Blurred Lines, Part III: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans with Apes

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part III

OUT OF TIME and out of money, Ilya Ivanov decamped from Africa without accomplishing his goal of breeding a human-ape hybrid. He was tired, but not disheartened, and back home in the Soviet Union he prepared to orchestrate one final effort. But this time things would be different. In Africa he had tried to inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm, but it hadn’t worked. Chimpanzees were too difficult to work with. They were too violent, too unpredictable, and too expensive. So Ivanov opted for some role reversal. Instead of working with chimpanzee females, he would use the sperm of a male ape to try and impregnate a human woman.

In truth, this may have been Ivanov’s original plan. In the early 1920s, prior to his African expedition, Ivanov corresponded regularly with a man named Serge Voronoff. Voronoff, a French-Russian surgeon, was the doctor of choice for the rich-and-famous who crowded the French Riveria in the 20s. His specialization was “rejuvenation”: the ability to prevent and even reverse the aging process. “Rejuvenation” hinged on a technique called xenotransplantation: the transfer of tissue or organs from an individual of one species to an individual of another species. It could be the future of organ transplanting.

So in a way, Voronoff was a trend-setter, decades ahead of his time. And in another way, he was a weird guy. Voronoff ‘s primary rejuvenation technique involved harvesting testicular tissue from chimpanzees, and grafting it onto human patients. According to the good doctor, xenotransplantation increased the sex drive and prevented aging. Yes, in the 1920s celebrities in search of the proverbial Fountain of Youth surgically attached chimpanzee testicle tissue to their bodies. Before we judge them, consider that it was probably healthier than the Botox of today (though not for the chimpanzees).

The French Riviera: movie stars, white sand beaches...chimpanzee testicle grafts? Credit: travelnostalgia.com

The French Riviera: movie stars, white sand beaches…chimpanzee testicle grafts? Credit: travelnostalgia.com

Owing to his peculiar career choice, Voronoff was an expert in the reproductive systems of apes, and Ivanov was curious if it would be possible to obtain chimpanzee sperm that could be used to inseminate humans. The idea interested Ivanov, but both he and Ivanov were leery of the public condemnation that had cut short Hermann Moen’s efforts ten years earlier. Eventually, nothing came of their collaboration. But Ivanov would revisit the ideas after his failed efforts in Africa.

Back in the Soviet Union, Ivanov installed himself in the city of Sukhumi (now in Georgia), and opened the first Soviet primate research station. He then set about developing a new experiment. Unfortunately for him, the Soviet Academy of Sciences rescinded their support. They were happy to help with hybridization experiments that involved inseminating apes, but were repulsed by the ideas of impregnating humans. Ivanov lost his funding, and began to rely solely on the patronage of wealthy supporters. Undeterred, Ivanov and his coterie of patrons forged ahead. First, they located an ape, a 26 year-old orangutan named Tarzan. Then they began soliciting for human participants.

Sukhumi is just down the tracks from Sochi, if you happen to be in Russia for the Olympics. But please don't read this as a recommendation for the trip.

Sukhumi is just down the tracks from Sochi, if you happen to be in Russia for the Olympics. But please don’t read this as being a recommendation for the trip.

Ivanov and his funders settled on trying to “attract the participation of women whose interest would be or idealistic and not of monetary nature.” They looked for volunteers dedicated to the cause of science — both because they thought volunteers would be more agreeable, and also (more practically) because money was tight.

And while they didn’t appear in droves, they did appear. Wrote one volunteer from Leningrad: “Dear Professor, …With my private life in ruins, I don’t see any sense in my further existence…. But when I think that I could do service for science, I feel enough courage to contact you. I beg you, don’t refuse me …. I ask you to accept me for the experiment.”

This eager volunteer, named only G., exchanged letters regularly with Ivanov and he planned to use her in his experiments. But then disaster struck. Tarzan died of a brain hemorrhage, and the institute at Sukhumi was left scrambling for a replacement male. They located five male chimpanzees at other research institutes, and prepared to have them shipped to Sukhumi the following summer.

Unfortunately for Ivanov, the political ideology of the Soviet Union, always unstable, had shifted beneath his feet and below his awareness. His break with the Academy of Sciences over the continued hybridization experiments had incensed some party members and his work on artificial insemination in agriculture was criticized (groundlessly — this was one area where Ivanov was by any account a brilliant scientist) by aggressive young communists. Increasingly, he was viewed as a relic whose particular brand of science did not march in lock step with the Cultural Revolution.

Soviet science was down for lots of weird stuff, but even they drew the line at inseminating a woman with orangutan sperm. It's important to have boundaries.

Soviet science was down for lots of weird stuff, but even they drew the line at inseminating a woman with orangutan sperm. It’s important to have boundaries.

On December 13th 1930, Ilya Ivanov was arrested by the secret police, convicted of counterrevolutionary activities, and exiled to Kazahkstan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his main accuser took over most of Ivanov’s recently vacated professional positions — including the head of the Soviet Veterinary Institute.

Two years later, the tides shifted again, and Ivanov’s exile was commuted. But by then it was too late. Disheartened by seeing his life’s work in shambles, feeling betrayed by his government, and punished by life in a Kazahk prison, Ivanov’s health had deteriorated beyond help. On March 20th, 1932, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov died of a stroke — one day prior to his scheduled release.

A few years here took a fatal toll on Ivanov's health.

A few years here took a fatal toll on Ivanov’s health.

Ivanov’s legacy is a strange one. The primate station he founded at Sukhumi went on to become one of the premier primatology research stations in the world until it closed down in 1992 during post-Soviet violence.  Artificial insemination of primates was not attempted again for nearly 50 years, when it began to be used for the captive breeding of endangered species. His efforts at primate hybridization were forgotten, so much so that in 1971, Geoffrey Bourne, the director of the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta wrote: “It is surprising that this type of hybridization [human and ape] has not in fact already taken place.”

Perhaps Bourne should brush up on his Russian.

Neil Griffin

References

Bourne, GH. 1971. The Ape People. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Yerkes, Robert. 1925. Almost Humans. New York: Century

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