Quite possibly, the closest real-world equivalent to the fictional Dr. Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s classic novel of 1818, Frankenstein, was a Russian scientist who had a disturbing fascination with the idea of hybridizing different kinds of animals. It was a fascination that bordered upon being a dangerous, crazed obsession. The man’s name was Ilya Ivanov, who entered this world in August 1870, in the Russian town of Shchigry. He was not destined to remain in his small-town environment, however. Ivanov obtained his professorship in 1907 and took employment at an animal sanctuary located in the Ukraine, specifically the province of Kherson Oblast. It was here that Ivanov’s dark and disturbing research began.
Ivanov’s initial work was focused on horses. He developed the idea of inter-breeding racehorses, to the point where, eventually, he would end up with what we might call the ultimate “super-horse,” one that could outrun, and outperform, just about any other horse on the planet. It was, as one might imagine, a program that did produce fine racehorses, but they were nothing out of the ordinary. Something that was very much out of the ordinary was Ivanov’s next target of interest: fusing apes and humans into one.
Just a few years after the “super-horse” saga caught the attention of the Russian Government’s Academy of Science, Ivanov was given a sizeable grant – by that very same academy – to research the feasibility of creating something akin to an ape-man. It was a monstrous, abhorrent idea – but that didn’t stop it from proceeding. Indeed, significant funding was provided to Ivanov, as was a wealth of medical equipment and even newly-constructed laboratories from where the terrible experiments could take place. The labs were not situated in the heart of the Soviet Union, however. No: the huge funding allowed for the construction of several facilities in Kindia, French Guiana. And, thanks to the help of the Pasteur Institute, the work began, in early 1926.
Within months, Ivanov was delving into extremely controversial areas, as Stephanie Pain notes: “Ivanov passed the summer in Paris, where he spent some of his time at the Pasteur Institute working on ways to capture and subdue chimps, and some with the celebrated surgeon Serge Voronoff, inventor of an increasingly fashionable ‘rejuvenation therapy.’ In a now notorious operation, Voronoff grafted slices of ape testes into those of rich and ageing men hoping to regain their former vigor. That summer, he and Ivanov made headlines by transplanting a woman’s ovary into a chimp called Nora and then inseminating her with human sperm.”
Ivanov’s team utilized both chimpanzees and gorillas in their experimentation – all of which was focused upon trying to successfully impregnate ape and chimpanzee females with human male sperm. In one regard it made great sense: chimpanzees, for example, have a DNA sequence that is around ninety-five percent identical to that of the Human Race. What seemed promising on paper and in theory, however, proved to be far less promising in reality. That’s to say, none of the attempts at impregnation worked. Ivanov was not dissuaded, however. He decided to take a different approach – a very dangerous and even unethical approach.
If the process of impregnating apes with human sperm wasn’t going to work, thought Ivanov, why not impregnate human women with ape sperm? This is precisely what Ivanov did – on local tribeswomen. It seems, from the surviving records, that little – if any – thought was given to (a) the moral aspects of all this (or, to be correct, the profound lack of morals); and (b) the trauma that the women might experience, in the event that they gave birth to freakish, half-human, half-ape abominations. Despite this approach, and regardless of whether or not the animals used were gorillas or chimpanzees or gorillas, failure was the only outcome.
Ivanov was not still deterred. He returned to his native Soviet Union, secured further funding, and established several other labs. Rather intriguingly, several of the locations of the installations were kept secret – perhaps, to ensure that outraged locals didn’t take to storming them, fearful of what was afoot in their towns and cities. Nevertheless, it is a fact that at least one facility was built – underground – in the town of Sukhumi, Georgia. We know this as, just a few years ago, a number of ape skeletons were unearthed there when workmen digging underground stumbled upon one of the nightmarish labs.
It is, perhaps, not a surprise to learn that the experiments undertaken in Sukhumi failed as abysmally as those attempted in French Guiana. The Soviet Government was hardly pleased with the outcome and, under the ruthless command of Josef Stalin, its agents arrested Ivanov. It was December 31, 1932 when Ivanov found himself in distinctly hot water. It soon became scalding: he received a five-year term in prison, dying just two years into his sentence, which had been changed to exile, rather than jail, shortly after being sentenced.
Pawel Wargan, who has extensively studied the work of Ivanov, notes: “Interspecific hybridization was seen to hold great potential. Animals that combined the strongest qualities of two species could become popular house pets. The Soviet media was keen to suggest that a new species, uniting human strength with the subservience and agility of an ape, could form a more obedient workforce, a stronger army. The Soviet Union was caught in a genetic manipulation mania, much to the amusement of one novelist – Bulgakov wrote of a canine that became a Soviet bureaucrat after being subject to a transplant of human testicles. The buildings on this hill above Sukhumi were to be the Soviet answer to Darwin’s insights, where chimeras were born and biology became another tool in the propagandist’s arsenal.”
The final word goes to Jerry Bergman, Ph.D., who says: “In the end, the research failed and has not been attempted again, at least publicly. Today we know it will not be successful for many reasons, and Professor Ivanov’s attempts are, for this reason, a major embarrassment to science. One problem is humans have 46 chromosomes – apes 48 – and for this reason the chromosomes will not pair up properly even if a zygote is formed. Another problem is a conservatively estimated 40 million base pair differences exist between humans and our putative closest evolutionary relatives, the chimps. These experiments are the result of evolutionary thinking and they failed because their basic premise is false.”