Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Weird Wednesday: Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov and The Two-Headed Dog

I figured I'd kick off this new series with something absolutely disturbing—and while I love all things weird, disturbing, and morbid, even I am uncomfortable with this story.

I'm an avid dog lover. So, being that this particular gruesome story deals with these lovable, cuddly, loyal-to-a-fault, furry creatures, I find it incredibly hard to digest. I've been known to say, "There's nothing better than a good dog, except for two good dogs." But, you know, I didn't mean a medically created two-headed-dog...

Vladimir Demikhov was, by all accounts, a prominent figure within the medical industry. His groundbreaking work led to improvements in coronary bypass surgery and even paved the way for the future of organ transplants. He was, to say the least, pretty damn innovative.

And it was this extreme, innovative mind that made him great—but that also earned him the title of "mad scientist" (usually by those not involved in the industry).

You see, Demikhov performed some rather odd experiments. And by "odd," I mean medical experiments with dogs. And by "with dogs," I mean two dogs that would eventually become one fucking dog. This dude, Demikhov, was performing successful dog head transplants and literally creating two-headed dogs.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-61478-0004 / Weiß, Günter / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
For a moment, imagine someone who doesn't work in the medical industry—your neighbor, perhaps—successfully completing this experiment. He would immediately be institutionalized as a psychopath or jailed for animal cruelty and perhaps even be labeled as a potential future serial killer.

But ol' Demikhov? He was important, you see.

  • He created the very first cardiac-assist device.
  • He was the first to transplant an auxiliary heart into a warm-blooded animal.
  • He was the first to transplant a working heart and lungs into a living animal.

He was quite the guy, that Demikhov.

In his most well-known experiment, he basically cut off the head and upper body of a smaller dog and attached it to another dog. The purpose of this experiment was to understand how to provide blood supply to the donor head and upper body. It had nothing to do with grafting the nervous system, although the body parts were able to move and respond to stimulus. 

The dogs did not live very long. Most survived only a few days, but in one extraordinary case, the dog lived for 29 days. The reason for death was always transplant rejection.

After Vladimir Demikhov's experiments, Dr. Robert White—who was inspired by Demikhov's work—went on to transplant heads in monkeys. Perhaps Dr. Robert White will be featured in a future "Weird Wednesday."

Now, in Demikhov's defense (I must admit, it feels weird defending a man who created two-headed dogs), he didn't perform these experiments just for shits-and-giggles. It was all in the name of science. And while it's a sad fact, without medical testing, we wouldn't have:

  • Insulin
  • Modern anesthtics
  • Asthma inhalers
  • Polio vaccines
  • Tetanus vaccines
  • Tuberculosis vaccines
  • HPV vaccines
  • Meningococcal vaccines

At this point in science, animal research is important. It hurts to say that. It really does. But it's the sad reality of the situation. It doesn't make it any less heartbreaking. As much as I don't want to justify it, I can say with certainty that animal testing has played a vital role in nearly every medical breakthrough in the last couple of decades and continues to do so.

Non-animal methods are available and are equally important in biomedical research, but they simply cannot replace the use of animals for testing. At least, not yet.

Of course, none of the facts can change how I feel about animal testing. I hate it. It saddens me. It sickens me. But at the same time, my logical mind overrides my emotional mind and reluctantly admits that we need this research. I wish we lived in a perfect world. In a perfect world, we wouldn't test anything on animals because in a perfect world, we would have no need to test on animals. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.

And Vladimir Demikhov's experiments are a fine example of that.

Like this post? Check out more posts in the Weird Wednesday series.

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