A favorite character trope of science fiction and low budget horror movies is the mad scientist. The mad scientist is a scientist who is, well, mad, or at least eccentric. He works in his laboratory alone, or with a trusted minion. His researches are often considered beyond the bounds of respected science and he is either indifferent or oblivious of the moral and ethical implications of his discoveries. He could be evil, good, or amoral. The mad scientist is not always found in science fiction, however. There have actually been real mad scientists. Perhaps the maddest of these mad scientists was Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov. He was not mad in the psychiatric sense, but he was certainly willing to push the boundaries of scientific ethics. He is most famous for his attempts to create a human-ape hybrid. He was never successful, thank goodness, but that was not for lack of effort on his part.
Ivanov was born in 1870 in the town of Shchigry in Russia. He attended the University of Kharkov and graduated in 1896. He became a professor of biology at that institution in 1907. Ivanov was an associate of Ivan Pavlov. He also worked as a research veterinarian and his primary contribution to that science was the development of methods of artificial insemination which he could use on animals, especially horses. Ivanov was able to use the semen of a single stallion to impregnate 500 mares, far more that any stallion could manage naturally. Horse breeders from around the world studied his methods and he was put to work breeding fancy horses for the ruling Romanov dynasty. Ivanov was fascinated by the idea of creating animal hybrids from species that would never even consider mating with each other in the wild. He was able to create hybrids of antelopes and cows, guinea pigs and rabbits, and zebras and donkeys. The Czar and his court were fascinated by these hybrids and while the Russian Orthodox Church frowned on artificial insemination, at least in humans, Ivanov’s future seemed assured.
Unfortunately the Romanovs were overthrown in 1917 and the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia. The Bolsheviks did not have any use for fancy animals of any sort and Ivanov was out of a job. His troubles with the Orthodox Church seemed a recommendation to the militantly atheist Communists so he was able to find work at the State Experimental Veterinary Institute. At some point he had begun considering the possibility of making a human-chimpanzee hybrid. Chimpanzees were believed to be the animal most closely related to humans and he had managed to create hybrids from species farther apart, so the experiment seemed worth trying. He needed funding from the newly created Soviet government. Since the Soviet Union was just recovering from a devastating civil war, right after a disastrous experience in World War I, it might seem that the possibility of his getting the needed funds was remote. He somehow managed to persuade the Communists that a human-chimpanzee hybrid would show that man was nothing more than just another animal and its existence would serve to discredit religion and promote Communism and atheism. The Soviet government bought his line. The rising political leader Joseph Stalin was especially enthusiastic and in 1925, he got his funding.
There are no apes native to any part of Russia, so Ivanov had to go abroad to begin his work. By 1926 he had made arrangements to conduct his experiments at a primate research facility in French Guinea. The conditions there were not ideal. The chimpanzees had been captured by poachers and half had already died of neglect. None of the females were sexually mature, so Ivanov had to wait, while trying to gather more chimps. By February the following year, two females had become mature and Ivanov could begin at last. The two female chimps did not appreciate being sexually assaulted by a man with a syringe and his first attempts were not successful. He tried again the following spring with a sedated chimp. This attempt was also a failure.
With his chimps dying faster than they could be replaced, Ivanov decided he needed to change his procedures. He decided to return to the Soviet Union. Earlier, Ivanov had helped to establish a primate research facility in Georgia, the southernmost part of the USSR and the only territory with a climate that apes could flourish. He also decided that since it would be easier to keep one male than several females, that he would use chimpanzee semen to impregnate a human woman. He tried to make arrangements to acquire a male chimpanzee from a Cuban woman who kept a private reserve for apes, but the Ku Klux Klan learned of their plans and threatened her into withdrawing her support.
Back in Georgia, most of the remaining apes fell ill and died. The only remaining ape was an elderly orangutan. Ivanov sought for volunteers to be fertilized with the old apes semen. They had to be volunteers since the Soviet authorities decided that it would be too capitalist or bourgeois to offer money. As amazing as it may sound, Ivanov actually managed to find a woman willing to undergo the procedure. Ivanov now had only to collect the semen from the orangutan. Unfortunately, he died before Ivanov could get a sample. He would have to get more apes.
Before he had a chance to continue, however, Ivanov was arrested by the NKVD. According to stories that may or may not be true, Joseph Stalin had had visions of invincible armies of apemen working in factories and farms and advancing the Socialist cause in the Red Army. Stalin was growing impatient with Ivanov’s lack of progress and he reacted in his usual way, arresting people and shipping them off to concentration camps. Ivanov was comparatively lucky. He was only exiled to Kazakhstan. He was old and his health had become fragile, so Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov died of a stroke just before he was due to be released.
His death was considered a great loss to science in some quarters and his old colleague Ivan Pavlov wrote his obituary. No one has ever tried to produce human-ape hybrids since his death and it is unlikely anyone ever will, at least I hope.
If you want to know more about Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, as well as many other DNA related matters, I cannot recommend highly enough Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb.
- Oliver the Humanzee (weird.answers.com) He wasn’t really, but a lot of people thought he was.