The Bizarre History of Head Transplants

How a scientist’s daring experiments pushed the limits of medicine

Dr. Robert White standing behind medical equipment and a brain in a jar

On a cold night in Cleveland in 1971, Dr. Robert White waited for signs of life. He stood, exhausted and still enrobed in a stiff surgical coat, over an operating table. Fluorescent lights bled color from the room, leaving it sterile, silent. A rhesus monkey lay before him — its shaved neck with the stitches still showing in a zipper seam that stretched 360 degrees.

On the line were years of work, months of waiting, and the stinging wounds of battles he’d fought against animal rights groups, the media, and even his own colleagues in the name of science. One hundred frozen monkey brains, thousands of hours of painstaking preparation: It had all come down to this moment of proof. And at last, the eyelids fluttered.

White’s patient was awake, aware, and very much alive. But it had just woken up on a totally different body. Decapitated from its own shoulders, Monkey A had been reassembled on the headless torso of Monkey B.

The monkey, paralyzed from the neck down, gnashed its teeth to bite. “What have I done?” White asked as he watched its roving eyes. “Have I reached a point where the human soul can be transplanted?’” A peculiar question, perhaps. But he had just done the seemingly unthinkable: He’d performed the world’s first successful head transplant.

I spent two years writing about this story for Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher, and most people’s first reaction tends to be disbelief. Surely, you can’t transplant someone’s head or brain Frankenstein-style? Surely, this is fiction and not fact? But I have seen the video footage of this meticulously documented surgery; it is real and every bit as upsetting to watch as you might imagine.

Once assured of its truth, the second question is always the same: Why would anyone want to do it? I’ll get to that. But let’s take a moment to absorb the real story here: It is possible to transplant a head.

So, what exactly does this mean?

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London

Your brain — three pounds of gelatinous convolutions and a hundred billion nerves, invisible in its machinations but responsible for all we think, all we do, and all we are — is a greedy little organ. Thirty seconds without oxygenated blood, and you lose consciousness; one minute, and brain cells die; three minutes brings permanent brain damage; and after five, death is imminent.

How, then, could we ever remove the brain without consequently killing it? The answer isn’t only surprising, it’s deeply important to the way we practice medicine today.

Sometimes, breakthroughs happen by accident. There have been cases throughout history of lost travelers freezing to “death” only to come back to life upon thawing. In some cases, the heart stopped for as long as 45 minutes (true of a recent hiking misadventure on Mount Rainier). No heartbeat, no blood to the brain; and yet no irreparable damage had been done.

White learned this lesson in the 1950s while still a medical student. He’d been treating spinal cord injuries with hypothermic cold — a way of stopping the damage of swelling. But he noticed something else, too. Slowing the brain’s metabolic processes with extreme cold reduced its dependence on oxygen. Under the right conditions, White reasoned, you could remove a brain without hurting it, restart the flow of blood from some donor animal via machine, and keep it alive outside its body. He quickly set about proving it.

Isolated monkey brain in the lab of Dr. White
Isolated monkey brain in the lab of Dr. White

We can all imagine a brain, can’t we? A walnut-shaped object, pinkish and blobby. Perhaps we think of it floating, cartoonish, in space. To get the brain out of a living body, however, is a complicated process. And a bit messy.

White first had to “re-plumb” the monkey’s circulatory system, replacing its own venous fluids with tubes and donor blood and plasma. Then he had to carve the monkey’s body away until only the naked, pink bulb of brain remained. Sitting there on a platform and plugged into an EEG, the disembodied brain sent out signals to the graph paper; it was thinking, said White. The brain had just outlived its body.

EEG graph paper from Dr. White’s Lab
EEG graph paper from Dr. White’s Lab

Of course, not everyone agreed that a percolating monkey brain equaled “life.” But something was clearly going on in there. What does that mean for the self? Are we just brains on legs? Was science fiction correct, and we could keep super-chilled brains alive in tanks, awaiting some distant future? (White actually had about 300 of them, from monkeys and dogs and mice, frozen in his lab.)

Despite having done a startling and almost unthinkable experiment, White hadn’t finished. He didn’t just want to prove you could keep organs alive. He wanted to prove you could transplant consciousness. And for that, he needed a head, intact.

Heads — and upper bodies — had been the focus of White’s Cold War rival, Vladimir Demikhov. In 1958, he’d released footage of a two-headed dog that had been surgically created; Demikhov sewed the head and forelimbs of a small dog to a large mastiff’s neck so that the big dog’s heart kept blood pumping to two different brains. It’s unclear from the research exactly what the two-headed dogs were meant to prove, scientifically, but it inspired White to try something even more radical.

He would begin with two monkeys and then replace Monkey B’s head with that of Monkey A’s body. That’s what he was doing on that cold day in Cleveland, Ohio; his team began before dawn and worked hours without a break on the tiny anesthetized creatures. When the transplanted head awoke, it would hear, see, taste, and smell. It could not move—having the spine segmented like that meant permanent paralysis—but the monkey head lived on its new host body for nine days.

And now, as promised, I’ll return to the why.

Why would anyone dream up such a surgery in the first place? Most of the time, surgery protocols are only done on primates as a first step toward perfecting surgery on people. And you might think that White (surely) hadn’t planned to do a human head transplant—but you would be quite wrong.

The entire project, from its first dimly grasped outline in White’s 1950s medical school days, had been leading to this moment: giving a human head a brand new body.

A human head inside an aparatus for surgery
A human head inside an aparatus for surgery

I realize that might not exactly get at the question of why. But bear with me.

White wasn’t just a neuroscientist playing at Frankenstein experiments; he was a neurosurgeon who spent his days in a trauma hospital trying to save lives. He’d literally held a man’s brain together with his hands after a car crash (the man survived). In another case, he shunted out the liquefied brain matter of a trauma patient to save his life; the man learned to speak again and even to play chess. But not all cases ended well.

White had watched children perish of cancer; he’d seen teens killed by drunk drivers; he’d operated on a dear friend who he could not save. Every day of his professional life, White saw lives hanging in precarious balance, and he wanted to save them all. For White, life was the brain, and as long as the brain still sent out signals, then your life was worth saving. In 1999, a man named Craig Vetovitz sought White’s help for just these reasons.

Vetovitz had become paralyzed after a diving accident in his youth. He wanted to recover as much as he could but found that there weren’t many programs for people with his level of injury. Unwilling to give up, Vetovitz developed his own specialized wheelchair and built a device to help him write despite having almost no movement in his arms.

By the time he met White, Vetovitz owned a business, was married, had children, and led a full life. But his kidneys were starting to fail, and as a paralyzed patient, he wasn’t considered a good candidate for transplant. If the medical establishment wouldn’t treat him, he reasoned, perhaps White would consider him as his first body-transplant patient.

Craig Vetovitz in his wheelchair, with Dr. White standing behind
Craig Vetovitz in his wheelchair, with Dr. White standing behind

It seems shocking, doesn’t it? To volunteer as the first for a dangerous experimental surgery that would still leave him paralyzed just as before? But Vetovitz had already faced long odds. He said as much to Cleveland Scene magazine:

Let’s pretend you’re a total quad. And let’s say you’re real thirsty. You gotta ask somebody to get you a glass of water. Then, after drinking that water, you’d have to ask someone to help you use the toilet, because after paralysis, messages can no longer pass along spinal nerves between bladder and brain.

Paralysis wasn’t just about what you couldn’t do; it was also about boundaries and the way your body no longer seemed entirely yours. But Vetovitz explained that this did not make a person “handicapped” and that it was only other people’s low opinion of disabled lives that did that. His life was worth living and worth saving. White was prepared to do everything in his power to provide Craig with a transplant, and not just a kidney —the whole body at once.

There were questions. Would Vetovitz awake in his new body with the same consciousness as before? Would he be the same person as before? What about the neurons in the rest of the body? Would he even survive?

White prepared the surgery protocol: He practiced on cadavers, finding that the human transplant would be far easier than the monkey version had been. He even had a donor body, a brain-dead accident victim, to use as the future home of Vetovitz’s brain. But there are two more things needed for experimental surgery: money and permission. And they didn’t get enough of either.

White died in 2010. He never had a chance to perform that strangest of all surgeries, the human head transplant. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In a 1999 article for Scientific American on our bionic future, White wrote:

I predict that what has always been the stuff of science fiction — the Frankenstein legend, in which an entire human being is constructed by sewing various body parts together — will become a clinical reality early in the 21st century.

Indeed, we have everything we need technically to perform one using White’s own notes, and at least one surgeon (Sergio Canavero) is still vying to be the first to do so. But the question is not — and probably never has been — can we do a head transplant, but should we do one? Is this the best use of our time and resources in a world with plenty of other problems to face?

So far, the medical community has said no. But the head transplant, in all its labyrinthine ethical twists, has perhaps given us more knotty questions to consider. Not just about who we are but where we are in the strange composite being of brain, body, matter, mind, structure, stem cells, and stardust that makes us human beings. Will the future provide those answers through a human head transplant? White would say wait and see.

Author/Editor. Writing about history, science, & medicine for Scientific American, Undark, Globe and Mail, and more. Twitter:@bschillace

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