Head of the Dog

On February 15, 2006, General Manager Ken Freedman placed "A Brief History of Disembodied Dog Heads" on WFMU's Beware of the Blog at http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2006/02/a_brief_history.html. It tells the unnerving and controversial story of dog heads being kept alive after removal from their bodies. Key elements of the article include a 1940s case in which scientists in the Soviet Union supposedly kept a decapitated dog's head alive, as well as a 1954 project in which Soviets made a two-headed canine.

Freeman provides useful links to source materials and some very unusual websites. He originally found his interest stimulated by the online Prelinger Archives (where many "ephemeral" films are available for download). There, the 1940 "Experiments in the Revival of Organisms" caught his eye. This movie concerns the abovementioned bodyless dog. He recommends that readers download and examine the footage, and he comments on the horror of the situation.

Reader comments on his blog posting were split as to the authenticity of the film, so Freedman did more research – which interested readers can do as well.

An examination shows it to be an authentic film of its period — and a propaganda piece by the Soviets featuring onscreen narration in English by J. B. S. Haldane.

Haldane, a longtime Marxist, world-class scientist and science popularizer, broke off from Communism circa 1950 — partly in reaction to Stalin's crimes. But in 1943 America and the Soviet Union were still allies, and he was still involved.

Confirming the movie's actuality is a November 14, 1943 New York Times report of its showing by the American-Soviet (or Soviet-American) Medical Society at the congress of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. The article describes much that was in the film and offers commentary.

To present-day eyes, though, the achievements depicted in the movie appear to be real, but with harsh elements hidden and the rest polished for prestige.

The claims can be evaluated individually. There is no real problem believing that the dog's heart is kept beating. It is also possible that the lungs — when fed by blood — can continue transforming venous blood into arterial blood at least for a time. (The lack of new nourishment would necessarily affect the situation.)

The dog's head could be another matter. We see its movements from an angle in which we cannot see its severed neck and any equipment connections. It would be possible to trick this shot, yet it nevertheless seems plausible.

In a resuscitation experiment, the draining of a (complete) dog's blood, the restoration of same, and the revival of the animal also seem possible, but it is to be wondered if the ten minutes without blood is not damaging it. Haldane describes this dog's recovery and claims it — and the other experimental dogs — go on to long lives. Yet one of the mentioned dogs is dead for fifteen minutes. In room temperature conditions, that seems worrisome.

The reviews that accompany the movie download of the above on the Internet Archive website (at http://www.archive.org/details/Experime1940) offer such comments as that of reviewer "lena-lena" who notes that Dr. S. S. Bryukhonenko — who is shown in the film — came up with a workable early heart-lung machine, as well as that of "lostnyc" who notes the probable damage to the dogs' brains.

Freedman spent much time following up leads, and found medical literature and abstracts that back up the film. He shares the information in the main text of the blog. While reanimatology was a special emphasis in the Soviet Union (because of so many war dead), there was work done in the United States as well.

This included a 1960s experiment by Robert J. White and his surgical team in which a dog brain was attached to another dog — in an effort to get it operational while the normal brain was working. The positive results showed that the brain was likely to be transplantable without rejection. There was in the 1970s an experiment in which the head of a rhesus monkey was put onto the headless body of another. It was considered a good sign when the monkey then attempted to bite off the finger of a doctor, which led to cheers among the medicos. In these early experiments the monkeys were euthanized after approximately a week.

White, who for four decades was a Case Western Reserve University neurological surgery professor, believes that the human soul resides in the brain tissue, and that science is a quarter to a half century away from the working transplant of a human head. Perhaps not surprisingly, he enjoys the 1931 movie Frankenstein. Among his less controversial achievements are techniques to cool brains and spinal cords — necessary for the type of work he pioneered.

Given that what White was doing before he retired was considered ethical by many (including even Pope John Paul II), one can imagine what goes on beyond the bounds, and Freedman covers what is known of some less legal and/or ethical developments in brain transplantation.

And so, things that had been unthinkable become likely prospects – even though they are Frankensteinian work almost as old as the Universal Frankenstein movies. "A Brief History..." is an uncomfortable but necessary summary of them, and will only become more relevant as scientific work continues.

— Douglas Chapman


Ken Freedman, "A Brief History of Disembodied Dog Heads," WFMU's Beware of the Blog at http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2006/02/a_brief_history.html

Waldemar Kaempffert, "Process of Dying: Lessons of Some Experiments in Resuscitation," New York Times, 14 November 1943

"Human Head Transplants," All Info-About Healthy Living, http://healthyliving.allinfo-about.com/head.html

"The Frankenstein Factor," Cleveland Scene, htpp://www.clevescene.com/issues/1999-12-09/putre.html, 12/9/99

Prelinger Archives, http://www.prelinger.com

J.B.S. Haldane — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J.B.S._Haldane

Robert J. White — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_J._White

Unofficial SJG Archive — People — J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), http://www.stephenjaygould.org/people/john_haldane.html

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