The Hideous Head Transplants of a Real-Life Frankenstein
Wealthy Maxwell Kirshner was dying of organ failure when he demanded of his personal medical team that his head be transplanted onto a healthy body. His doctors scrambled to find a solution. They did, in the form of a death row inmate named Jack Moss. But they were unable to perform the delicate surgery by decapitating both heads, so Kirshner’s noggin was grafted onto the Moss’s shoulder and a double-headed human was born… in a movie. Yep, that’s the plot of a whacky 1968 movie starring Ray Milland and Rosey Greer as “The Thing With Two Heads.”
The comedic flick was probably inspired by the not-so-funny medical experimentations of Nazi surgeon Joseph Mengele, but the procedure was actually the brainchild of Soviet scientist Vladimir Demikhov, who created two-headed dogs in his famous 1950s experiments. They lived on average of six days, but one (or is that two?) hearty pooch made it for 29 days. Japanese researchers have done the same with rats, and in 1970 Dr. Robert White, an American surgeon, transplanted the head of one monkey onto another monkey’s body. After the operation, the melded monkey was paralyzed from the neck down but was able to hear, smell, taste and see… until it expired nine days later.
It would seem that these creatures are none too happy with their fates. Dr. Jerry Silver, a colleague of White’s, said in an interview with CBS News that he believes the monkey patient suffered. “I remember that the head would wake up and the facial expressions looked like terrible pain, confusion and anxiety.” Dr. Demikhov’s notes describe the puppy-portion of his double-headed dogs as “biting” and trying to pull away from the body it was stitched to.
In spite of the risks and ethical questions, Dr. Sergio Canavero, a neurosurgeon at the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, says he will successfully transplant one human head onto one human body. In 2013, Canavero gave an interview to Live Science, in which he insisted the technology now exists for human cephalic exchange. “Once I attach a new body, I fully expect the head and body to adapt to each other.”
There’s a natural, innate revulsion to such an idea – only the bravest or most morbid of souls can stomach the animal head transplant videos online, and the photos of those sad Soviet canines – but what if this procedure can save human lives, just as organ transplant has done? Is it just because we don’t actually see the evidence of one person’s body part inside another’s body that it’s more acceptable? What about the handful of successful hand transplants – is that different, because there’s no brain involved?
It’s certainly an intriguing and enduring idea (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is proof), but we shall have to wait and see what happens with this heady research.