Humanity seems to have a propensity for tinkering with nature. We desire to mold it, shape it, and transform it to meet our needs and wishes as we see fit. This is not always necessarily a bad thing. Although often controversial, efforts to shape the natural world through techniques such as genetic modification have undoubtedly allowed us to make some exciting leaps in areas such as medicine and agriculture. However, there are times when this proclivity to bend and warp the laws of nature can break through the fuzzy boundaries of ethical gray zones and erupt through into the dark realm of the obviously mad and disturbing. History is unfortunately littered with scattered examples of this, yet one case in particular remains as bizarre as it is unsettling and demented. In 1926, one Russian mad scientist by the name of Ilia Ivanovich Ivanov set out on a determined mission to merge humans and apes into a single, powerful abomination.
Ivanov was not always the controversial mad scientist he is known as today. After graduating from Kharkov University in 1896, he went on to become a full professor there in 1907 and also worked as a respected researcher of veterinary medicine, namely in the field of domestic animal reproduction and animal husbandry. At the start of the 20th century, Ivanov became a leader in the field of artificial insemination of horses and the techniques he perfected were sensational and groundbreaking at the time. Many of his ideas are still the foundation of the artificial insemination of domestic animals today. Ivanov's brilliant work brought him fame, and he became highly sought after by horse breeders from around the world.
In addition to his work on artificial insemination, Ivanov soon began to dabble in the area of animal hybridization. He theorized that he could create new and useful crosses of closely related domestic animals and therefore combine their various desirable traits. Ivanov would go on to create hybrids such as a cross between a zebra and a donkey, known as a zeedonk, a cross between a zebra and Przewalski’s horse called a zorse, and the zubron, which was a hybrid of European bison and cow, as well as various hybrids of smaller animals such as rodents. Sometimes these hybrids were for practical purposes and sometimes they were created merely out of a morbid curiosity to see what would happen. It was around this time that Ivanov started speculating on the possibility of even more exotic hybrids, and in 1910 told the World Conference of Zoologists in Graz, Austria, that he believed a human and ape hybrid would be technically possible. At the time, he was merely speculating, but the seed of the idea of crossing man and ape was planted in his mind and this would be the springboard from which his later, darker experiments would launch.
Ivanov’s expertise and pioneering work in the field of artificial insemination and hybridization allegedly caught the attention of more than just horse breeders and zoologists. In the mid 1920s, Stalin was looking for ways to increase the power of his military and one of the ideas he became fascinated by was the prospect of an army composed of superhumanly strong and fierce super soldiers merging humans and apes. Stalin knew very well of Ivanov’s work in hybridization and is rumored to have approached the scientist with his vision of creating such an army. He reportedly said to Ivanov:
I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.
Ivanov did not need much prodding to start an experiment that had been percolating in his mind for years, and in 1924, he was putting his plans into effect. He first obtained permission from the Paris based Pasteur Institute to use an experimental primate station in Kindia, French Guinea for his experiments. A center was also established in Russia in the region of Georgia for the purpose of raising and training the ape warriors upon their creation. In 1925, Ivanov received 10,000 US dollars in funds from the Russian Academy of Sciences, and in 1926 he was off to West Africa to pursue his quest for a human-ape hybrid. His initial aim was to simply impregnate chimpanzees with human sperm via artificial insemination, a plan he was confident would work due to the similarities between the two species. Ivanov’s intentions were well publicized at the time, and headlines abounded on this respected and eminent scientist's attempts to create human-ape super warriors. This of course bred a good deal of controversy both within the general public and academia, yet despite the condemnation from most of the scientific establishment, Ivanov pushed ahead with his plans.
Ivanov immediately was confronted with setbacks. Upon arrival at the primate center, it turned out that there were no chimps that were sexually mature at that time. Ivanov decided he would have to return and capture his own chimps if he was to move forward, and to this end he spent a summer working for the Pasteur Institute, as well as researching ways to capture and subdue chimpanzees. It was during his time at the institute that Ivanov met the famed surgeon Serge Voronoff and became involved with experimental rejuvenation therapy. The highly controversial therapy involved grafting ape flesh, typically gathered from the testes, onto rich old men who believed that the procedure would bring them youth, vigor, and vitality. Ivanovich and Voronoff didn’t stop their strange experiments there. They would go on to perform experimental surgery to transplant human ovaries into a chimpanzee and artificially inseminate it with human sperm, an operation that would ultimately fail.
By this time, Ivanov was establishing himself as somewhat of a loose cannon, and his ghoulish experiments were starting to truly unsettle people. He was garnering a grim reputation as what people were calling "The Red Frankenstein." The world scientific community was also becoming more uncomfortable and more vocal in their disapproval of his increasingly creepy research. Undaunted, the scientist returned to West Africa, this time fully prepared to capture his own chimps, which he did. After capturing thirteen female chimps in the wild, Ivanov went about repeatedly artificially inseminating them with human sperm in the hopes that they would conceive his ape men, but was disappointed when none of the chimps became pregnant. Frustrated, Ivanov changed his approach, this time seeking to try things the other way and impregnate human women with ape sperm. He was not so far gone as to not realize that no woman in her right mind would want such a ghastly pregnancy. He knew that no local human woman would ever agree to such a thing, so he concocted the idea of carrying out the inseminations covertly under the cover of a pretext of routine health checks. This outlandish idea was too much for even the French government, who had up until that point supported Ivanov's experiments, and they resoundingly forbade the secret impregnation of human women with ape sperm.
West Africa had obviously become a bust. Ivanov knew that there was nothing else he could accomplish there, so he packed up his things and headed back home. It is important to mention that some of the things he packed up and took home were 20 chimpanzees that he planned to keep at an ape center in the Soviet republic of Abkhazia. Ivanov was doggedly determined, and still had it in his head to impregnate human women with ape sperm. His plan now was to find Soviet women to carry out his experiments on. Sadly, most of the chimpanzees died en route to their destination and only four of the animals survived. Ivanov was undeterred and began looking for ways to get more apes as well as launching his search for human volunteers, which he hoped to get by appealing the importance such experiments would have for the advancement of science.
Amazingly, Ivanov actually managed to somehow scare up not one, not two, but an unbelievable five volunteers for his twisted experiment. The ape center managed to get more apes but, possibly as a testament to the abysmal living conditions, was having no luck with keeping male chimps healthy and alive. As a result, the only viable ape they ended up being able to use was a male orangutan by the name of Tarzan, but before the experiment could be carried out, Tarzan suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. It seemed that fate itself didn't even want Ivanov to succeed. Crushed, the scientist went about once again trying to gather more chimps in his dogged pursuit of a man-ape, but he would never get the chance. In 1930, Ivanov came under political criticism and was subsequently arrested. He ended up being sentenced to five years in exile in Kazakhstan, where he quietly worked at a veterinary institute until he died just two years later from a stroke, having never seen any success whatsoever in his dream to cross ape and man.
There has been debate over the years as to why Ivanov was so determined to make ape-human hybrids. Besides the obvious reasons of making an army of super soldiers and sating his own curiosity, there are some that think Ivanov had other, more ulterior motives to his work. Alexander Etkind, a specialist in Russian history at the University of Cambridge thinks that Ivanovich was seeking to strike a blow against religion by proving to the general public that man had evolved from apes. Etkind theorizes that the scientist had believed that if he was able to successfully show that apes and humans could by hybridized, then this would follow that Darwin's theory was true and that man and ape were closely related. In those days, this would have been sensational news and especially in the Soviet era of the time would have proven to be very instrumental in the government's efforts to eradicate religion. In a sense, Ivanov possibly wanted to create social upheaval in his homeland by using his controversial findings as anti-religion propaganda.
Regardless of the ultimate aim of Ivanov's deranged experiments, they are certainly shocking. What is perhaps more shocking is that although these are the only officially documented experiments to cross humans and apes, there have been other alleged attempts to do the very same thing. The Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Orange Park, Florida, was allegedly involved in such research in the 1920s, and there were rumors that they had even successfully created a man-ape hybrid although the creature was reportedly destroyed not long after being born. China also allegedly successfully impregnated a female chimp with human sperm in the 1960s, but the subject died before it could give birth.
One infamous case of an alleged human-ape hybrid that in the end turned out to be nothing of the sort was a chimpanzee by the name of Oliver. Oliver was imported from Africa to the United States by animal trainers Frank and Janet Berger and it was immediately apparent that something was different about him. He not only had a flatter face and more human-like features than other chimpanzees, but also exhibited the very unusual habit of being totally bipedal, walking around in an upright manner with locked knees. In addition, Oliver tended to completely shun his own kind and showed much more interest in his human companions. These unusual traits quickly gained Oliver the reputation of being perhaps a human-chimp hybrid, or "humanzee," and he became quite famous in the media at the time. Years later, extensive genetic testing showed that despite these eerily human features, Oliver, although certainly atypical, was 100 percent chimpanzee.
To this day, there have been no officially successful attempts to create a cross between human and ape, although it is unknown if anyone has ever managed to create one secretly. Considering the moral and ethical implications of such a thing, it is likely it will remain that way for quite some time. It is not known if Ivanov would have ultimately been successful in his experiments if he had been more fortunate in his research. With modern technology and knowledge of genetics, such a thing may be possible, but it is perhaps best to remind ourselves that just because we could do something does not always necessarily follow that we should. For now it is probably for the best that we leave human-ape hybrids to science fiction movies.