In her new book, Brandy Schillace recalls the unbelievable legacy of a Cold War era neurosurgeon’s mission to preserve the soul.
BRANDY SCHILLACE SOMETIMES writes fiction, but her new book is not that. Schillace, a medical historian, promises that her Cold War-era tale of a surgeon, neuroscientist, and father of 10 obsessed with transplanting heads is true from start to finish.
Schillace came across the story behind her book, Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher, somewhat serendipitously: One day, her friend, Cleveland neurologist Michael DeGeorgia, called her to his office. He quietly slid a battered shoebox toward her, inviting her to open it. Schillace obliged, half-worried it might contain a brain. She pulled out a notebook—perhaps from the ‘50s or ‘60s, she says—and started to leaf through it.
“There’s all these strange little notes and stuff about mice and brains and brain slices, and these little flecks,” Schillace says. “I was like, ‘What … what are all these marks?’”
Probably blood, DeGeorgia told her. The blood-flecked notebook belonged to Robert White, a neurosurgeon who spent decades performing head transplants on monkeys, hoping to eventually use the procedure to give human brains new bodies.
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Her research took her from the Midwest, where she interviewed White’s surviving family, to Moscow, where she tracked down the details of his professional rivalry with a Soviet scientist who managed to surgically create a two-headed dog.
White’s research started small, and he conducted brain experiments on mice and dogs, before “perfecting” the head transplant surgery through his work on hundreds of monkeys.
White, who spoke to WIRED two decades ago for this vintage piece, and whose ambitions have recently been revived, never got to use the surgery on a human. But he did invent brain-cooling procedures that are still in use today to save heart attack patients; he inspired an X-Files character; and he nearly won a Nobel Prize. His true quest, Schillace finds, was spurred by his belief that you are your brain—that rescuing a brain by giving it a full new body and set of organs meant saving the soul.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WIRED: As a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist in the 1960s and 1970s, White invented a way of keeping monkey brains alive outside their (original) bodies. But many people don’t know about that practice—or him—anymore. Why is that?
Brandy Schillace: If you want to take heads off of people, that’s upsetting to many folks. And I do think that some research was funded specifically because it was racing against the Soviet Union. When that pressure wasn’t there anymore, then neither was some of the interest. But he just never lost sight of it.
And people tried to get him to. As a matter of fact, I say later in the book, when he was being nominated for the Nobel Prize [for his spinal cord cooling technique], the person who was nominating him was like, “Maybe don’t talk about the monkey heads. Let’s calm down on that.”
I think medicine doesn’t really want to always be remembered for the slightly creepy things that it does. And let’s face it, not everybody saw the utility of doing this work.
I had a moment where I realized—this is a heavy book to read. So, Brandy … How are you? Are you ok?
I had my moments. I’m not particularly squeamish—you can’t really be a medical historian and be squeamish, right? I worked in a medical history museum, I have seen so much syphilitic genitalia, it’s hard to shock me. But when they were talking about removing the body from the disembodied brain … I toned it down for the book, by the way, but it is hard to read the actual published accounts of the way they took the face off of a living creature, and cut its skull away while it was alive to preserve this living brain underneath. I did have a moment where I thought: I am not okay. It was very distressing to think about carving away the outer features of a living brain.
White “perfected” the head transplant on monkeys in 1970 by maintaining blood flow to the monkey brain while it transitioned between its original body to its new one. What obstacle did he face for using the process on a human?
So, the strangest part about this story is that it is possible to transplant a head. Like, that’s not in question. We can do that. The problem is, the success rate is not great. There’s a lot of monkeys that didn’t work out—hundreds.
I think White felt that the human surgery would be more successful, because of everything being larger and easier to work on, and that they could work faster. He actually felt quite positive that it would succeed better than the monkey head transplants. But you’re still risking your life in a surgery.
The monkeys who did survive White’s surgery could not move their new bodies. How did this affect potential human patients?
I’m not going to, but if I were to take your head off (sorry), we’d be severing your spinal cord. Which means even if I put your head on someone else, and I reattach all of the blood vessels, and it feeds your brain, and your brain is awake and alive, and your face can move and all that. Your body still can’t. So a lot of people were saying: “What’s the utility here? Why do you want to perfect transplanting a human head?” White had lots of reasons for why he wanted to do it, but no one was really sufficiently convinced by any of them to say this is worth risking someone’s life. So it’s a peculiar story because it’s not, “Oh, it turns out, we can’t do the surgery.” It turns out we can, but we probably shouldn’t.
In the book you describe White meeting a 45-year-old Cleveland man named Craig Vetovitz. He saw White’s work as “noble,” and White saw Vetovitz as his “perfect patient.” Why was that?
People said, “Well, if you succeed, you’ll create a paralyzed patient.” It’s a very ableist argument, isn’t it? But for Craig, he was already quadriplegic. And he had a very full life. He’s like, “No, my life is good. I travel, I have children, I’m married. I own my own business. I have a full life, and that life is worth preserving.”
He was interested in taking part because his organs—this is true of many quadriplegic patients—their organs begin to shut down eventually. So for him, he felt like he didn’t have a lot to lose: “Okay, I will still be quadriplegic, but I will live because I’ll have a better body.” And this is partly why White called it a body transplant, he quit calling it a head transplant. They’re just giving you an organ transplant, but all the organs all at one time. It does sound better when you think about it that way.
Ultimately Vetovitz did not have the surgery, and paralysis remained a lingering hurdle for approving body transplants. At WIRED, we’ve coveredbrain computer interfaces, prosthetics, and patches to treat paralysis. How far do you think we are from that tech taking off?
I don’t think it’s as far away as people think. I’m blown away by the changes that have happened in the last five years, much less what can happen 50 years from now. But it’s only because the brain itself is so plastic and flexible, that the brain is going, “Okay, so this is a thing we do now.” And then it makes faster connections the next time.
White faced some backlash, of course. From whom?
Animal rights activist groups were extremely incensed by the things that he did. Even the way he talked about animals was upsetting to many people.
And transplant medicine also has a kind of racist history, right?
It became a real fear that Black bodies would be harvested to serve white patients. This was something that was extremely troubling to the Black community when heart transplants started happening in the 1960s. And one of the first heart transplants, which happened in South Africa, is a Black patient whose heart goes into a white man. South Africa was still under apartheid at the time. And the papers said, “Look, now his heart can go places his body wasn’t allowed to.” It can go into theaters inside the white man that it couldn’t have gone to inside the Black man.
After writing this book, do you think you would still be yourself after a body transplant?
If I had to guess, I’d say I don’t think so. I think that we’re such composite creatures. And actually, the LGBTQ movement talks a lot about this too. People who are transitioning, for instance, what their body is and does and who they are, are really intrinsically linked for many people. And I think that, as a result, identity is an interesting fraught thing that doesn’t fit well in boxes, even the box of our head for that matter.
What was Robert White like as a person?
I leaned somewhat heavily, not on the Frankenstein idea, but on the Jekyll and Hyde idea. He really did seem to me to be almost two people. He’s a family man. And he is saving children from cancer and preserving people’s lives and their ability to get around. At the same time, I would read his accounts, how he would just eviscerate people—sorry, probably a bad choice of words. But he was fantastically good at rhetoric. I’ve seen debates that he did with animal rights activists, and his ability to just cut people was alarming.
My suspicion is that in some ways, his big personality, his fearlessness, his hubris, his ability to knock people about a little bit with words—was something that made him quite favored and promoted his career early on, and ended up being a real problem for his career later on.
All of these different things make him flawed and fascinating and villainous, as well as heroic. Those edges make us uncomfortable. But those edges teach us the most, I think, about what it means to be human.
How did his faith shape his work?
He is deeply Catholic. And he was friends with Pope John Paul the Second, which is not something everyone is. And he really believed that what he had done to monkeys would be a sort of soul transplant for humans, and therefore, in some ways, proving there was a soul. This is very important to someone like White, who is deeply invested in the concept of an afterlife, and that humans had souls, and that animals did not. It wasn’t just that he was interested in saving lives. He thought he was saving souls, by preserving the brain, and that’s why the body was, in some ways, less interesting to him.
And not everybody believes in a human soul or an afterlife. But we all believe there’s some animating principle that makes us ourselves and not someone else. And here was somebody trying with science, to find it to find it under a microscope, almost, and say, “Right here is where you are.” It’s both comforting and also frightening. Here’s somebody who said, “I’m going to find your soul. And then I’m going to preserve it for you.”