The First Head Transplant

In the 1950s, at the height of the cold war, Stalin turned his attention to medicine as a way to advance technology and put the USSR ahead of the west. It was a move that would see scientists attempt the first head transplant.

To this end, just outside Moscow, Stalin established secret medical laboratories to explore and develop new concepts. Scientists were encouraged to experiment freely in the search for the secrets to prolonging life. Many of these tests were carried out on animals. Organs were removed from the corpses and kept alive with machines. Dogs were put to death and subsequently brought back to life.

Vladimir Demikhov

Vladimir Demikhov
Vladimir Demikhov

Vladimir Demikhov, a veteran of the Red Army hospitals in World War 2, believed it was possible to transplant organs like the heart and lungs in human beings. Even in the science-mad 50s this sounded far-fetched.

However, Vladimir Demikhov proved it could be done, by transplanting the heart and lungs from one dog to another. His experiments laid the ground-work for future medical success in humans, but his work never received the recognition it deserved. Vladimir Demikhov was preparing plans for a human heart transplant, 16 years before the first one was actually achieved.

One night in 1954, Demikhov undertook an experiment that stunned the world. He took two dogs, one fully grown, the other a puppy. He, and his team of surgeons, operated on them through the night. The following morning Demikhov unveiled his achievement. It was a creature straight out of science-fiction.

Two Headed Dog
Two Headed Dog

He had stitched the head and upper-body of the puppy onto the neck of the larger dog, connecting their blood-vessels and windpipes. Soviet propaganda trumpeted his achievement. In America, this caught the attention of an ambitious young scientist: Robert White.

For an America in the grip of cold-war paranoia, the prospect of Russian two-headed dogs was too much to ignore. The United States would soon begin it’s own head-transplant programme.

Robert White

Robert White was born in Minnesota, in 1926. Like Demikhov, he was a veteran of World War 2. After the war, Robert White attended Harvard Medical School, where he studied to be a brain surgeon.

In 1960, the US Government, eager to stay ahead of the Russians in all aspects of medical science, helped White establish a specialist laboratory at the County Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Here he set about creating a world-leading brain research centre.

By day, White operated on patients with all kinds of brain injuries and illnesses. His surgical skills were renowned. But, as a scientist, it was the mysteries of the brain he wanted to unlock. His ambition was to be the first person, in the world, to isolate the brain. To take it out of the skull, to study it, and to keep it alive throughout.

White was convinced it was possible to remove the brain from the skull and keep it alive. In 1962, he achieved a world’s-first by successfully removing an animal’s brain and keeping the brain alive. In 1964, he came up with a more audacious plan, to transplant the brain of one animal into the body of another and study it from there.

Transplanted Brain in Dog Neck
Transplanted Brain in Dog Neck

He removed the brain of one dog and transplanted it into the neck of a second dog. The brain was connected to the blood supply of the host animal and electrodes were put in place to monitor the brain’s activity. This begged the question: “If the brain is alive, is it conscious?” It was a question Robert White could not answer.

White’s work was not unnoticed in the Soviet Union, and, unusually, there followed a number of visits by the Russians to the Ohio facility and a number of reciprocal visits by Robert White to Russia.

One person that White was keen to meet, was the man who had inspired him years before – Vladimir Demikhov. Demikhov had continued his work with organ transplants and had revolutionised heart surgery. However, by 1966 he had fallen foul of the authorities, who thought his methods outlandish.

Following his visits to Russia, White returned with ideas to prove a transplanted brains consciousness. He had learned of experiments carried out by the Soviets where the severed head of a dog was kept alive and displayed cognitive reactions.

Head Transplant Success

Robert White decided that if he could transplant a head from one monkey to another, then it would be apparent of the brain activity represented awareness. It took him three years to plan the surgery. He knew that this would be, to some, morally offensive.

First Head Transplant
First Head Transplant

In order to keep the head alive the the blood-flow from monkey B’s body had to be transfused to monkey A’s head via a network of plastic tubes. The A head was brought onto the B body and the blood vessels were connected together, but the spinal cord was left, it’s impossible to reconnect nerve threads once they are broken.

When the surgery was complete and the monkey came out of the anaesthetic it could move it’s facial muscles, it could be fed and follow movements with it’s eyes. Of course, with a severed spinal cord it was paralysed from the neck down, but the head transplant operation had been a success.


External Links

Head Transplant on Monkey – New Scientist Report

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