approximately two hours outside of the body. Unlike Bryukhonenko, Gilboe wasn't studying the revival of organisms - he was studying the chemistry of brain metabolism during the process of suffocation and recovery. And what better way to do it than by removing dozens of dog brains. An article by Gilboe appeared in April, 1973 in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, and a pdf of it can be downloaded here, or you can view an abstract of the article as a web page here.
An index of a 1964 paper by Gilboe and two other scientists entitled "Extracorporeal Perfusion of the Isolated Head of a Dog" can be viewed here, but you will need to register to read the index.
Gilboe stayed true to the Soviet tradition of dog head removal, but another Midwestern scientist started with dogs and then moved up the evolutionary ladder. In the 1960's a Cleveland brain surgeon named Robert J White attached an isolated dog brain to a second dog to see if he could get some action out of the newly homeless brain. The experiment was a success, if you consider a dog with two working brains "successful," which White did. But this experiment was merely a warm up for White's most notorious experiment, in which he transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. When the newly re-headed monkey tried to bite off the finger of a researcher, White's entire team reportedly cheered. You can see the index of this experiment, entitled "Cephalic Exchange Transplantation In The Monkey" here.
White was on a roll, and was all set to try the concept out on Homo Sapiens, when something or someone stepped in and put an end to it. But not before he had somehow dabbled with a few human brains:
"We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation," he says. "It's dead for all practical purpose -- for over an hour -- then bring it back to life. If you want something that's a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!
Perhaps this is why White was later appointed as an adviser to Pope
John Paul II's Committee on Bioethics. Perhaps the Pope didn't know
about Craig Vetovitz, a paralyzed biker buddy of Whites who is
patiently waiting and hoping for Doctor White to remove his head and
graft it onto a working body. Or maybe the Pope did know about all
that, and that's why he's on the committee. It all gets very
confusing. You can read more about White here.
Perhaps tales like this are the reason that head and brain transplanation isn't taken seriously. As soon as you get into the realm of people shopping around for other people's bodies to carry their heads around, it gets a little hard to stop giggling. But it's no laughing matter for some. (And no, I'm not referring to Walt Disney, whose head, contrary to popular belief, was never put on ice awaiting a better day and body.)
There is one company out there called Brain Trans for which this is serious business. I'm afraid I can't tell you where Brain Trans is located, because the nature of their work violates various ethical and medical laws, some of which are still honored internationally. But I can tell you that they are located somewhere in Asia, they have a lot of brains on ice, and they have an even bigger choice of human bodies. Visit their body gallery!
But don't ask too many questions. As they say on their site, "Because of the ethical aspects we do not discuss how and were we getting new human bodies for brain transplantation. (sic)"
It doesn't take long to realize that the Brain Trans site is one of the funniest websites ever, even if the fraudulent purposes for which it was created are genuine. And it's the sites like Brain Trans, and the urban legends like the one about Walt Disney's brain and the dozens of Science Fiction books and movies about living disembodied heads that has kept the science of brain and head transplantation tucked away in the realm of rumor and fiction. As long as the horror of such research outstrips our fascination with it, legitimate versions of companies like Brain Trans will never be realized and brain transplantation will be another medical sub-specialty that's gone to the dogs.