Frankenstein Reincarnated or Pioneering Medical Science? The Peculiar History of Head Transplants | History Hit

Frankenstein Reincarnated or Pioneering Medical Science? The Peculiar History of Head Transplants

Sarah Roller

07 Jun 2021
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Archibald Mcindoe - Consultant in Plastic Surgery to the Royal Air Force, operating at the Queen Victoria Plastic and Jaw Injury
Image Credit: Public Domain

Whilst kidney transplants, liver transplants and even heart transplants are not unusual in today’s world, the idea of a head transplant (or a body transplant, if you’re looking at it from the opposite angle) strikes a mixture of fear, fascination and revulsion in most people – it sounds like something from science fiction as opposed to a real life medical procedure.

The superpower rivalry of the Cold War had many different fronts, space, the rice paddy fields of south-east Asia and even the operating theatre. The desire to push the envelope of human ingenuity led Dr Robert J. White to conduct a series of successful head transplants on monkies during the 1970s with the eventual aim of performing the procedure on a human patient. Dr Brandy Schillace, the author of Mr Humble and Dr Butcher, is today's guest on the podcast and she tells the almost unbelievable story of how close we came to seeing human head transplants take place.
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Where did it all begin?

The mid-20th century was a time of scientific and medical discoveries and advancements. The First and Second World Wars saw the introduction and development of major reconstructive surgery – including techniques pioneered by Harold Gillies, the so-called father of plastic surgery. Nazi medical experiments are well-documented in their atrocity, but this new form of medical experimentation, pushing the boundaries of what was previously thought possible.

The first successful kidney transplant was performed in Boston in 1954 on identical twins – and from there, the possibilities of transplantation seemed limitless.

One of the first ‘flap’ skin grafts done by Harold Gillies on Walter Yeo in 1917.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Why did it develop so rapidly?

Post-war, Russia and the West were in fierce competition for ideological superiority: this manifested itself in physical demonstrations of superiority – the Space Race, for example. Transplants and medical science also became an arena for the Soviets and Americans to compete in. The US Government began funding research into transplants

Dr. Robert White had seen the successful Boston kidney transplant and immediately began to think of the possibilities this achievement opened up. After seeing the Russians had created a two headed dog – a Cerberus like creature – White’s dream of completing a head transplant seemed within the realms of possibility and the US Government wanted to fund him to achieve it.

Beyond simply achievement, White wanted to ask fundamental questions about life and death: what was the brain’s ultimate role in life? What was ‘brain death’? Could the brain function without the body?

Animal experiments

Over the 1960s, White experimented on over 300 hundreds primates, detaching their brains from the rest of their organs and then ‘replumbing’ them into the bodies of other chimps, effectively using bodies as bags of organs and blood in order to experiment on the brain. Simultaneously, human transplants began to become more regularly successful, and use of immunosuppressants meant that those who received transplants had the possibility of going on to live a long life.

As time went on, White became increasingly close to being able to perform the same transplant on a human: in the process, asking the question could he actually be transplanting not just a brain, but the human soul itself.

Dan sat down with Simon Reid-Henry to discuss the evolution of western democracy across the world from the early 1970s to present day.
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Ready for humans

Perhaps surprisingly, White found a willing participant, Craig Vetovitz, a quadriplegic man with failing organs who wanted a ‘body transplant’ (as White billed it to prospective patients).

Unsurprisingly, by the 1970s the political climate had changed somewhat. No longer was the Cold War competition quite as fierce, and the ethics of much of post-war science had begun to be debated more hotly. Scientific advancements came with consequences which were only just beginning to be understood. Nor were hospitals willing to be the site of this radical experiment: the publicity had it gone wrong would have been disastrous.

Will one ever be performed?

Whilst White’s dream may have died, many other surgeons and scientists have remained fascinated by the prospect of a human-human head transplant, and there is no shortage. In 2017, Italian and Chinese surgeons announced they had performed a gruelling 18 hour experiment performing a head transplant between two cadavers.

It seems that head to head transplants may well remain the stuff of science fiction for some time to come: but it’s by no means impossible that fiction becomes reality at some point in the not so distant future.

Sarah Roller

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