In 1955, at a meeting of the Moscow Surgical Society, a sensational exhibit was presented to the assembled guests. On the platform close to the audience, a large white dog was brought in. The dog looked happy, cheerfully wagging its tail, and unintimated by the large crowd of eager guests in front of him. He seemed particularly unconcerned by the unnatural appendage protruding from the side of his neck.
Just a few days before the meet, the dog had undergone a major surgery during which the Soviet scientist Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov had attached to the side of his neck a second head, acquired from a small brown-haired puppy. Both the hound and the decapitated head of the puppy were alive and reacting to stimuli. And even as the surgeons watched, the puppy’s head gave the ear of its host a nasty bite. The white head snarled.
Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov’s demonstration sent shockwaves through Russia’s medical community, but this was not the first time our Soviet Dr. Frankenstein had ruffled feathers in his quest for medical breakthroughs. In 1937, at the age of only 21 and still a student, the young Vladimir had shocked his professors by creating the first artificial heart, which he successfully implanted into a dog. The dog survived for five hours. After graduation, Demikhov continued his experimental research, eventually performing successful heart and lung transplants, and later, liver and kidney transplantation on dogs and cats. Some of his patients survived for a month. His experiments with bypassing the coronary arteries were more satisfying. Four of the dogs survived for as long as 2 years. One dog operated in 1953 survived for 7 years.
Encouraged by his successes, Demikhov began moving to bolder experiments. In 1954, he performed his most controversial experimental operation, where he grafted the head and forelegs of a small puppy to the neck of a large adult dog.
“When the multiple dog regained consciousness after the operation, the puppy’s head woke up and yawned. The big head gave it a puzzled look and tried at first to shake it off,” reports Time.
The puppy’s head kept its own personality. Though handicapped by having almost no body of its own, it was as playful as any other puppy. It growled and snarled with mock fierceness or licked the hand that caressed it. The host-dog was bored by all this, but soon became reconciled to the unaccountable puppy that had sprouted out of its neck. When it got thirsty, the puppy got thirsty and lapped milk eagerly. When the laboratory grew hot, both host-dog and puppy put out their tongues and panted to cool off. After six days of life together, both heads and the common body died.
Demikhov created many such medical monstrosities. With time and experience, the survival rate of the animals improved, until one hybrid dog survived for 29 days.
When news of his pioneering surgeries spread throughout the western world, it raised many eyebrows and even more ethical questions regarding the acceptance of such procedures and their true medical need. But Demikhov could clearly see the future.
“The final goal of our experiments was to make transplantation of the heart and other organs in humans possible,” Demikhov wrote in a monograph.
Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov
In 1960, Demikhov published his book ‘Experimental Transplantation of Vital Organs’ where he described in details the different approaches and surgical techniques. Soon afterwards the book was translated and published in several western countries, and for a long time was the only monograph in the field of transplantation of organs and tissues.
In his Landmarks in Cardiac Surgery, author Stephen Westaby recalled that in 1962, when an article on Demikhov’s head transplantations was published in the Cape Argos newspaper, Doctor Christiaan Barnard, a young South African cardiac surgeon at the Groote Schuur Hospital, remarked that “anything those Russians can do, we can do, too.” That same afternoon, he reproduced the experiment by transplanting the head of a dog onto another dog. The dog survived for several days.
Christiaan Barnard would later perform the world’s first successful transplantation of a human heart from a person who had just died from a head injury.
In 1997, a year before Vladimir Demikhov’s death, Dr. Barnard wrote in a letter to one his colleagues, crediting his own success to Demikhov’s earlier experiments.
“He was certainly a remarkable man, having done all the research before extracorporeal circulation. I have always maintained that if there is a father of heart and lung transplantation then Demikhov certainly deserves this title,” Barnard wrote.
Despite his contribution to medical science, very few recognized Demikhov, especially by his own country. The true value of his experiments were acknowledged by the Russian state only at the end of his life, when he was awarded the “Order for Services for the Fatherland” in 1998, the year of his death.
Demikhov performing experimental surgery in Leipzig.
The last dog head transplant performed by Vladimir Demikhov on January 13, 1959 in East Germany.
# Simon Matskeplishvili, https://academic.oup.com/eurheartj/article/38/46/3406/4706202
# Igor E. Konstantinov, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763473/
# Russia Beyond, https://www.rbth.com/science-and-tech/326540-dog-heads-demikhov-soviet-medicine
# Time, http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,891156,00.html