Vladimir Demikhov is one of the most notorious scientist to have ever lived – known for his outrageous and inhumane experiments he carried out on dogs. People say that there is a thin line between crazy and genius, and Demikhov actually embodies that statement, for as insane and cruel as he was, he was as equally intelligent.
Due to his bad reputation, most people would not know that Demikhov pioneered organ transplant. But it is because of all the crazy experiments that he carried out on dogs did he invent the procedure for a successful organ transplant, and many people owe their lives to him for that. He performed the first heart transplant in 1946 on a dog – a full 21 years before the first human transplant took place.
It has been noted that Demikhov was a genius whose “successes heralded the era of modern heart and lung transplantation”. Despite this glowing praise in some circles, his contributions have largely been overlooked outside of the medical community due to the infamy of his later, more audacious experiments.
Motivated by the success of his experiments involving the transplantation of organs in dogs, Demikhov began toying with the idea of transplanting the most valuable organ of all – the brain.
Demikhov took inspiration from the work of his peer, Dr Sergei Brukhonenko, another Soviet medical pioneer who invented a machine capable of artificially simulating the functuanality of the heart and lungs, albeit on a temporary basis. Like Demikhov, the work of Brukhonenko is largely overlooked due to an experiment involving dogs. In Brukhonenko’s case, he infamously kept the decapitated heads of several dogs alive using the aforementioned machine for a number of hours, proving that it was possible to keep the brain alive and functional after almost unthinkable trauma.
Footage of these experiments appears in a documentary released in 1940 titled “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” (https://archive.org/details/Experime1940). The disturbing footage showed a decapitated dog's head connected to a heart and lung machine blinking while responding to various stimuli. There has been much debate for many years over the authenticity of the video, but none can deny that the dog seems in much distress.
Demokhov wanted to prove that the brain, like any other organ, could be successfully transplanted by cutting the head off a dog, keeping it alive using the same technology as Brukhonenko had done, and then transplanting it onto the body of another dog.
Demikhov apparently performed the macabre experiment over 24 times with varying degrees of success-success in this context meaning that the subjects survived the ordeal and even displayed some awareness of their surroundings and their ability to respond to stimuli. After successful transplants, the dogs typically died days later as a result of immune responses.
Many other scientists were skeptical of Demikhov's bold claims of being able to transplant a head onto another body so to prove that his experiments were legit, he invited LIFE magazine to document and photograph one of his experiments in 1959. The resulting article, titled “Russia Two-Headed Dog” documented the entire transplant procedure including the preliminary preparations, during which Demikhov introduced the journalist writing the article to the two dogs he was about to sew together, Shavka, a small 9 year old female, and Brodyaga, a large stray of which little was known.
In an effort to “endear” himself to readers, Demikhov pointed out that Brodyaga was Russian for “Tramp” and that he personally felt the dog was quite lucky since “two heads are better than one”.
The disturbing surgery began by sedating both dogs. The body of the smaller dog was cut off just below the ribcage. Demikhov carefully tied off each of the dog's blood vessels as he went along. He then made an incision at the base of the bigger's dog neck where all of her vital blood vessels are before slowly begin to join the two dogs' blood vessels together. The smaller dog retained its heart, lungs and front paws while the bigger dog had full control of its entire body.
The operation was such a success, in fact, that Shavka’s decapitated head was even able to lap a few mouthfuls of water from a bowl with some assistance, something Demikhov did purely for the cameras present as Shavka’s throat was not attached to Brodyaga’s stomach, meaning it couldn’t gain any nourishment from food or water via normal means.
Sadly, the two dogs survived for only four days before dying from complications of the surgery which came as a surprise to Demikhov who claimed that some of his previous subjects had survived for as long as 29 days.