Primates in the Cold War

When you visit Abkhazia – and hopefully you will, at least by watching Tarzan’s Testicles – you are struck by the feeling that this small world has been frozen 25 years ago. This comes not only from the Soviet relics that pop up here and there, but from a way of life. In the Primate Institute of Sukhum, a monument to the Monkey as Hero of the Soviet Science stands right at the entrance. Erected in 1966, the larger-than-life baboon speaks of the non-human primates’ sacrifice to medical research. The first 12 monkeys arrived at the Abkhaz centre on August 24, 1927. By 1957, there were around 750; in 1966, over 2000; in 1992 more than 6000.

In the next decades, their experiments focused on infectious diseases, then on cancer research and cosmic exploration. It is in Sukhum that Penicillin was first tested on monkeys in 1943; then was immediately sent to the front, at Stalingrad. Later on, the Soviet anti-polio vaccine was developed by the Institute’s staff; the viral origin of Leukemia was proven here in the 60’s. In those days of nuclear threat, the effects of radiation were studied constantly. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, 12 monkeys born and trained in Sukhum were sent on space missions. In 1987, Dryoma, a macaque who had spent two weeks in orbit, was presented as a gift to Fidel Castro.

At the height of the Cold War, a delegation of American doctors – that included President Eisenhower’s personal medic – visited the Institute. After their return, they quickly recommended to Eisenhower the establishment of similar centers in the US. Seven primate institutes were founded in America shortly after. They still work. Meanwhile, the US has won the Cold War. However, when the American primate researchers visited their counterparts in the Caucasus, I could feel they were slightly jealous: there is no pressure here from the animal-rights defenders. American doctors were present at both Primatological Congresses organized to honor Professor Lapin’s 90 and 95-year anniversaries, which I wrote about here.

Soviet Science Hero
The Monument to the sacrifice of the non-human primates in Sukhum

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