Chris Cole

Alexander Bogdanov: The Icarus of haematology

By Chris Cole

I, like most of us, am a complete sucker for stories of interesting people. So, in the past week I thought I’d try my hand at finding an interesting historical science figure to post about. The problem is the sheer choice of amazing stories to tell. Already there are dozens of stories of titans of science who pushed humanity forward monumental leaps. Then, during reading for my PhD I stumbled across one individual who caught my attention…

Now if you’re expecting a story of a humble underdog who overcame adversity and was proved right then temper your expectations my friend. This story takes a different direction. I present to you Alexander Bogdanov. Time to set the scene… It’s the early 1900s. Thanks to the work of Landsteiner, Decastello, Sturli and Janský (and countless others) we were beginning to understand the phenomena of blood groups allowing successful blood transfusions to take place. The discovery of other blood groups (e.g. rhesus groups) would continue for the next 50 years making this time a golden age for haematology.

In comes Bogdanov to our story. Born in 1873 in Russia, Bogdanov, in addition to being heavily involved in politics, was an established and respected physician involved in setting up Russian blood transfusion services. In the 1920s when our understanding of blood groups and blood borne disease was escalating, Bogdanov formed a hypothesis: that giving himself blood transfusions would rejuvenate his health or perhaps grant immortality… So essentially vampirism… To test his hypothesis Bogdanov transfused 11 different students blood into himself (be grateful he wasn’t your supervisor).

Now I expect you’re wondering whether he became immortal or reverse ageing?… Not quite. He reported massive improvements to his health and reduced balding (apparently the placebo effect had not become a known phenomenon by this point), but unfortunately his miraculous treatment turned on him when he administered himself with the blood of a student whom had tuberculosis and malaria, which predictably proved lethal. The story almost reads like a Grecian myth warning of the danger of hubris… And untested blood transfusions. So, what can we take as a life lesson from Bogadov? Well maybe this: if the original idea isn’t grounded in sound reasoning then it’s probably not the best idea to jump into live human experimentation… Even if it could potentially halt balding.

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