Interview with Dr. Robert J. White, 75, Professor of Neurosurgery at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the first surgeon in the world to surgically remove a monkey's brain from its skull and keep it alive by artificial means (1963). He was also the first to successfully transplant monkey heads. White is a member of many prestigious scientific organizations, among which is the Papal Scientific Academy. In an interview with the Süddeutschen Zeitung (Munich, Germany) he described his project to transplant heads.
What advantages would this intervention bring?
You can still ask that? For many seriously ill people this operation is the only chance for survival. Think of patients whose entire bodies are affected by cancer. If their brains are free of tumors, a head transplant could save them from cancer. To be exact, by the way, one should speak of whole body transplantation, because the sick body is replaced.
And will the new body function correctly then?
No, the person operated on would be paralyzed from the neck down. We cannot yet attach the separated spinal cord. However, damaged spinal cord nerves have been cured for the first time. I hope and pray that researchers will have similar success with humans within the next ten years. Then paralytics could perhaps really walk again. Also those with head transplants.
After a head transplant will the patient at least be able to speak?
We will try to implant electronic prostheses, which will enable the patients to speak. A similar apparatus also assists Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor who was injured in an accident. He even gives lectures, as is well known.
Hand on heart, Dr. White: When will human head transplants be realized for the first time?
The problem is that the operation is very expensive – too expensive to perform here in Cleveland. It would cost around five million dollars. Therefore, I would like to operate in the Ukraine, in the Neurological Research Center of Kiev. I could probably reduce the cost there to two million. Another advantage is that I have seen many brain-dead patients in the Kiev hospitals, so it wouldn't be difficult to find a body to transplant there. Such decisions are very unbureaucratic in the Ukraine. I would need three to four weeks to train my team. I would need another three to four weeks to clear up the formalities with the authorities in Kiev. Although we haven't yet spoken with them about a head transplant, I think they would be enthusiastic. I have often operated in Kiev.
Do you believe that human beings have souls, Dr. White?
Of course. I'm a Catholic.
In many religions body, soul and spirit are seen as a unity.
The Christian philosopher Thomas of Aquinas also considered that to be the case. But it is false – and modern transplantation medicine provides the proof. Head transplants especially are a blow to eastern religions and Thomas of Aquinas! Consciousness and memory have their seat in the brain. And therewith the soul as well. The body is merely a machine which is kept alive by the brain. Psychologists, philosophers and theologians talk much too much nowadays about the brain. I wonder if they've ever even seen a brain? Have they cut it open and seen what's inside? As I have done over four decades?!
One could also turn the argument around and say that the brain is your domain and therefore you localize the soul there.
Wait a minute. I have studied medicine in the world's best universities.
I am an internationally recognized expert on ethical questions in the medical field and even advise the Holy Father.
Certainly. In the seventies I had a most stimulating discussion with Pope Paul VI about brain-death. And under John Paul II, contact with the Holy See remains intact.
Did you tell the Pope that you transplant heads?
No, but I expressed my conviction that the soul is located in the brain. I was perhaps a bit too impetuous --, John Paul II winced a little. But I stick to it, it is simply true: you and I, we are our brains. My ideas go even further: where, for example, is the center in the brain where sins arise?
I have no idea.
Let's assume that you want to kill someone. You plan the murder. And who plans the murder? Your brain of course. But where is the region in the brain in which the sinful thoughts arise – murder as well as lust for your neighbor's wife? I don't know if we will find this place, but if we do, then we can perhaps cut it out one day. Any more questions?
Do you like Frankenstein?
I love Dr. Frankenstein! Mary Shelley's novel fascinates me. She was really way ahead of her time.
Süddeutsche Zeitung – Aug.25, 2000/Info 3 10/2000
Editor's note: Upon reading this newspaper article in German, I first thought it might be a joke, or at least journalistic exaggeration. So I looked up Robert J. White in Yahoo, and came across an article he published in "Scientific American", September 1999. Below is an excerpt.
"I predict that what has always been the stuff of science fiction - the Frankenstein legend, in which an entire human being is constructed by sewing various body parts together - will become a clinical reality early in the 21st century. Our modern-day version of the tale will include the transplantation of the human brain with all its complexity preserved. But the brain can't function properly without the plumbing of the body and the wiring of the head. So brain transplantation, at least initially, will really be head transplantation - or body transplantation, depending on your perspective."