This cold war neurosurgeon successfully transplanted monkey heads. Could it work on humans?

Credit: Javier Zarracina/Vox
Credit: Javier Zarracina/Vox

Robert White [was] a neurosurgeon who spent decades performing head transplants on monkeys, hoping to eventually use the procedure to give human brains new bodies.

[Medical historian Brandy Schillace’s] 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, 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.


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“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,” [Schillace said.]

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