Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Medical Movies on the Web: The Mysterious Case of Petr Anokhin, Soviet Scientific Cinema, and the Conjoined Twins, Circa 1957

Our good friend Michael Sappol--author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies, curator of Dream Anatomy, and historian at the National Library of Medicine--just alerted us to a rare 1957 film about conjoined twins produced by the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow that has recently been digitized by the National Library of Medicine.

Full details on the film follow, and a few stills from the film can be found above. You can view the film in its entirety above (click play on top image) or at Medical Movies on the Web by clicking here.
In 1957, the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow released an unusual motion picture, Neural and Humoral Factors in the Regulation of Bodily Functions (Research on Conjoined Twins) (Исследования на неразделившихсия близнетсах). The Russian-language film was never widely circulated and is extremely rare: today the only accessible copy can be found in the historical audiovisuals collection of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The 45 minute movie documents research conducted on two pairs of conjoined twins (Ira and Galia, and Masha and Dasha) each of whom had a shared circulatory system, but completely separate nervous systems. Supervised by the founder of Soviet neurocybernetics Petr Anokhin (1898-1974), the first pair was studied during 1937-38 and the second in 1950-57. Never intended to reach beyond a narrow specialist audience, the film offers a rare glimpse into the history of Soviet physiology and “scientific cinema,” a peculiar cinematographic genre that had a long and distinguished history in Soviet Russia.

While the conjoined twins presented a unique opportunity for research into a variety of interesting questions — physiological and also psychological, genetic, immunological, and embryological — the movie only addresses the issue of the relative roles of neural and humoral (circulatory and lymphatic) factors in the functioning of the human organism, according the theories espoused by Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), Russia’s first Nobel Prize winner and the doyen of Soviet physiology. Yet surprisingly, Pavlov himself is never mentioned in the film’s running commentary, and the film gives very little information on either Ira and Galia or Masha and Dasha. Only Masha and Dasha lived to adulthood and, even though they were made to serve as child human research subjects, without the consent of parents or guardians, in some ways the film marks the happiest part of their lives, up to around the time of their seventh birthday, when they were well attended to and received relatively good treatment.

These puzzles are the subject of Nikolai Krementsov’s article, “A Cinematic and Physiological Puzzle: Conjoined Twins Research, Scientific Cinema and Pavlovian Physiology”.

To see the film in its entirety (in both a Russian-language closed-captioned-for-the-hearing-impaired version and an English-subtitled version) — and to read the essay, go to Medical Movies on the Web at