In February 1926, Russian biologist Ilia Ivanov set out for Guinea in French West Africa, where he planned to perform one of the world’s most sensational experiments. Ivanov was an expert in artificial insemination and had used his ground-breaking methods to create an assortment of hybrid animals. Now he was going to try something even more radical – crossing an ape and a human. His trip to Africa was expensive and its purpose highly questionable, yet the Bolshevik government not only sanctioned it but also financed it at a time when few Russians were allowed to leave the country. Why would so eminent a scientist risk his reputation? And why did the Bolsheviks back him?
IT WAS the story with everything: secret papers, an evil Soviet dictator and a zealous zoologist hell-bent on breeding a creature that was half man, half ape. When details of Ilia Ivanov’s attempts to create an ape-human hybrid emerged in the 1990s from the newly opened Russian archives, they prompted a rash of lurid headlines. Ivanov became the “Red Frankenstein”. His proposed liaisons were invariably dangerous. There was even the suggestion that he had been ordered to breed super-strong hairy warriors for what The Sun in London dubbed “Stalin’s mutant ape army”.
Yet Ivanov’s efforts during the 1920s to create an ape-human hybrid had been anything but secret, according to Alexander Etkind, a Soviet-born specialist in Russian history now at the University of Cambridge. Ivanov’s project was a sensation at the time and generated almost as many headlines as it would later on, but when no ape-man materialised the fuss died down and his research was forgotten. Some 60 years later, scholars reconstructed events from scattered letters, notebooks and diaries held in assorted government archives. Despite years of digging, however, one vital part of the story remains elusive. “None of these documents reveals why he did it,” says Etkind. After examining the available evidence, he thinks he has an answer (Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol 39, p 205).
At the start of the 20th century, Ivanov was internationally acclaimed for his pioneering work in artificial insemination (AI), and having perfected his methods he was keen to see how they could be applied. His first big project was aimed at improving imperial Russia’s bloodstock, using sperm from the best stallions. Before long, he was pondering the possibilities of hybridization: with AI, he reckoned he might be able to create novel types of domestic animal by crossing closely related species. Soon he had produced a zeedonk (zebra-donkey hybrid), a zubron (European bison-cow cross) and various combinations of rats, mice, guinea pigs and rabbits. In 1910, he told a gathering of zoologists that it might even be possible to create hybrids between humans and their closest relatives.
At that stage, Ivanov was simply speculating, but a decade and a revolution later, he was making plans to put theory into practice. In 1924, he put his proposals to the government. Despite the disapproval of the scientific establishment Ivanov got the go-ahead – and the funds to mount an expedition to Africa to collect apes. Documents show that the decision was pushed through by leading members of the Bolshevik government.
In February 1926, Ivanov set off for Africa. His first stop was Paris, where he won the enthusiastic support of the directors of the Pasteur Institute and the promise of access to the chimps at its new primate center in Guinea, then part of French West Africa. He reached Guinea in late March only to discover none of the chimps was mature enough to breed. He would have to return later in the year to capture some chimps of his own.
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 aging men hoping to regain their former vigour. 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. While the press waited for the outcome, reporters turned their attention to Ivanov’s unusual project. The idea of an ape-human hybrid was both shocking and fascinating. Was it possible? Were humans really that closely related to apes? What would the result be like? And what were the Soviets up to?