Mad Scientist #13/14: Vladimir Demikhov and Robert White

Robert White and Vladimir DemikhovOkay, so you’ve got the job interview of your life tomorrow, just one small problem: your kidney is failing. Also your spleen has ruptured. You’re experiencing necrosis of the liver, critical hyperkalemia, and, why not, septic shock. In short, you’re dying…or are you?

With your last ounce of strength you set out and grab the sturdiest, most passed-out homeless man you can find and drag him to the nearest experimental surgery clinic that’s open late. Plunking his rum-soaked body on the counter so as to startle the triage nurse you yell, “I need a full body transplant! Stat!”

It may seem like third-rate sci-fi (or a first-rate Rob Schneider vehicle), but total body transplants, or head transplants, depending on your perspective, have been around for over a half century.

Soviet transplanteer Vladimir Demikhov got the ball rolling in 1954 when he successfully grafted a living dog head onto another dog’s neck.1 A crackerjack surgeon, Demikhov previously performed the first successful lung transplant1 and first successful coronary bypass2 before embarking on his experimental head transplantation program, which produced a full 20 “surgical Sputniks.”2

Two-headed dog

Two heads are better than one. It's double the pleasure babe. It's triple the risk of post-operative infection.

For some weird reason, head-neck grafts never quite caught on the same way as Demikhov’s previous two breakthroughs. But that didn’t stop the Stalinist propaganda machine from lapping it up.1 I mean just think of the possibilities comrades!

Imagine, the ideological fervor of Lenin bolstered by the technocratic prowess of Leonid Brezhnev’s head. Or how about the thick-necked brinksmanship of Krushchev tempered with the humanism of Mikhail Gorbachev. Talk about your heads of state!

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, two-headed Soviet autocrats would be amazing, but that ain’t a true head transplant. Whatever happened to just chopping off the other guy’s head and sewing a new one on?

Isolated brain of rhesus monkey

The brain remained active for over than 12 hours.

I hear you. And more importantly, America hears you, cause in the 60’s they started funding research for head transplants proper.3

Cleveland-based neurosurgeon Robert White started off with a reasonable if mercilessly sadistic research question: Can a brain survive completely severed from its body?4

Cracking open a rhesus monkey’s skull, White severed the brain’s arteries, and hooked it up to a home-brewed mechanical blood supply. To his surprise, the brain continued to register striking neural activity.4 But what did this activity signify? Was the monkey still conscious? If so, what tortured, hellish thoughts pulsed through its head?

Faster than you can say electroencephalographical incomprehensibility, White hashed out a new experiment: Sever a monkey’s head intact and rapidly stitch it to the neck of another recently beheaded monkey.4 In 1970, after a tense and lengthy stretch in the OR, the good doctor emerged with his groundbreaking specimen.4

Monkey head transplant

Dr. White surveys his handiwork.

It could do almost everything a normal monkey could do—eat, react to stimuli, snarl when prodded.4 But alas, while blood vessels are easily reconnected, spinal nerve fibers are not. The chimeric monkey couldn’t control anything below its neck, or, as would soon be apparent, live.3

Nevertheless, White spent much of his life tirelessly campaigning for head transplants in humans. If it’s not quite ready for the general population, White claims the procedure could realistically extend the lives of quadriplegics whose bodies are failing.5 And are you gonna split ethical hairs with 1994’s Catholic Man of the Year?6 This guy even received the Humanitarian Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons6 (though we can safely assume there were no monkeys on the voting committee).

Eddie Murphy head car

What have we wrought??!!!!

It’s heartening to learn that Cold War one-upmanship, which touched so many aspects of society and culture, branched too into the domain of mad science. I’m sure the Google and Bing search bots that make up the majority of my readership can appreciate the humor in a country so eager to outdo its rival, it’ll even one-up research that is actually legitimately insane. As an amateur, budding, would-post-more-often-but-I-haven’t-really-had-the-time-please-don’t-hold-it-against-me-I’ll-try-and-make-it-up-to-you science blogger, I’m proud to offer Demhikov and White the auspicious 13th/14th spots in the mad scientist hall of fame. But I’m warning you, if Kevin James ever wakes up to find his head on Eddie Murphy’s body, you better damn well hope it goes straight to video.


Sources
1. Langer, R. M. (2011). Vladimir P. Demikhov, a pioneer of organ transplantation. Transplantation 2. Proceedings, 43, 1221-1222.
3. Boese, A. (2007). Elephants on acid: And other bizarre experiments: Mariner Books.
4. White, R. J. (1999). Head Transplants. Scientific American, 10, 24-26.
Fields, J. (Writer) (2007). A: Head, B: Body [Short Film]. USA.
5. Konstantinov, I. E. (2009). At the cutting edge of the impossible: A tribute to Vladimir P. Demikhov. Texas Heart Institute Journal, 36(5), 453-458.
6. Szczeklik, A. (n.d.). Accademici defunti: Robert White (Academic obituaries: Robert White). In Pontificia accademia delle scienze (The pontifical academy of sciences). Retrieved Dec 30, 2012, from http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/accademia/it/academicians/deceased/white.html

4 thoughts on “Mad Scientist #13/14: Vladimir Demikhov and Robert White

  1. Tash

    Hi Max,

    What an interestingly macabre post! I know a few people who would benefit from a head transplant. Great writing – really enjoyed your post.

    I’d like to chat with you about a possible blog collaboration. Your email address max.harsthorn@gmail.com isn’t working. How can I get in touch? You can email me at ms [underscore] optimistic [at] ymail [dot] com

    Thanks,

    Tash

    Reply
  2. Rob Yeldon

    Well they’d better hurry up and perfect this surgery otherwise all those cryogenic clients will have to just have to stay frozen.

    Reply
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