If You Transplant a Human Head, Does Its Consciousness Follow?

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.