Mad science?

A documentary about the research of neuroscientist Robert White goes beyond his macabre head-transplant experiments to highlight his contributions to science

By | February 25, 2011

Judging by his CV alone, neuroscientist Robert White (1926-2010) appears to have been an accomplished physician/scientist. He performed over 10,000 brain surgeries in his lifetime, authored more than 900 publications, and developed brain cooling techniques that revolutionized modern brain surgery. White even received the Humanitarian Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons in 1997. But he is not usually remembered for these achievements. Instead, his name conjures up images of the bizarre animal experiments he performed: In the 1970s, he transplanted an entire monkey head onto another monkey's body. And, for a short time, the severed head lived.
Image of Dr. White from A:Head B:Body, Jim Fields's documentary about Dr. Robert White.
Image used with permission of Jim Fields
Mad science has always fascinated the public, but that isn't why linkurl:Jim Fields,; video producer and journalist for Time Magazine, decided to make the linkurl:documentary,; A: Head, B: Body, about White. "I'm intrigued more by him than anything he particularly did or the sensationalism," says Fields. "He had to live in the shadow of something he had no idea at the time was going to be mythic." Organ transplant is commonplace now, but the technology and knowledge to perform this type of surgery was only developed in the last century. The first successful kidney transplant was performed in 1954 between identical twins, drastically reducing the risk of rejection by the recipient's immune system. The first successful liver and heart transplants occurred in 1967. Success in this context is a relative term -- the person who received the first successful heart transplant lived only 18 days after the operation. These early transplants raised all kinds of scientific questions. How long can an organ stay functional outside the body? Can all organs be transplanted? Bioethicists linkurl:Will Gaylin; and linkurl:Dan Callahan,; who co-founded bioethics think tank, The Hastings Center, in 1969, remember talk of brain transplantation when organ transplant technology was developing. "It used to be kind of a joke," says Callahan. "If you transplant my brain into somebody else's head, who would that person be? Is a person the brain or the body?" When Fields made his documentary in 2007, he flew out to Cleveland to speak to White. Not only was White open to discussing his work, but he also showed off his old lab, abandoned but intact, even after attempted attacks by animal rights activists. "It was like [Miss] Havisham's wedding room in [Charles] Dickens's Great Expectations," says Fields. "That brain in the jar was just there, and all that beautiful old equipment. It was amazing." A few days later, White nonchalantly mentioned some old footage from the lab. As it was his own work, "to him it wasn't that interesting...wasn't that big a deal," says Fields. But it is a big deal to many who view it. The footage of the transplant -- the placement of the A-monkey's head onto the B-monkey's body -- features the monkey awaking from its anesthesia as researchers poke and prod it, testing its reactions. At one point the transplanted head fiercely bites down on a stick, a show of aggression. The footage is horrifying enough to modern sensibilities to warrant a warning at the beginning of the documentary. Fields doubted the success of the film as he was working on it, but decided to finish, assuming that at least a few people would be interested. The showing of the documentary at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival proved otherwise. "They were just repulsed!" Fields says of the initial audience reaction. "It was like the end of Springtime for Hitler. I thought that nobody was going to want to see it anymore." But later in the film, the viewer gets a real sense of White, the man: a religious man who struggled with the theological implications of his work, a man who was targeted by animal rights activists as a result of his government-funded research, a man who helped increase science's understanding of brain metabolism and cooling, insights crucial to the success of modern brain surgery. "Real mad scientists...are not lone wolves like in the movies," says Fields. "They're doing things that are sanctioned in their time and place, in society, that are only considered by later values to be wrong."
Screenshot from A:Head B:Body. Text: "His colleagues admire his genius; his enemies hate him because he experiments on monkeys and dogs."
Image used with permission of Jim Fields
Despite the good that has come as a result of his research, some still question White's motives at the time. "I can think of absolutely no purpose for a brain transplant," says Gaylin. "You can't just say, 'If you let me do this, maybe something good will come out of it'...Cruelty can be inflicted, and something bad can come of it too." While Callahan doubts that White would have been allowed to do this research today, he notes that he likely received approval from a number of organizations in his day. But does that context of permission make his actions ethical? "I don't think you can go back and prejudge generations of people," says Gaylin, "but by the time he was doing his research, there were a significant number of people talking about medical ethics in an advanced form." So which is it? Was White a researcher outside the boundaries of bioethics or a man doing right by the standards of his time? "I think we can see him as part of a generation of somewhat naive and arrogant researchers," says Gaylin. "Do I blame him? I think I would certainly judge him in the sense of saying this was not the most sensitive guy... We have to question all the time our responsibility to research subjects, including animals." Watch Jim Fields's linkurl:documentary,; A: Head B:Body, on Vimeo. Correction 2/25: The original version of this article mistakenly indicated that the Hastings Center was a part of Yale University. The mistake has been corrected, and The Scientist regrets the error.
**__Related stories:__*** linkurl:EU proposes great ape research ban;
[5th November 2008]*linkurl:Animal suffering: unknowable?;
[7th October 2008]*linkurl:Support for use of animals in research;
[24th April 2002]* linkurl:Related F1000 evaluations;
[25th February 2011]


Avatar of: PAUL STEIN


Posts: 61

February 25, 2011

"It takes all kinds to have a horse race." Alcene Looper, my mother-in-law.\n\nThis is quite appropriate when describing scientific discovery. I totally see a place for the most insensitive of people. It is their lack of filters that can deliver a spectrum of spectacular and infamous results.\n\nI have trouble with bioethicists who may have a lack of understanding of certain personalities in science and the minds needed to create a complete body of work. Should one limit genius, and what are the potential ramifications? Did the head transplant work obtain medical knowledge necessary for later surgical techniques that have become standard of care? What would have happened if that particular research avenue was never traveled down? Would preventing that preliminary work, however distasteful to some, have led to countless morbidity and mortality? I'm sorry Doctor Gaylin, with people like Robert White, your comment "You can't just say, 'If you let me do this, maybe something good will come out of it.'" doesn't cut it in my book.\n
Avatar of: Alexey Bersenev

Alexey Bersenev

Posts: 3

February 25, 2011

Thank you for the article!\nI'd like to point out that White was inspired by the work done before him by Vladimir Demikhov.\n\nWhite was the first who made head transplant in monkey, but Demikhov was the first who made it on dogs in early 1950s. They both should be credited for this work indeed. \n
Avatar of: Hannah Waters

Hannah Waters

Posts: 10

February 25, 2011

Thanks for your comment, Alexey! I'm not sure if Demikhov was White's inspiration directly, as they did work together. There's a section in the documentary about White's visit to the Soviet Union and the science being done there. I recommend checking it out!

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