Majority of the lines from this article is strongly backed by numerous research papers and if requested our team will happily share the sources.
The legends of hybrids are told from centuries whether be it Greek mythology or even Hindu mythology. But these are only fables. In reality, several scientists and researchers have tried to obtain a hybrid i.e. the offspring of two animals of different species. Most of the times, they succeeded such as Ligers (a hybrid of Lion and a Tiger) or a Mule (an offspring of a male donkey and a female horse). In some cases, they have also failed, most of which were focusing on humans. Commonly, scientists had tried to hybridize human and a chimpanzee.
The question is why the hybrid of human and chimpanzees? Why not with some other animals? Well, several studies on the DNA analysis of humans and chimpanzees confirm the similarity of over 98% between the two. The 2% mismatch is essential for showing the difference between the two species.
To your surprise, numerous experiments focusing on a hybrid of human and chimpanzees have already been carried out, but all failed. Among all, one the most peculiar or the famous one is the story of Russian scientist Il’ya Ivanovich Ivanov. He conducted one of the most bizarre experiments ever in the history of humankind.
So, let’s start with the story!
Il’ya Ivanovich Ivanov and Imperial Russia
There is only one place to begin this chilling article, not in the beginning but bang in the middle. Still, for the better understanding let’s first know about Ivanov himself. He was born to the family of a local official of the Kursk Province in central Russia in 1870. Ivanov studied physiology at Khar’kov University and traveled to Paris after his graduation for further courses. He studied bacteriology at the Institut Pasteur and then returned to Russia in 1898. Later, Ivanov worked in the laboratory of Marcell Nencki at the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg. He was also working in the physiologist laboratory and Zoological laboratory of the same institute. By World War I, he single-handedly made Russia the world’s leader in the use of artificial insemination in farming. He performed his experiments on 6,804 mares and more than a thousand sheep. This remarkable success made him famous among the scientific circles, not only in Russia but the world.
The Beginning of Humanzee Project
All starts in the second decade of the 19th century when Ivanov was making headlines of his successful experiments. But, soon Civil War broke out in Russia causing several Russian scientists to abandon their ongoing researches including Ivanov’s work. Despite of ongoing Civil War, his communications through letters with American biologist Raymond Pearl indicated that he was thinking about conducting experiments on apes. To be specific, the idea was to create a hybrid of a human and a chimpanzee.
His good reputation and numerous scientific talks in Paris helped him with his project. On 12th June 1924, directors (E. Roux and A. Calmette) of Institut Pasteur in Paris wrote to Ivanov that the hybridization experiment between humans and apes was very much possible and desirable. To support his experiment, they have offered Ivanov free access to animals at the institute’s own chimpanzee facility. It was located in a village present in French Guinea. However, they could not bear any operational and travel expenses of this project.
Now, this project became a mixed situation for Ivanov. To conduct his experiment, he requested 15,000 US $ for his project to the Minister of Education of Soviet government A. Lunacharskiy. Ivanov made his request along with the two letters of supports from Bolshevik officials at the Soviet embassy. But, Lunacharskiy did not show any interest in Ivanov’s proposal.
Dejected Ivanov now referred N. P. Gorbunov who was Lenin’s former secretary and chief of staff of the Soviet government. The added advantage with Gorbunov was that he was fond of scientific expeditions. Gorbunov having direct access to the chairman of government and his other important connections helped Ivanov with the allocation of 10,000 US $ for his experiment in Africa.
And the Experiments finally began!
Now, Ivanov had the access to the chimps and funding was granted too. Yet, there were a few problems which needed to be solved for successfully conducting the experiment. The major one was that he has to secretly conduct his experiment without the knowledge of African native staff. These staffs were the caretaker of chimpanzees at the facility.
He began his experiments under the disguise of medical treatment with the only help of his son who used to assist him. The whole experiment of attempting artificial insemination of apes was carried out by only two of them. They did their experiments in a brutal and hurried way which was more like rape to the female chimps. In his own diary, Ivanov accepted that they used to catch chimps in their cages and conducted their experiment with brutality and insensitivity. Both of them used force while dealing with the apes and in return, apes fought back.
According to his lab notebook, the sperm used in his 1st attempt was not completely fresh, as only 40% of spermatozoa were moving. Injection of sperm also took place in a very nervous atmosphere and in uncomfortable conditions. These situations forced Ivanov to break his own rule of performing artificial insemination. According to him, for proper artificial insemination, sperm must be introduced into the cervix of the uterus with the help of speculum or other instruments. This was not possible and could not be done in his situation. To avoid any suspicions by the caretakers, they made injections quickly and intravaginally without the speculum. Probably, this reduced the chance of successful impregnation.
In early March, an outbreak of amebic dysentery among the chimps killed many of them. On June 25, Ivanov was ready for the 2nd attempt on the remaining few chimpanzees. He took one of the chimpanzees to a special cage and with the use of chlorethyl; he put chimpanzee to sleep. This time, freshly collected sperm with spermatozoa very movable was introduced. From Ivanov’s diary, it was clear that the sperm injected was neither of Ivanov nor his son. Sperm was from a man who was not older than thirty according to Ivanov’s notes. The insemination failed again!
Till now, money was running out. Insufficient funds prepared Ivanov to leave Guinea, and he knew that all his attempts were not enough for the success of his experiments. As for successful insemination, around 6 repeated injections of sperm per patient in the course of 6 months were required with the full cooperation of the subject. Ivanov really needed numerous tries for a convincing experiment.
The Bizarre Attempt!
Now, access to chimps was becoming difficult, so he started thinking of the alternatives. The best one he came out was to inseminate a native African woman with the sperm of a male ape. In Nov 1926, Ivanov asked for the permission for his idea from Dr. H. Dupuy. Doctor was the head of the colonial health service in Brazzaville. The whole process was to be carried out in a hospital in the Congo.
However, Ivanov’s intention was to conduct his experiment without the knowledge and consent of the women just for the sake of better cooperation.
It is chilling in itself, imagine inseminating a woman with some ape’s sperm without her knowledge. But despite of agreeing by the doctor and Ivanov himself, it was the governor who changed his mind for the experiments. This offended both Ivanov and his son. Still, till his last day of stay in Africa he was trying to attempt his experiments on women but thankfully he never carried out.
Fast forwarding to the present day, it is known that the HIV-1 Virus responsible for AIDS is originated or evolved in Africa. As the role of chimpanzee and other primate species were the possible source of the virus, many believe HIV was transmitted from a chimpanzee to a man or was activated in the human host. Though, there is no evidence till date that Ivanov or anybody else was responsible for this in spite of the experiments conducted on apes.
Ivanov Left Africa
On 1st July 1927, Ivanov left Africa with his son to the Soviet Union but he brought two of the monkeys and 13 chimps from Africa. When they arrived, already two of his chimps had died, whereas the surviving primates were taken to ‘Kirill Rossiianov Sukhum’, one of the few places known for the subtropical climate in the Soviet Union. This marked the beginning of the first Soviet primate station. In his journey back to the Soviet Union, Ivanov has already made the plans for his experiments including the insemination of women with the ape’s sperm.
Now, Ivanov was in his own country and his experiments were also supported by the Communist Academy, the institution of Marxist Science. In Dec 1927, Ivanov explained his problems related to experiment to the academic council of the Institute of Experimental Endocrinology. He stated that “I will require only two or three adult male apes for artificial insemination of women with the sperm of the ape, while the insemination of chimpanzee females would need a much larger number of animals”. Another major difficulty which he was facing was the acclimatization of primates in the Soviet Union.
At the same time, the Academy of Sciences, who initially supported his experiments on apes, expressed their abhorrence and indignation once they realized that Ivanov had tried to inseminate African women without their knowledge and consent. They feared that Ivanov exploits on African women might undermine the trust of Africans. This can be a problematic situation for further expeditions of Russian scientists to Africa. Because of this, they deprived him of any further support.
Still, Gorbunov continued his support despite knowing all his immoral acts or attempts in Africa. But his alone support was not enough, so he linked Ivanov to the rival academic institution, the Communist Academy. This academy organized a comprehensive review of Ivanov’s proposal and to carry out the necessary experiments. The commission concluded that inseminating women volunteers with the ape’s sperm is the only realistic option. Though, there were a few conditions which every volunteer has to accept, such as-
- They should have idealistic interests rather than monetary purpose
- Abstaining from sexual contacts for several months after insemination
- Playing a passive role in the whole process
- They’ll relinquish their right over possible offsprings
For all this, they have to sign a contract with the administration and have to agree to live for one year under the supervision along with a female gynecologist in the same room.
The deal was also to keep the experiment secret. It meant that neither Ivanov nor any of the members were allowed to publish anything or even mention the topic publicly before the results become clear and evident. By now, one of his friend’s daughter who was a gynecologist agreed to work on his project.
As far as volunteers are concerned, he found one volunteer from Leningrad who will participate mainly because of her private life was in ruins according to her letter to Ivanov. However, Ivanov’s experiments were again postponed due to the death of his ape named Tarzan whose sperm was to be used for the experiment. Further delivery of ape was scheduled for the following summer.
Another Cultural Revolution
In 1930, another cultural revolution in Russia begun but his experiment was ideologically acceptable yet he had certain personal risks. Following this, he was subjected to political criticism and repression. Other crucial participants of his project also encountered similar situations. By the end of 1930, everyone associated with his project was suffering some backlash. Gorbunov was dismissed from his government post too. In Dec 1930, the secret police arrested Ivanov for creating a counter-revolutionary organization. They exiled him for 5 years to Alma-Ata, capital of Kazakh Republic.
This Cultural Revolution brought universal suffering, chaos, and disorganization among Russian society. On 23rd June 1931, Joseph Stalin criticized the specialist baiting which helped old scientists to return to their positions. Even Ivanov’s civil status was restored, and he was allowed to live freely again anywhere in the USSR.
However, by now, his health in the prison had deteriorated. On 20th Mar 1932, Ivanov died in Alma-Ata from a stroke just a day before his scheduled departure to Moscow. With this, his personal quest for producing a hybrid between humans and apes had ended.
After going through some articles and research papers centering Ivanov’s and other’s work made clear that Ivanov was not the only scientist who tried to achieve this feat; various other scientists all over the world tried and successfully failed. Although, some even claimed to achieved it but lack of evidence and other circumstances makes it hard to believe. According to an article published by sciencealert.com, a prominent American scientist claimed some researchers in Florida successfully produced a human-chimp hybrid which you can read here.
Despite all these, there are few questions which are still lingering in my mind. Questions like what would have happened if Ivanov lived several more years? What if no cultural revolution took place at that time? Was the treatment of chimpanzees by Ivanov and his son was right or justifiable? What would have happened, if Ivanov was allowed to do his experiments on African women? What if his experiments on African women had resulted in successful artificial insemination? Above all, and in regard to science, what if Ivanov successfully finished his experiments by creating a real hybrid of human and chimpanzee?
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