The Immortality Experiments (Part 1)

On April 7, 1928, Dr. Alexander Aleksandrovitch Bogdanov carried out what proved to be his last experiment.   Already well-known for his research into prolonging life through blood transfusions, Bogdanov had reported positive results from the eleven previous blood transfusions he had undergone.   Whatever his reason for the last experiment, the research subject whose blood Bogdanov decided to use was already suffering from tuberculosis, and the results were quickly fatal.  Whether Bogdanov's death was due to infection or blood type misidentification, he continued making detailed observations about his condition until his death weeks later.

Long before he began his blood experiments, Alexander Bogdanov was already famous (or notorious depending on who you asked) across the Soviet Union.   Born in 1873 in Czarist Russia as Alexander Malinovsky, he A_A_Bogdanov[1]was a medical student when his political activities led to his five-year exile.   During this exile, he met and married Natalya Bigdanova Korsak and eventually assumed the name Bogdanov as a nom de plum (being a political writer was hardly a safe activity for an anti-Czarist).    Though eventually returning to his medical studies, political activism was still an important part of his life.   Despite graduating as a medical doctor, the Czarist police continued to keep an eye on him and Bogdanov  was eventually arrested and exiled once more.

It's probably not surprising that he joined the Bolsheviks in 1903 and quickly became a key figure in the movement.   Along with being one of the most prominent intellectuals of the movement, he also became Vladimir Lenin's chief rival for leadership.   After Lenin eventually forced him out of the party completely in 1909,   Bogdanov went into exile in Italy but returned to Russia to tend wounded soldiers during World War I.   Unfortunately, the 1917 Russian Revolution would eventually prove his undoing since Lenin still regarded him as a political rival.  Though Bogdanov had no political role in the Revolution, he was an outspoken critic of many of the Bolshevik policies.   That his old rival, Lenin, was in absolute control hardly deterred Bogdanov from speaking out. 

Along with his political writing, Alexander Bogdanov became one of the fledgling Soviet Union's first science fiction writers and also proposed a new scientific discipline which he named "tektology".    Essentially a precursor to systems theory, Bogdanov proposed that social, biological and physical sciences could be better understand in terms of universal principles of organization.  He also suggested an "empirio-monistic principle" to describe how observation allowed for essential conclusions about nature, physical matter, and behaviour to be integrated into a larger system.   Many of these same ideas would be independently developed by Norbert Wiener and Ludwig von Bertalanffy in their own revolutionary scientific theories. 

In many ways, Bogdanov was far more ambitious though.  His tectology system was meant as a way to understand everything, whether it be art, music, literature, politics, biology, etc.   The entire gamut of human experience, in other words.   In his 1922 three- volume book, Tektology: Universal Organization Science,  he outlined the central organizing character of the universe as perceived by humans and even drifted into a critique of certain Communist policies.    It was his occasional straying into political writing that kept Bogdanov under the watchful eye of the Bolshevik government though.  Vladimir Lenin certainly never forgot his old rival though Bogdanov's influence had long since faded.   Taking advantage of some of Bogdanov's more inflammmatory writings,  Bogdanov was eventually arrested by the GPU in 1923 and held for over five weeks.  Despite being released, his file remained unclosed until long after his death.

With his political activities being curtailed, Alexander Bogdanov moved into more ambitious areas of medical research.   All of which brings us back to his blood experiments...

After Karl Landsteiner first identified the main blood groups in 1900, blood transfusion rapidly became accepted as a valuable tool in saving human lives in many countries though Russian doctors had been slow to catch up.   When Bogdanov worked as a surgeon during World War I,  he became aware of the various innovative techniques used by Allied doctors to save wounded soldiers.   Though not in a position to use these methods to save his own patients, he was impressed enough to recognize their potential value.  He even incorporated the idea of regular blood transfusions into his science fiction novel, Red Star, although it was set on a utopian Mars, not on Earth.  While transfusions still carried some risk in Bogdanov's time (among other things, the Rh factor would not be identified until the 1930s), he was inspired enough to propose that life could be radically extended through regular transfusions from younger humans.   Based on his own tectological theory, he reasoned that a communist system of mutual exchange of blood could be developed for the benefit of all Soviets.    

The experimental setup was simple enough.   Bogdanov or one of his other collaborators, including his wife Nataliia, would exchange as much as 700 cubic centimetres of blood from a younger subject (the blood exchange prevented problems with blood loss) and various measures would be taken to see if there were any changes.    Most of the measurement tended to be subjective (whether or not the older subject felt better or not) but there were a few objective measures thrown in as well (blood pressure, pulse frequency, muscle tone, lung capacity, etc.).    Enthusiastic reports by more-or-less impartial witnesses described how Bogdanov and his wife looked as much as five or ten years younger after the repeated transfusions. 

That Bogdanov and his fellow researchers/enthusiasts never published any of their findings hardly seemed to matter to the various politicians following their work.  One of them, Leonid Krasin, an old friend of Bogdanov who had been appointed People's Commissar of foreign trade decided to have Bogdanov treat his acute anemia using blood transfusions.   Bogdanov, to his credit, was reluctant to consider it and suggested that Krasin travel to London and consult with doctors who had greater experience with his condition.   After consulting his own reference textbooks on using blood transfusions to treat anemia,  Bogdanov decided to try a similar treatment with Krasin which was an apparent success.  Krasin recovered enough to take on a new post as Soviet ambassador to Great Britain in 1926 and Bogdanov's reputation as a miracle worker received an important boost among the Bolsheviks in power.

All of which led to an extremely important meeting between Alexander Bogdanov and the man who would become his most important patron, Joseph Stalin.   While well on his way to becoming Lenin's succcesor by 1925, Stalin was  still establishing his power base when he met with Bogdanov.    The recent death of Lenin and the serious illnesses affecting many other Politburo members had already led to the establishment of a "Supreme Medical Commission" and the passing of a special resolution to "protect the health of the old party guard."    While there are no records of what actually passed between Stalin and Bogdanov, the prospect of using regular blood transfusions to extend the lives of important Bolsheviks (including Stalin) had to have figured into the conversation.   Since the Politburo was already sponsoring various health initiatives to improve the general medical practices of the new Soviet Union, a new institute to study blood transfusions made eminent sense.  And so the "world's first" institute on blood transfusion was born in 1926 but it was still up to Bogdanov to make it happen.

While Bogdanov was at least nominally qualified to head up a medical institute (he was a medical doctor after all), the prominent researchers passed over for the honour were likely  cynical about his prospects for success.   It also must have set an uncomfortable precedent though no one suspected then what Trofim Lysenko would do just a few years later.    As he would later admit, Bogdanov had been doing secret transfusions for years with a small group of supporters (mostly using himself as the guinea pig).   Beginning in 1924, he would receive as many as ten transfusions from younger donors and openly boasted of how his health had improved as a result.   This determination to carry on this research was likely spurred on by his own health worries and the recent death of the three-years-younger Vladimir Lenin.    The threat of imminent mortality made the prospect of rejuvenation more appealing for many of Bogdanov's supporters.

Rather than trying to win over his scientific colleagues, Bogdanov focused on raising public awareness of his experiments instead    In an article he published in the newspaper Isvestiia on April 4, 1926, Bogdanov boasted that his new institute was the first in the world to be dedicated exclusively to blood transfusions.   Noting  that the Soviet Union had lagged behind other countries up to that time, his "physiological collectivism" would increase the "viability of individual organisms through regular blood exchanges".   He also noted that his institute "became the first in the country to practise blood transfusion."   This revelation likely came as a surprise to many prominent Soviet surgeons who had been doing original research into blood transfusion for years and had not even heard of Alexander Bogdanov as anything other than a fiction writer and a political theorist.   Up to that time, Bogdanov had never published in any scientific or medical journal and his colleagues, rightly miffed at being excluded from his ambitious new institute despite being far more qualified, wondered how someone with no real scientific credentials could be placed in charge. 

To be continued            

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