The Immortality Experiments (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

In March 1926, the Soviet government granted Alexander Bogdanov a large building in downtown Moscow, not far from the Kremlin itself.  It was an impressive looking structure; a former mansion built by a prosperous merchant in the 1890s.  Despite assorted delays, Bogdanov used his generous budget to renovate the building and hire new staff.   Much as his appointment had been controversial, so was his choice of staff members since they were mostly his fellow blood-transfusion enthusiasts instead of any of the prominent members of the Moscow medical community already experienced  in blood transfusions.  The institute's special status meant that the health ministry could not oversee its operations.  Instead, Bogdanov and his institute only answered to the commissar directly.

While the institute's reports were kept confidential, Bogdanov  published glowing reports on his progress in Isvestiia including ambitious plans for using blood transfusions to treat a range of diseases such as trauma, anemia, and  blood poisoning. He also stressed that the Soviet Union lagged far behind other countries in availability of blood transfusions (which was true enough) and that the new procedure would help combat the "Soviet exhaustion"  killing older Soviet workers.   By the time renovations were finished, Bogdanov's institute was expanded to a ten-bed clinic though many of his promises had yet to materialize.  His 1927 treatise, Struggle for Viability, was hardly the comprehensive manual for blood transfusion  medical doctors had been promised.  According to medical historian Douglas Huestis,  who provides one of the first English translations for Bogdanov's monograph,  The Struggle for Viability proposed a "physiological collectivism" with blood transfusions  not only extending life but effectively rejuvenating older people as well. A rehashed version of Bogdanov's earlier work on tectology , it did little to help the Soviet Union catch up to the West in blood medicine. 

Alexander Bogdanov was hardly the only Russian doctor making bold claims about solving the problem of aging, though.   Elie Metchnikoff had done the same years before.   Though Metchnikoff's claims had been just as grandiose in linking aging to "toxicity" of intestinal bacteria, his scientific credentials were far greater than Bogdanov's (Metchnikoff won the 1908 Nobel prize in Medicine).    Many other researchers around the world were also pursuing the dream of rejuvenation, whether through gland injections or actual organ transplants.    Serge Voronoff's research into transplanting monkey testicles into elderly humans during the 1920s and 1930s appeared to be succeeding, at least according to the enthusiastic newspaper coverage he was receiving at the time.    Along with funding Bogdanov's clinic, the Soviet Health Ministry established a primate breeding station to supply monkey glands for transplants.

For his part, Bogdanov argued that monkey gland transplants, Metchnikoff's yogurt remedies, and all the other rejuvenation treatments being offered could be replaced by regular blood transfusions which would be safer and more effective.  Blood was a "universal tissue" that could be "purified" through transfusions and he specifically viewed aging as being due to a "weakening" of the sex glands.   Since young people had "too much" sex hormone and older people "too little",  blood transfusions could be beneficial to both.   Bogdanov also maintained that blood transfusions could be used to "transfer" immunity with diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis being treated by blood exchanges between healthy and non-healthy subjects.  Along with his own radical notions about collectivism, Bogdanov promoted basic misconceptions regarding safe blood transfusion.  He argued against transfusions between men and women due to the incompatible hormones involved, for example.

The reaction to Bogdanov's flamboyant claims were less than positive.  Legitimate medical researchers with greater experience with blood transfusion pointed out that Bogdanov's ideas were based on a small number of clinical trials and lack of any real method of measuring the benefits he claimed to have produced through transfusions.   In his laboratory, Bogdanov simply asked subjects how they felt after the transfusion without bothering to do any actual medical tests to measure improvement. 

As for Alexander Bogdanov and his Politburo backers, they ignored the criticism and the institute soon began publishing progress reports which proudly described carrying out over a hundred transfusions.  Again, these reports were extremely light when it came to actual statistics although they contained case histories describing (mostly anecdotal) recovery from conditions including burns, anemia, and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.   Bogdanov's reports were aimed directly at the Politburo members funding his research and the general public.   He made no attempt to win over his actual medical colleagues and none of the Institute staff bothered attending medical meetings.  Even the long-promised training courses for physicians never materialized.  

Despite the controversy, the Institute grew and expanded to include laboratories for animal experiments and biochemistry.   He also hired eminent pathophysiologist Oleksandr Bogomoletz, a respected authority on aging and endocrinology, to oversee operations.   Along with being a noted medical researcher, Bogomoletz was also a longtime Bolshevik sympathizer (which likely secured the position for him).    Bogdanov also hired more clinical experts to provide medical services to patients at the Institute's clinic.  After a mishap in which two patients were accidentally infected with syphilis, Bogdanov hired a specialist in venereal diseases as well.

Unfortunately, Bogdanov often clashed with the Politburo over many of the hiring decisions.   Politburo members often insisted on hiring their own political appointees and Bogdanov threatened to resign in 1928.   Though he won that battle,  the Institute was still under pressure to provide more concrete results to justify the money being spent.  

All of which led up to the fateful transfusion of March 24, 1928 when Bogdanov selected a twenty-one year old male student at Moscow University for his twelfth mutual blood transfusion.   Although this student had an inactive form of tuberculosis, Bogdanov  considered himself immune to tuberculosis.   Within hours, both the student and Bogdanov developed an adverse reaction despite having the same blood type (possibly due to an incompatible Rh factor).   While the student recovered, Alexander Bogdanov died two weeks later of what his doctors described as acute "hemolysis" resulting in liver and kidney failure.

While Bogdanov was honoured as a medical hero, his ambitious plans ended with his  death.   The Institute (which was renamed the Bogdanov State Scientific Institute of Blood Transfusion) abandoned the notion of "physiological collectivism" under the leadership of  Bogdanov's replacement,  Oleksandr Bogomoletz.   Mutual blood exchanges were stopped and blood transfusion began following the accepted standard common in most Western countries by that time.    When the Bogdanov Institute finally published a manual of blood transfusion for doctors in 1930, none of Bogdanov's ideas were mentioned.   The name attached to the Institute was his only legacy.

While the Institute went on to revolutionize blood transfusion across the Soviet Union making it a standard medical procedure by the mid 1930s, Alexander Bogdanov is still better remembered as a science fiction writer and political theorist than he was a scientist.   Ultimately, he was extremely lucky to have died when he did since Stalin's purges were only just beginning and he likely would not have survived considering his radical politics and his previous arrest by the Bolsheviks.   Given the convenient timing, some biographers even suggested that his final transfusion may have been a deliberate suicide but no real evidence of that has ever surfaced. 

Still, Alexander Bogdanov's political ideals managed to shape Soviet science for years to come.   His views on proletarian science would definitely have an impact on how science would be practiced during the Stalinist era with ideology trumping actual science.    That it would help set the stage for demagogues such as Trofim Lysenko, whose rejection of Mendelian genetics would devastate Soviet biology and cost countless lives, was likely an outcome that the idealistic Bogdanov could never have foreseen.













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