The Mysterious Case of Petr Anokhin, Soviet Scientific Cinema, and the Conjoined Twins

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Nikolai Krementsov. Dr. Krementsov is Professor at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology of the University of Toronto. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on the history of biomedical sciences in Russia and the Soviet Union.

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. Neural and Humoral Factors 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.

A group of people stand casually behind a table looking at the camera..

Petr Anokhin (center) with his graduate students at the Nizhnii Novgorod Medical School, 1933. On his left is Tatiana Alekseeva. From P.V. Simonov, ed. Petr Kuz’mich Anokhin. Vospominaniia sovremennikov, publitsistika (Moscow: Nauka, 1990).

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 read the essay and see the film—which is available both in a Russian-language closed-captioned version and an English-subtitled version—go to NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.