The Ghosts of Forgotten Forms of Science: Soviet Science and Biomedicine in Historical Context

May 07-08, 2020

Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool

In April 2019 the journal Nature published an article (Vrselja et al, 2019) that described the “restoration and maintenance…of the intact pig brain” hours after said pig’s death.  The article’s team of authors detailed the process by which they that developed a blood replacement and application system that had allowed many cellular processes to continue in the brain hours after death.  This experiment was picked up by the media (for example, Davis 2019), which led to speculation about its usefulness in medical research and the ethical issues it brought up.  What was never mentioned, however, was the almost exact overlap of this experiment with one conducted in the USSR nearly 95 years before.

In September 1925, the Moscow doctor Sergei Briukhnonenko had managed to keep a severed dog’s head (and its brain) nominally “alive” for nearly two hours after death. While Briukhonenko used dog’s blood instead of a blood replacement, his apparatus bore many similarities to the one used in 2019, and his observations – though unavoidably less exact – were not terribly divergent (see Kremenstov 2014, 43-45).

The fact that Briukhnonenko went unmentioned in the 2019 discussion of restored pig brains is not unusual: today, as during the Cold War, Soviet medical and biological sciences receive little, and often derisive, coverage. When remembered, Briukhonenko’s experiments are cited largely as examples of the absurdity of socialist science.  By and large, the Soviet medical and biological sciences have been dismissed as falling behind their Western contemporaries; held back by the likes of Trofim Lysenko in genetics, it is argued, they added little to the world’s knowledge.

In recent years, however, Western biomedical research has begun to independently return to many of the fields previously covered by Soviet scientists, confirming, for example, the use of viral bacteriophages in treating infection, or the links between dementia and heart disease.  Important technical advances in diagnosing disease, such as the MRI, have been shown to have Soviet antecedents (MacWilliams 2003).  Although labouring in isolation from Western colleagues – and frequently in difficult financial circumstances – Soviet biomedical scientists were making important breakthroughs in microbiology, gerontology, endocrinology, and many other related fields.

This workshop, organized under the auspices of the Wellcome Trust-funded project “Growing Old in the Soviet Union, 1945-1991” at Liverpool John Moores University (https://sovietageing.com/), aims to flesh out the history of Soviet biomedical sciences by gathering research on its development and context within 20th century science and medical humanities more broadly.   Although the project is focused on post-War Soviet gerontology, papers are welcomed covering the whole of the Soviet period (1917-1991) and any subfield of biomedical science or the history of medicine.  Papers addressing the following topics are particularly encouraged:

  • Soviet gerontology or geriatrics;
  • Interconnections between science, research, and medicine;
  • History of Soviet scientific practice and/or theory;
  • Interrelations between science and politics;
  • Cultural representations of Soviet biomedical science and scientists;
  • Soviet biomedical ethics.

The conference organizers are delighted to note that Professor Nikolai Kremenstov (IHPST, University of Toronto) is confirmed as the workshop’s keynote speaker.  Those wishing to present at the workshop are asked to kindly send presentation abstracts of up to 300 words or questions to Dr. Isaac Scarborough (i.m.scarborough@ljmu.ac.uk) by 15 November 2019. The conference organizers are able to provide accommodation in Liverpool during the conference, as well as partial travel funding, dependent upon availability.

Citations:

Davis, Nicola, “Researchers ‘reboot’ pig brains hours after animals died,” The Guardian, April 17, 2019.

Kremenstov, Nikolai, Revolutionary Experiments: The Quest for Immortality in Bolshevik Science and Fiction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014).

MacWilliams, Bryon, “Russian claims first in magnetic imaging,” Nature 426 (2003): 375.

Vrselja, Zvonimir, Stefano G. Daniele, John Silbereis, et al, “Restoration of brain circulation and cellular functions hours post-mortem,” Nature 568 (2019): 336-343.