A story about medicine, morals, religion, and human head transplants.
Schillace, editor-in-chief of the academic journal Medical Humanities, has a knack for writing about intriguing, offbeat topics, and her third book, she admits, is “perhaps the strangest story I have ever encountered.” The author tells the captivating tale of Robert J. White (1926-2010), a brilliant “doctor with two selves, two impulses, and even two names,” who was obsessed with transplanting organs. White, who referred to himself as “Humble Bob,” came from a middle-class, devout Catholic background, and he would serve as a bioethics adviser to Pope John Paul II. In medical school, he developed an interest in the brain’s physiology, writing that the organ is the “physical repository for the soul.” In the 1950s, inspired by a Russian physiologist’s grotesque creation of a living, two-headed dog, White began experimenting with hemispherectomies of dogs, keeping the brain alive using pioneering hypothermic cold. A new position in neurosurgery provided White with a platform for his research. Considering his work, the author ponders “what it would mean to be a brain, alive but bodiless.” With ease, she explains in detail White’s complex medical research and procedures, many of which would have substantial real-world applications. In 1963, White successfully removed a monkey’s brain and hooked it up to a “laboratory cyborg” of a donor monkey and a machine White had designed. Still, writes Schillace, “he needed to prove that consciousness could be transplanted.” A 1967 article about White’s surgeries by journalist Oriana Fallaci resulted in outrage from animal rights activists, a surge in brain death debates, and a nickname: Dr. Butcher. In 1970, White successfully completed a brain transplant, inserting one monkey’s brain into another monkey’s head; it lived for nine days. Swirling around inside this absorbing biography are Schillace’s thoughtful discussions of the knotty issues involved in medical and religious ethics. At times Frankenstein-esque, it’s unquestionably a “strange journey from science fiction to science fact.”
Odd, engrossing science history capably related.