The above photograph, which depicts a living two-headed dog, is real. You’re looking at the horror film-esque result of an early transplant procedure by Soviet scientist Vladimir Demikhov, and it’s really more like a one-and-a-half dog—Demikhov successfully grafted the head and forelegs of a smaller dog, Shavka onto a bigger dog, Brodyaga. Both initially survived the procedure. Both could see and move around independently. Both died four days later. Demikhov attempted the experiment over 24 times.
Reddit user BorisGuzo dug up the insane photos from an old LIFE magazine spread that documented the surgery—the scientists allowed a photographer and reporter into the lab to witness the experiment.
In the resultant article Russia’s Two-Headed Dog, published in July, 1959 Edmund Stevens describes the scene (you can read the whole piece on Google Books):
Demikhov said the little dog was a 9 year-old bitch named Shavka. ‘Shavka,’ he explained, ‘will be cut out for the part of the guest head. The host is over there.’ He pointed to the operating table where a large mongrel lay limp under narcosis. Around its neck and shoulders was a close-shaved area similar to the band around Shavka’s middle. While Shavka kept up her random barking. Demikhov said that there was no record of the big dog’s origin. It was just a strya picked up in the streets by the dogcatcher. Demikhov called it ‘Brodyaga,’ or Tramp, and pointed out that it was indeed a lucky dog. ‘You know the saying: two heads are better than one.’
Just then another mongrel came bounding into the operating room. ‘Here, Palma,’ Demikhov called. The dog obeyed, nuzzling his leg and wagging its tail. ‘See anything unusual about Palma?’ Demikhov asked. He called attention to the fresh scars on Palma’s chest and explained that six days ago Palma had been equipped with an extra heart, an operation which had also involved major changes in the dog’s lung structure. But now it had recovered and seemed almost completely normal.
And with Demikhov’s mad scientist persona well-established, he moves on to detail the bizarre surgery itself:
First they mde an incision at the base of the large dog’s neck, exposing the jugular vein, the aorta and aa segment of the spinal column. Next they drilled two holes through the bony part of one vertebra and threaded two plastic strings, one red and one white, through each of the holes. This part of the operation took 40 minutes. Shavka was put under narcosis and her head was wrapped in one towel, her torso in another, leaving exposed only the the shaved area round her middle.
Thus prepared, Shavka’s limp form was placed on the operating table alongside Brodyaga. Goriainov made the incision, carefully rolling back Shavka’s skin. Then he and Demikhov, deftly wielding the scalpel, needle and thread, proceeded with infinite pains to expose the small blood vessels, drawing a tight knot of thread around each one in turn as they carved gradually deeper into Shavka’s vitals. Finally Demikhov severed the spinal column.
Although the rest of the body had now been amputated, Shavka’s head and forepaws still retained and used the lungs and heart. Now began the third and mot critical phase of the transplantation. The main blood vessels of Shavka’s head had to be connected perfectly with the corresponding vessels of the host dog.
And on it goes. The surgery was successful, relatively speaking.
and the basic diagram he used to illustrate the procedure.
Of course, the Internet has some video:
Demikhov’s experiments then inspired an American scientist, the pioneering neuroscientist Dr. Robert White, to carry out successful head transplants on monkeys. Motherboard had the strange honor of airing his final interview—he died in 2010.
The annals of medical research are lined with horrifying experiments, ethically dubious procedures, and repulsive surgeries; atrocious Nazi “research” on holocaust victims being the perennial standard-bearer. But Demikhov’s work, while aesthetically disturbing and undoubtedly shocking—if PETA was around in the 50s, it would have burned down his house — led to major gains in organ transplant research without compromising human health. His experiments, especially the organ transplants—he was the first to successfully complete both heart and lung transplants in animals — paved the way for the human version, leading to a procedure that has clearly saved countless lives over the ensuing decades.
Without that terrifying two-headed dog, in other words, we’d all go down with our failing kidneys.