From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, a Soviet scientist by the name of Sergei S. Bryukhonenko spent countless hours slaving away in his laboratory. In his homeland, he was known as a respected researcher for his influential insights into blood transfusion. Not content with his previous achievements, Bryukhonenko wanted to push his work to the very limits of possibility. His macabre research focused on the possibility of sustaining life through artificial means. His lab was home to all manner of bizarre experiments and occurrences. His staff quickly became accustomed to the sight of disembodied heads and desiccated animal corpses. As uncomfortable and ghastly as it was, his findings would prove influential to many modern medical procedures.

Bryukhonenko’s intention was to create the world’s first fully functional heart-lung machine. In essence, these are devices that can provide the body with oxygenated blood while a patient is otherwise unable to. This could be for a variety of reasons, most notably while in surgery for a heart transplant or bypass. It’s extremely hard to operate on a beating heart, so these contraptions are needed to keep a patient alive during invasive heart surgery. Beginning his work in 1920, by 1925 Bryukhonenko’s autojector was already being shown to the general public. Consisting of automatic pumps, a reservoir for storing blood and two tubes for injecting and extracting the blood, it’s a dangerous primitive looking machine by today’s standards. However, by most accounts, it was dependable and performed its job adequately.

Not content with his early success, Bryukhonenko got to work on a new project; one that would take a far more unsettling turn. Determined to learn all he could from his autojector, he began experimenting on dogs. In true revolutionary fashion, Bryukhonenko’s early experiments focused on liberating canine organs and appendages from the oppressive shackles of their privileged bourgeois bodies . His scientists managed to keep a heart beating and a lung functioning independent from their bodies. They could keep a severed head conscious for short periods and could even bring a dog “back” from the dead. As incredible as it sounds, these claims are supported by scores of eye-witnesses, as well as reliable documentation.

Sergei Bryukhonenko
Sergei Bryukhonenko

All of these achievements can be seen in “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms;” a 1940 film filled with dour Russian nurses and canines in various stages of death. The most amazing and unsettling part of an already amazing and unsettling movie is the famous “dog’s head” presentation. In it, technicians place a freshly severed dog’s head on a small table. The creature is then fed a supply of air and blood using Dr. Bryukhonenko’s system of tubes, pumps, and basins. As proof of the experiment’s success, the head is subjected to all manner of stimuli in an effort to show that the head is in full control of its faculties while on the machine. Its pupils adjust when exposed to a spotlight, its mouth accepts and swallows candy and licks its snout clean when covered in citrus. Its eyes tear when an irritant is introduced and it even reacts to the sound of a hammer being struck nearby.

As if a conscious severed head weren’t enough, Bryukhonenko ends his movie by resurrecting a dog from the dead. The process involved draining the blood from a living dog and leaving it for approximately ten minutes. The technician then connected the dog to the autojector, pumped its blood back in, and waited a short time for the heart to begin working again. According to the narrator, these resurrected dogs went on to live normal lives after their ordeal on the operating table. Unfortunately, things aren’t always as they seem.

“Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” is not without its detractors. Many argue the film is at best exaggerated Soviet propaganda, or at worst an outright fake. When watching the movie itself, it’s clear that there is no way to prove many of the things being shown. Because the shots are tight, changed frequently, and the camera itself never moves, it stubbornly resists any attempt at scientific scrutiny. Taken by itself, “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” would fail to satisfy anyone not already predisposed to believing it.

With some further probing into the details of Bryukhonenko’s research, a few strategic omissions become evident. The severed head only survived for minutes on artificial circulation, as opposed to the hours purported by the narrator. The resurrected dogs came out brain damaged and usually lived no more than a few days, rather than the years of happiness and virility that the test subjects in the movie experienced. All of this, though, must be weighed against the fact that Bryukhonenko’s research directly contributed to breakthroughs in the field of artificial life-support and organ transplanting. His experiments were largely successful, but apparently not successful enough to make it to the general public without a rose-tinted filter. For his contributions to Soviet medicine, he was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize.

Demikhov's dogs at the Medical History Museum in Latvia.  Photo courtesy of Andy Gilham.
Demikhov's dogs at the Medical History Museum in Latvia. Photo courtesy of Andy Gilham.

Unfortunately for man’s best friend, the Soviets weren’t quite finished with their experiments. Not long after Bryukhonenko’s work, Vladimir Demikhov decided that experimenting on one dog head just wasn’t enough. Demikhov was already a famous scientist for his previous work on canine organ transplants; his research being integral in proving that organ transplants in humans were a realistic possibility. That’s why, in 1954, he unveiled the world’s first surgically created two-headed dog. This involved grafting the head of a puppy, and sometimes parts of its upper body, onto a fully-grown large-breed dog. Somehow managing to out-weird even Bryukhonenko’s experiments, Demikhov has some convincing footage to support his scientific assertions. Unlike “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms,” footage of the two-headed dogs was often filmed in public settings, and included longer uncut shots. These factors lend the Demikhov films a bit more legitimacy, although deception is certainly still possible.

Not to be outdone by their cross-ocean rivals, the United States engaged in their own experiments involving attaching or swapping body parts. A contemporary of Bryukhonenko named Robert E. Cornish did his own research and won his own kind of fame in the area of dead-dog revival. He used a technique involving chemical concoctions and a decidedly less high-tech artificial circulation mechanism. By see-sawing the corpses, to keep the blood circulating, Cornish would inject the dogs with an anticoagulant and adrenalin mixture. Although his first couple experiments failed, he eventually managed to revive the asphyxiated dogs. Cornish, whether through humor or hubris, named each of his test dogs “Lazarus.” Like Bryukhonenko’s, the Lazarus dogs were severely brain damaged, as well as blind. They lived for months afterwards with Cornish, their shambling and struggling supposedly frightening all the other dogs in the house. Unlike Bryukhonenko, Cornish wasn’t regarded as a hero by his peers. In fact, he was eventually forced from his research position at UC Berkeley, probably owing to the questionable merit of zombie-dogs and the media’s unfavorable coverage of his work.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Robert J. White of Cleveland, Ohio put himself on the world scientific map with his research on the successful transplanting of organs and body parts. In the 1960’s he created a two-brained dog, to prove that the brain was an “immunologically sound” organ. Unlike the heart or kidney, the brain can be transplanted with little likelihood of the organ being rejected by the body. In a continuation of this research, in the 1970’s White and his team managed to successfully transplant the head of a monkey onto the body of another monkey. With the inability for the scientists to reattach the severed nerves of the animal, it was paralyzed from the neck down. Understandably angry upon awakening, the monkey’s first course of action was an attempt to bite the scientist working near him. It was soon clear that the test monkey retained full control over everything above the neck, and it was able to blink, eat and move its facial muscles. Insofar as its head was concerned, it was as if the operation had never happened.

It’s hard to imagine experiments like these being done in the 21st century. With the advent of animal rights groups and growing concern for the plight of mammalian test subjects, a world that would tolerate such ethically ambiguous experiments is quickly becoming a thing of the past. However, the work of these “mad” scientists, while perhaps off-putting to most of us, has actually done a great deal for the medical world. Bryukhonenko’s autojector paved the way for our modern artificial life-support machines, and White’s experiments in organ transplants helped us better understand the body’s physiological ability to adapt. Together with the work of other medical pioneers, this work ultimately led to the creation and continued success of surgeries we take for granted today. Without these men, it’s only a guess as to when life support machines or heart transplants would have become a possibility. One must wonder what medical breakthroughs are looming just over the horizon, and which ones are worth the lives lost to discover them.