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.
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.
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?
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.
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.