The Mad Russian Who Died Switching Blood With A Student

The experiment worked, until it didn't.
The Mad Russian Who Died Switching Blood With A Student

In 1928, Russian scientist Alexander Bogdanov died after receiving blood during an experiment. This was no mere transfusion. Bogdanov had his own strange theory about blood, one different from anything people believed before or since.

Here’s the basic idea behind blood, which we’ve known for longer than recorded history: Blood is life, and when you lose too much, you die. This idea led to bandages, vampire myths, and transfusions. 

Alexander Bogdanov believed this too. But while scientists in general were investigating how to transfer blood to the injured and sick—inventing safer methods and discovering blood types—Bogdanov put his faith in the process of blood exchanges. He thought that if two people, one old and one young, each gave a liter of blood to the other, both would benefit. Each would receive the other’s strengths, whether in the form of youth, immunity, or some other quality we couldn’t measure.

Bogdanov developed this theory by studying the simplest organisms. Microbes merge, exchange cellular material, then split, and seem to evolve as a result. He also drew from his life’s philosophy. Bogdanov was a communist (he was Lenin’s contemporary and occasional rival), and just as he thought people need to be less individualistic economically, they should also share more biologically. 

Much like communism, Bogdanov’s experiments failed. He performed 11 of these blood exchanges, between himself and various volunteers, and he claimed to grow healthier over the course of them. The twelfth exchange killed him. The student with whom he exchanged blood had malaria and tuberculosis, say some sources. Others say the blood wasn’t diseased, but Bogdanov suffered an immune response to it. Though he had matched blood types properly, his previous transfusions had left him with some extra antigens he couldn’t account for. 

Let’s learn from Bogdanov’s mistakes, but let’s also understand what he was trying to do. Many writeups about him describe him as a vampire, grabbing blood from donors in a quest for immortality. And yet the man believed he was giving as much as was getting. He was more like a vampire that makes you drink his blood as well—which, to be fair, is actually a part of the mythology of many modern vampires.

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Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image via Wiki Commons, National Cancer Institute

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