Hidden deep in a Russian forest, and guarded by soldiers with orders to shoot intruders on sight, the medical research laboratories on the outskirts of Moscow were one of the Soviet Union’s best-kept secrets.
So the carefully-vetted journalists who were allowed past the forbidding perimeter fence on a cold February morning in 1954 were both apprehensive and curious about what lay ahead. Led to a courtyard outside an austere brick building, they waited in the bright winter sunshine to find out why they had been summoned. For a few minutes, only the sound of birdsong and the rustling of leaves filled the air but then a door slowly opened to reveal experimental surgeon Vladimir Demikhov - accompanied by the strangest looking animal they had ever seen.
Blinking unhappily in the daylight as Demikhov paraded it on its lead, this unfortunate beast had been created by grafting the head and upper body of a small puppy on to the head and body of a fully-grown mastiff, to form one grotesque creature with two heads. The visitors watched in horror and fascination as both of the beast’s mouths lapped greedily at a bowl of milk proffered by Demikhov’s assistants.
Resembling something dreamed up by Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein, it seemed literally incredible. But as the Soviet propaganda machine informed the world, this canine curiosity was both very real - and a scientific triumph.
As revealed in a National Geographic documentary to be screened later this month, the creation of the two-headed dog was the first step in an astonishing race by Cold War scientists to achieve the seemingly impossible - the first ever human head transplant. In pursuing this medical goal, Vladimir Demikhov - and his American rival, Robert White - may seem to be the epitome of immoral scientists who ignored all ethical considerations in their pursuit of scientific advance. But in their own minds, they were brilliant pioneers prepared to think the unthinkable for the greater good of mankind.