How to Perform a Head Transplant

By James Hamblin, MD

July 8, 2013

"Honey? What are you doing down there?"

Clattering at the foot of the shadowy staircase stops abruptly, replaced by the sound of someone trying not to make a sound.

"Oh boy, don't even tell me you're working on those human head-body chimera plans again."

After a long moment, a solitary cough echoes off the basement floor.


Many of us know this scene all too well -- torn between home life and the professional demands of experimental surgical fusion of human body parts. Perhaps no one would be more familiar than those close to Dr. Robert White in the 1970s. The Harvard-trained neurosurgeon famously devoted much of his career to what he called a head transplant. In 1970, he "succeeded" in carrying one out, on a monkey.

I qualify succeeded because, while that's the way it was publicized, the monkey chimera remained paralyzed from the neck down. Despite having a machine do his breathing for him, he died after eight days ... only a number of hours of which he was conscious.

The surgeons basically connected the blood vessels, but not the money part: the spinal cord.

So, big whoop, right? Wasn't there a story about a kid in your neighborhood who put the head of one animal onto the body of another and got it to stay alive for a little while? But this scene was more agonizing than anecdotal or whimsical, as Case Western neurosurgeon Jerry Silver remembers it: "When the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. ... It was just awful. I don't think it should ever be done again."

White was convinced, though, that his work with cephalosomatic linkage surgery in the monkey was pretty much proof that it was "fully accomplishable in the human sphere." By 1999 he said it was "now possible to consider adapting the head-transplant technique to humans."

Read more at The Atlantic

(Image via Burlingham/

By James Hamblin, MD

July 8, 2013