Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Vladimir Demikhov

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Think that mad scientists are confined only to the literary world?

Think again. The annals of history are littered with kooky researchers

and batty experiments, and many of their stories actually outdo their

fictitious counterparts.

This week, Newton Blog tells the tales of some of the past century's most loopy scientists, and recounts their

surprisingly profound contributions to modern knowledge. Today, Vladimir Demikhov: The father of heart, lung, and puppy head transplantation.

Vladimir Demikhov, the experimental surgeon who created the "Bible of intrathoracic transplantation," was born in 1916 to a family of Russian peasants. His father was killed in 1919 during the Russian Civil War, leaving the complete care of Vladimir and his two siblings solely to his mother. She strove tirelessly to provide her children not only with nurture and sustenance, but also with a higher education. In this effort, she was successful.

Demikhov attended the University of Moscow in 1934, and it was here that his formidable scientific career began. In 1937, at the young age of 21, he designed the first ever cardiac-assist device, which was capable of taking over cardiac function for five and a half hours.

The next twenty years of Demikhov's career were filled with many other medical firsts. He was the first to perform a successful coronary bypass, the first to transplant an auxiliary heart into a warm-blooded animal, and the first to transplant a working heart and lungs into a living animal. But despite these historic accomplishments, Demikhov is today remembered for a transplant of a slightly more abhorrent nature.

Though Demikhov was not even the first to do so, he is most widely known for transplanting canine heads and upper bodies onto other dogs, effectively creating two-headed dogs. He performed these procedures on no less than twenty occasions, and all of his creations died in less than thirty days. In a tribute to Demikhov, Dr. Igor Konstantinov wrote:

The head transplantation... was arguably the most controversial experimental operation of the 20th century. It fomented waves of indignation in medical circles, and Demikhov--whose experiments were always an easy target for criticism--was accused of being a charlatan.
In the 1950s, a review committee of the Soviet Ministry of Health deemed Demikhov's work to be unethical, and he was instructed to

cease his research projects. Despite the stern reprimand, Demikhov soldiered on. His work was his raison d'ĂȘtre. For this reason, he was commonly regarded as a fanatic.

396px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-61478-0004,_Kopftransplantation_durch_Physiologen_Demichow.jpgI write about Demikhov under the label of "mad scientist," but the truth is, he was far from deranged. By all accounts, he was exceedingly kind and sensitive to human suffering. While working as an army pathologist during World War II, Demikhov would frequently lie to his superiors -- at great personal risk -- about patients who had obviously shot themselves in order to escape the battlefield, telling his commanders that the soldiers' wounds were not self-inflicted. He knew that such an act was considered a heinous crime of cowardice, the penalty for which was death.

Demikhov's two-headed dog experiments, which most would deem abominable, constituted an insignificant portion of his work, but sadly, they are what he is most remembered for. His contributions directly enabled the first successful human coronary bypass surgery using a standard suture technique. If his reputation was not clouded by controversy and his work wasn't kept under a stifling Soviet shroud of secrecy, Demikhov may have merited consideration for a Nobel Prize.

Instead, Vladimir Demikhov, a surgical wizard far ahead of his time, left this world living in abject poverty. But he did leave the world a better place for the rest of us.

(Image from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia Commons)
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