- The monkey to receive a head transplant lived for only a short period after the operation, with the animal being able to smell, taste, hear and see the world around it.
- The research drew both accolades and controversy. In 2001, Dr. White successfully repeated the operation.
In a lot of ways American neurosurgeon Robert J. White was ahead of his time. Born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, White knew that he wanted to become a brain surgeon ever since he dissected a frog cranium as a high-schooler. The Harvard-educated doctor’s greatest wish was to perform the world’s first successful human head transplant.
In 1970, following lengthy preliminary trials and experiments, it was announced that White and a crack team of assistants would attempt to perform the world’s first head transplant involving rhesus monkeys. The man affectionately known as Humble Bob to his friends and family came to be known by another name by his detractors such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) activists: Dr. Butcher.
Under a cloud of controversy that divided the scientific world, the experimental surgery carried on. As part of his established pre-surgery ritual, White led his team in offering a prayer (he was a devout Roman Catholic and adviser to Pope John Paul II). It was time to get to work. White and his team of thirty doctors, nurses and technicians began to perform the grueling and meticulously choreographed eighteen-hour surgery. The patient’s head was cooled and severed, attached to a new body, blood supplies and muscles were sewn together. Finally, the last stitch was sewn and there was nothing left for the physically and mentally exhausted team to do but wait.
After some time the monkey opened its eyes and surveyed the room. A cheer went up from White and his team. But something was wrong. The monkey, upon seeing what had been done to it was distressed, terrified and confused. But most of all, it was furious. It attacked the nearest assistant. It tracked White’s movements around the room with its eyes, silently seething. It snapped its teeth at him, attempting to bite him whenever he came near. As bad as the monkey’s predicament was, it could have been worse – White remarked that from a strictly surgical point of view it would have been easier to attach the head on backwards.
The monkey died from complications arising from the surgery later the next day, managing to survive for about as long as the surgery had taken. White expected a hero’s reception for his efforts but was surprised to find that the public at large was appalled by his experiment. They saw him as a Frankenstein, a cruel vivisectionist, a mad scientist. Not to be deterred, White told his opponents that it is completely unacceptable to impose limits on scientific enquiry. His thoughts had turned elsewhere. From the instant the monkey had opened its eyes, White’s beliefs had, for him, been confirmed: it was possible to perform this operation on a human.
White found a volunteer in near-quadriplegic Craig Vetovitz. The only problem – money. The surgery would cost a purported $13 million, and the American government had ceased funding White’s research. Consent from higher-ups was not an issue. White had spent time lecturing extensively in Kiev and he had plenty of comrades there who supported his experiments and were eager to assist him.
For a time in the 1990s it looked like White’s plans were going to proceed. He practiced on human cadavers in preparation for the big event. There was a buzz of excitement and speculation that quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve or motor neuron disease afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking might undergo the procedure. Anticlimactically the plan fell through. Dr. White went to his grave in 2010 never having realized his dream, but forever leaving his mark on the scientific world, for better or for worse.