A few years ago, a friend forwarded me a link to a YouTube video of an experiment from 1954 in which a doctor had cut a small dog in half and surgically attached it to another larger dog. Like many YouTube forwards, it was sent mostly for the “holy crap!” gross-out factor and not much more. Still, it made me curious enough to start poking around the Internet to learn more about who would possibly do such a thing. What I discovered was that this particular Dr. Frankenstein was a Soviet doctor named Vladimir Demikhov, and that he was not, in fact, a demented sociopath getting his rocks off staging a power-of-God freak show, but was instead a highly regarded cardiologist, considered a visionary by many, who was conducting this experiment in the name of serious research. Regardless of the official take, however, I still found the video unmistakably creepy, and the ethical alarms it set off in my head were deafening.
I’d resisted writing about this for any number of reasons (vague discomfort, queasiness, other subjects feeling more topical, not particularly wanting to field the death threats or just plain unkind emails that I imagine will come my way should I voice my opinion on either side—or more likely neither side—of the ethical issues involved in a public forum, back to more queasiness). I was well aware how my wife, who used to offer pro bono graphic design services to the Fund For Animals, felt about animal research, and she’d already vowed not to read this article no matter what I wrote ("those poor animals "). But when relatives, a married couple who are both doctors, encouraged me to write an article about medical dogs and forwarded me helpful research, I figured the time had come.
Still, I was conflicted. When I would finally start thinking of writing about Demikhov’s dogs, my internal dialogue would go something like this:
Serious Adult Me: So, why exactly are we writing about this?
Arrested Development Me: I guess if I’m honest with myself, the shock factor.
Serious Adult Me: Hey, that’s just wonderful. I myself was thinking that animal experimentation in the medical sciences might actually deserve a serious exploration.
Arrested Development Me (under breath): Jesus… (grumble) … yes, yes, of course. Yes… Dad.
Serious Adult Me: What was that?
Arrested Development Me: Nothing, nothing.
When I rewatched Demikhov’s video, it turned out to be every bit as odd and unsettling as I remembered it, with the added realization that on a closer viewing it was not just two dogs being exhibited, but a whole series of different two-headed dogs. Clocking in at about two and a half minutes, the video’s graininess makes it feel very much like the sort of ‘50s foreign sci-fi it kind of actually is. Its unintentional B-movie atmospherics are only increased by a dissonant soundtrack played over images of doctors in scrubs prodding with surgical instruments at internal organs framed by white cotton, a pair of lungs suddenly springing out of a dog’s thoracic cavity, inflating and deflating like a surreal detail straight out of Eraserhead. Meanwhile, a Russian voiceover murmurs along in what sounds like the urgent narration from an early French New Wave film, the modulated yet insistent sound of relentless, implacable fate.
We’re briefly shown two dogs, still unattached and playing with each other, the larger dog pawing playfully at the puppy. Then we see a series of post-op dogs, with the larger dogs hunching under the weight of the puppies, whose remaining heads and bodies, cut off behind the front legs, protrude from either the side or the back of the larger dogs’ necks. The dogs—both heads—are shown lapping from plates of milk held up to them by lab-coated assistants. Not visible in the video but described in a separate article I’d read about the experiments was the fact that the milk the attached puppies drank would then dribble out the protruding stump of their now useless esophagi, invariably causing a loss of appetite in the journalists sent there to observe.
Demikhov performed a total of 20 such experiments, most of the dogs living for less than a week, the longest pair surviving for only 28 days. As most of the deaths occurred because of tissue rejection between the two dogs, researchers have since questioned whether, with the rise of modern immunosuppressants, these dogs could have survived even longer together. But how would they have handled such unusually close quarters? I imagine them nipping at each other and driving each other nuts, the canine version of the two-headed criminal from the 1972 B-film The Thing with Two Heads—the Caucasian transplanted head, played by Ray Milland, saying things like “Help me!” or “Stop this infernal machine,” while the annoyed African-American host head, played by Rosie Grier, invariably responds, “Ah, just shut up.”
By the time of his last experiment in the ‘60s, Demikhov’s methods had fallen into disfavor with the Soviet authorities, and by the ’70s his career was largely over. He died in relative obscurity in 1998, though he was awarded the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, 3rd Class, shortly before his death.
In my pursuit of all things Demikhov, Google led me to a website devoted to lists, oddee.com. While I’m not normally conducting my research on NSFW sites whose most popular content includes articles entitled “7 Amazing Facts about the Penis” and “18 Hilarious Camel Toe Fails,” I nevertheless found it fascinating that the site had Demikhov listed as number one on the their list of “Top 10 Mad Scientists in History,” ahead of the legendarily depraved Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” who clocked in at number three.
Incidentally, also on the list at number six is Demikhov’s predecessor and fellow YouTube cult star Dr. Sergei Bruyukhonenkow (say it—or better yet spell it—five times fast), whose personal contribution to mad dog experiments was the complete decapitation of a dog, after which he kept the dog’s head alive using a primitive heart-and-lung machine called the autojektor. He also entirely drained the blood from another dog, then left it for ten minutes, after which the blood was reintroduced into the dog’s system using the autojektor. The dog completely revived and reportedly went on to live a full and happy (if, I assume, slightly brain-damaged) life. Both procedures are recorded in agonizing detail in a web-accessible film entitled Experiments in the Revival of Organisms.
As a literary aside, I can’t help but wonder if either of these doctors had read or been inspired by author (and former doctor) Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, about a snobbish anti-proletariat doctor who turns a stray dog into a man by replacing his canine testes and pituitary with those of a man—unfortunately a drunken, bullying mess of a man whose traits are inherited by the dog-man hybrid, who eventually works his way into the Soviet politburo. But in any case, starting with Pavlov at the turn of the previous century, Russia and its medical community certainly were fixated on their dogs.
In a 1998 article from The Annals of Thoracic Surgery celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Demikhov’s execution of the first-ever successful thoracic heart and lung transplant, performed on a dog in 1946, Dr. Igor Konstantinov provides a thorough overview of Demikhov’s many accomplishments, starting with Demikhov’s creation in 1937—while still only a 21-year-old medical student—of the first mechanical cardiac assist device. Konstantinov insists on Demikhov’s central place in the history of transplantology, quoting Christiaan Barnard, the South African cardiologist who had visited Demikhov’s lab twice in the ’60s before becoming the first surgeon ever to successfully perform a human-to-human heart transplant. Barnard was very clear in his feelings about Demikhov, a man he considered a teacher. “He was certainly a remarkable man. I have always maintained that if there was a father of heart and lung transplantation then Demikhov certainly deserves this title.”
Konstantinov writes that Demikhov had made a personal motto out of a quote from Ivan Pavlov, yet another scientist whose name will forever be paired with dogs: “The endless variations of experiments as far as human ingenuity permits—that is the cardinal rule of physiological research.” Given this as his motto, Demikhov’s more radical methods at least make somewhat more sense. That said, Konstantinov dedicates only one slightly dismissive sentence in the entire article to Demikhov’s infamous two-headed dogs: “It is interesting and even surprising that most surgeons are aware of Demikhov’s famous dog with two heads, but only a few can recall his contribution to coronary surgery.” To which I just want to respond, “For Christ’s sake, the man cut a dog in half–actually 20 of them–and surgically attached them to 20 other dogs!” That this sticks in people’s minds is really, really not surprising.
I realize Konstantinov’s point is that a trained surgeon should view Demikhov’s work from a clinical, and not an emotional, viewpoint, a viewpoint not necessarily shared by the average dog-loving individual, and also that a surgeon should be deeply versed in surgical history, but still. Doctors and researchers don’t do themselves any favors willfully blinding themselves to what is for the average individual ethical razor wire with a lethal high-voltage chaser. I for one whipsawed all over the ethical spectrum while writing this piece. While I understand the value of medical research on animals, and while I’m certainly thankful others have the stomach for the kind of research and lab work that I myself would not, I still can’t help wondering what, if any, real value came from Demikhov’s and Bruyukhonenkow’s more extreme experiments with dogs and whether these goals could not have been alternatively reached.
But while I am hopelessly muddled ethically, temperamentally willing to entertain opposing views, provided they’re not expressed by an asshole, I feel pretty crystal clear as a realist. The use of animals in medical research, however I might personally feel about it, is going to exist–and if it doesn’t exist here, it will exist in some much more lawless elsewhere (and, unfortunately, already does). The best we can hope for is strict regulation and guidelines for its use, and kind and conscientious practitioners of the science.
But who are these practitioners? I’ve always been mystified and a little awestruck by those who make it their career messing around with the soft interior tubes and valves of the engine of life. I am decidedly not that kind of person, having wormed my way out of eighth grade biology, in the process avoiding ever having to even dissect a frog.
Fortunately for my curiosity, at least one book exists that is not only about such a person, but is written by that person as well. Partners of the Heart is the memoir of Vivien Thomas, one of the 20th century’s most famous medical technicians. Granted, “most famous” when talking about medical technicians is relative, but in his case there was a 2004 HBO movie made about him starring Mos Def, with Alan Rickman as his main partner in medicine, Dr. Alfred Blalock.
Despite my having to gloss over sizable chunks of the book in which surgical procedures are described in clinically precise detail (I may never know, for example, what “we decided to combine the ventricular septal defect and the pulmonic stenosis” actually means), it is a fascinating and occasionally inspiring read. While I did manage to learn my fistula from my cannula, and my myocardium from my pericardium, it was definitely the stories around the experiments and surgery that did more to stir my predominantly non-scientific blood.
Born in Nashville in 1910, Thomas had dreamed of going to medical school but had been sidelined for financial reasons and never made it past his freshman year of college. Desperate for work during the depression, he found a job as a lab technician for Dr. Alfred Blalock, a brilliant young surgeon at Vanderbilt University. Despite his actual position, as an African American at the time he was per university policy officially classified and paid as a janitor. When he learned this, he confronted Blalock with the information and was promptly given a raise–the first of many times Thomas would diplomatically yet successfully press Blalock for higher pay.
When Blalock left Vanderbilt to become head of surgery at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, he convinced Thomas to come along in order to run John Hopkins’ Hunterian research lab, or, as it was referred to among the staff, “the dog house.” It was at John Hopkins that Dr. Helen Taussig, the founder of pediatric cardiology, would convince Blalock to help her find a cure for a condition known as tetralogy of Falot, commonly known as Blue Baby syndrome, a condition in which a child’s blood—largely bypassing the lungs—is insufficiently oxygenated.
The search for a surgical cure largely fell to Thomas, who was assigned the task of recreating the condition in the laboratory dogs and then of figuring out how to fix it. He succeeded, then taught Blalock the technique to use on humans. After Blalock’s second successful surgery, the “Blalock-Taussig shunt” (developed, of course, largely by the unnamed Thomas) became famous, and the pediatric hospital at John Hopkins was quickly overrun by parents anxious to have the surgery for their children, many having shown up from across the country without having even made an appointment.
Thomas describes a hospital staff worn out by the sudden influx of “Blue Baby” patients but ultimately rewarded for their efforts.
“A two-and-a-half-year-old girl had never made an attempt to walk or even to stand without coaxing. Her mother broke into tears on entering her room (after the operation) to find her standing at the rail of her crib. Scenes like this and seeing the marvelous, almost miraculous improvement in the condition of these little patients… had given all of us the strength and stamina to carry on.”
While pleased and proud to be the eventual recipient of an honorary doctorate from John Hopkins, formal recognition for Thomas never seems to have been a concern, and his focus was always the daily work and the good that it could achieve.
Legendary as an animal surgeon and the sort of no-nonsense pragmatist who would invent and refine surgical tools as needed, Thomas is markedly clear and non-neurotic about his work. As far as one can tell from his memoir, he sees in his medical research and his work on dogs only a positive good. He never once in the book introduces an ethical quandary over his use of dogs for research and training, explaining straightforwardly that dogs are used in these experiments because “anatomically, the heart and the arrangement of the great vessels are much like those of the human. The sizes of the vessels are comparable to those of an infant or a small child.”
Ironically or not, because of his legendary skill with animal surgery, Thomas was occasionally tasked with performing emergency surgery on animals brought into the hospital and became resident surgeon to all of the pets on the Hopkins faculty and staff–to such an extent in fact that he came under scrutiny by the local veterinary association. He was helped out of this mess by a veterinarian friend, a veterinarian who had refined his surgical skills studying with the master, Thomas himself.
While I pored over bioethics sites trying to wrap my head around my personal feelings about the use of animal research in medicine, and considered the conflicted thoughts that crossed my mind as I passed loving pets being walked down the sidewalk, the question of ethics, in a simplistic nutshell, always seem to come down to a variation of “what wouldn’t you do to help a child in distress?” Stories like the success of the Blue Baby operation, or the story from Rome last week describing the successful implantation of the smallest artificial heart ever—looking like a tiny microphone the size of my pinky’s first knuckle—in a 16-month-year old who had been living in the hospital’s intensive care from the age of one month, are inspiring despite the fact that they both rely on the sacrifice of animals to achieve their success.
As with all ethical questions, we’re demanding the hard ground of definite answers where there is only the quicksand of conditionals and context, and we always end up with annoyingly murky pabulum like this very sentence. What separates the inarguable good resulting from Thomas’s work from the far more nebulous positives of Demikhov’s and Bruyukhonenkow’s notorious canine experiments is quite likely much more marginal from a medical standpoint than it is from a superficially ethical one. But the point is that who—besides a trained medical professional—would be able to tell? Which leaves us with little more than our gut reaction, varying from heated outrage to the reaction of the guy I was just talking to about this article: “Forget the ethics, will you forward me that YouTube link?”