Yes, Virginia, Mad Scientists do exist

You have to watch this weird and engrossing video about Robert White, the neurosurgeon whose goal was to achieve a total body transplant. He’s the guy who was doing the monkey head transplants: cutting the head off one monkey, and sewing it onto the body of another…and it’s hard to get more Herbert West than that.

I’m afraid the freakiest part of the video for me, though, was that he has a reserved table at the local McDonalds.


  1. says

    Sounds like Benjamin Carson. Why do I keep hearing stories about neurosurgeons that infer total insanity? We’re in good hands. Hope I never get in another auto accident or have neurofibromatosis.

  2. fcaccin says

    At least he’s eating at McDonald’s, and not (or not just) spare body parts.

    Well I’ve eaten at McDonald’s, and something has to explain:
    1) the turnover
    2) the taste

  3. Frasque says

    Watching his monkey-head transplant video was one of the very few things I’ve ever that that made me so nauseous I was in danger of barfing (the others were the one where a Russian scientist sewed half a puppy to a dog’s neck and the one where the dog’s severed head was kept alive by machines). Something about being that helpless head just freaks me out.

    On the other hand, I looooove Re-Animator . . . if Dr. White starts sewing bat wings on the severed heads, I’m moving to Mars.

  4. Alex says

    I knew RoboCop would become a reality one day! I just knew it!! Just another decade or so!

    (no I’m not 12 years old, and yes this is sarcasm)

  5. says

    I’m gonna pass on following this rabbit trail. I’ll probably hear about it again when Rush Limbaugh starts asserting that Obama is fundign research to force-transplant the heads of poor black children onto the heads of the rich white kids.


  6. hje says

    Engaging description of his research in Mary Roach’s Stiff. Especially the monkey brain implanted in a body cavity of another monkey–creepy.

  7. raven says

    There are certainly mad scientists. Being a scientist and being sane are independent variables.

    The latest claimnant has to be Dr. Bruce Ivins. He is allegedly the Anthrax Mail terrorist who worked at Fort Detrick. He committed suicide by an overdose of Tylenol as the FBI was closing in.

  8. Nomen Nescio says

    on the one hand, total body transplants would be way cool if they were actually feasible.

    on the other hand, attempting one before there’s a reasonable chance of it being feasible yet, even if “only” on a monkey — eeeew.

  9. LightningRose says

    If someone that crazy came into my restaurant and demanded a reserved table, I’d sure as heck give it to them!

  10. Julie Stahlhut says

    Seriously, where is he procuring his research subjects? Because if I were on an animal-subjects committee and this guy submitted a proposal for switching monkey heads around, I’d reject his sorry ass with extreme prejudice.

  11. Corgihound says

    I actually knew Dr. White many years ago, with his eldest son being a fraternity brother of mine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Dr. White was, for many years, the Chairman of Neurology at the CWRU School of Medicine and a Professor of Neurological Surgery. As I recall, he also had a rather peculiar “sense of humor” as related by the comment he made to me during my student days in the mid-1970’s: “With the cost of rhesus monkeys going up,” (which he often used in his experiments), “I’m going to have to start using Vietnam veterans instead!”

    Interesting comment from an extremely devout Catholic (with 10 children!) who had on the wall of his study numerous photographs of his private audiences with the Popes of that era!

  12. bunnycatch3r says

    When my body gives out I’d like my brain removed and placed in a 2 meter mechanical spider.

  13. Morgan says

    Thank you, PZ. I don’t think it was this guy, but a similar story some time ago, that annoyed me by repeatedly calling this sort of thing a “head transplant”. It bothered me then for the utter disconnect it showed between my and the popular conception of where, if anywhere, you could say the identity of an animal sat, that no one in the media was calling it a “full body transplant” as it seemed to me so obviously to be. So, your terminology above came as a relief.

  14. aratina cage says

    *looks up to #16*

    … an extremely devout Catholic (with 10 children!) who had on the wall of his study numerous photographs of his private audiences with the Popes of that era!

    Thanks, refresh. My head started spinning as the camera continued to whirl about from child to child for about 30 seconds.

  15. Marc with a C says

    Pretty sick stuff.

    I mean what’s the point of it all? With modern technology of course it is possible to transplant heads and you CAN do it, but why would you WANT to? At least until all of the insurmountable spinal and neurological issues are resolved.

    Cutting off an animal’s head and attaching it to the body of another animal serves no purpose other than satisfying science’s most ghoulish impulses and a desire to see if something CAN be done.

    I am in favor of animal experimentation when it is absolutely necessary and is done humanely and as conservatively as possible. However, such experiments serve no purpose and result in an unacceptably high level of physical and psychological trauma for the animals. Considering that these monkeys often have higher mental capacities than severely retarded children, it really makes one wonder who was in charge of animal procurement at Case when this was going down.

  16. says

    Ahem, yes of course Mad Scientists exist. In fact, I have risked expulsion from the Mad Scientist Body by posting about the Laws of Mad Science and the Mad Science Etiquette Brassiere.

    You thought that just because Frankenstein-like incidents have decreased that Mad Scientists had died off? In reality we just formed a governing body and that has calmed things down.

    You’re all welcome.

  17. mattb says

    What would piss PETA off more, White’s monkey head transplants or that he is a regular at McDonald’s?

    I thought it was interesting how he was provided reserved seating at McDonald’s. He wanted a reserved parking space with, “for MD only,” and the owner wouldn’t do it. Funny.

  18. Chief says

    Stiff, by Mary Roach, is an awesome read, and really delves into the Russian research into body/head transplants. Just do not, under any circumstances, bother with the X-Files: I Want to Believe version of events. OH! Did I spoil it for you?

  19. Greg Peterson says

    I was waiting for the X-Files reference, knowing it would be damning. I might be one of maybe three people, but I sort of liked the stupid movie. But admittedly, I liked it for one thing only, and that’s a scene of Scully and Mulder in bed talking about…well. We’ve had our share of spoilers already. All’s I’m saying is, OK, it’s pretty awful overall, but it’s not unrelentingly awful.

  20. MScott says

    Whoa. Dang, I’ll have to re-think Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov as my favorite mad scientist. Although World War II (“and tomorrow the world!”) being fought with an army of Russian Human-Ape hybrids would still have been wicked cool.

    Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov

  21. nate says

    I’m a little shocked you all seem so dismayed at the idea. I think its far from mad or useless. Can’t one imagine the idea of having your back-up clone (or brain-dead body donor)ready for a head transplant in case of severe bodily trauma. Whats so crazy about that? I like the whole “science that makes you live longer” stuff.

  22. says

    What’s wrong with the procedure? Nothing as far as I can see. At first it may seem “wrong” to some of us (like any other unorthodox approach), but it’s not different to the millions of other animal experiments we’re performing, not any more (or at least not considerably more) cruel, painful or inhumane to the animals.

    Marc with a C et al. You couldn’t be more mistaken, in fact the payoff is huge.

    Obviously, to most people the technique would be useless as long as we can’t fix a severed spine, but researchers are also working on this problem. In theory some quadriplegics could benefit from such a procedure even today.
    When and if we manage to undo enough of the damage in the spinal cord, whole body transplantation would become a life saving procedure for many terminally ill patients. Allowing us to cure diseases which today are considered a death sentence like highly malignant, inoperable, metastising cancers (w/o brain metastasis).
    No one knows when a viable treatment for quadriplegia will emerge, SAPNS and stem cells, for instance, have already shown great promise. We should be prepared.
    People will benefit only if we know how to perform such a complex operation, which is impossible without research based on trial and error. Research which unfortunately is not taking place, because apparently those experiments are “mad” or “morally wrong”.

    It’s called basic research which you all are so happily disparaging. Without basic research not much clinically relevant research will ever emerge.
    We should consider the pros and cons and adopt a more open-minded stance; no animal should suffer if we can’t benefit from the research. I believe, however, we stand to benefit greatly.

  23. Bride of Shrek OM says

    I’d like a full body transplant with Elle McPherson but the cow just keeps refusing to donate.

  24. says

    For the record, I’d be totally down with some sort of full body transplant, should the need ever arise, but I somehow doubt that it will. I think it more likely that what we’ll wind up doing is somehow cloning brainless bodies that our minds would be transferred into. Slightly less insane that, though I realize that it’s not likely either.

  25. Russell says

    Chris, other than by moving the brain, I don’t see how you can transfer a mind into a new body. As others have pointed out, that’s not attractive until microsurgery advances to the point of reconnecting the spinal cord.

    But yeah, as a science fiction theme, at the point that we can clone new, young bodies and move our brains into them, that becomes quite attractive as one’s original body starts to deteriorate. I don’t see that happening any time soon, so the best thing is still to take good care of the body you have.

  26. Lord Zero says

    I concur with Kismet. I also think than
    this line of research could lead to great
    things on the future for medicine.
    The russian experiments with dogs
    which keep organs alive outside their
    bodies are the basis of today
    organ transplant procedures.

    In fact they built artificial hearts,
    lungs and livers, which are the grandfathers
    of today medical technology which allows
    people to survive otherwise mortal diseases.

    Even those experiments looking
    gruesome, cruel and twisted to most people,
    are useful, are practical, made us learn
    more. Are science.

    Guys, please listen to yourselves. Are
    we acting a little paranoid ? Some
    frankenstein monster complex ?

    When i see this researcher, i cant but to
    feel amazed of his vision. And wonder what
    the future will made of his discoveries.

    Sure it will be awesome.

    Bow down prejudice! Up and go Science!

  27. Billy Vaughan says

    “How can one possibly be the same person after (hypothetically, of course) receiving a head transplant?”

    Well, wouldn’t you be a head receiving a body transplant? So you’d follow your head wherever your body goes.

    Though the question of being the same person is interesting. Remember the Tin Man? He remains the same person despite his body parts being chopped off one by one. If you lose an arm, you’re still you, right? But if you lose your body, is your severed head still you? What if you meld your brain with that of another person? Are you still the same? All these conundrums aside, the idea of full-body transplants sounds powerful. We could cast away lots of medical problems if we solved it.

    Though the idea of carrying around a severed head to the operating table makes me squeamish. It’s an emotional weakness in the way of progress.

  28. says

    … an extremely devout Catholic (with 10 children!)

    Well, they ought to be compatible. I mean, I assume he’s breeding them so he can transfer his brain to one of his kids, eventually!! Muaaaaaahaaaahahahhhaaaaaaa!!!!

  29. MadScientist says

    Of course I exist! Just because creationists deny my existence doesn’t make me not so.

    Is there a communist link with Robert White? I remember stories (have no idea if there was any truth to them) of the Russians experimenting with transplanting dogs’ heads – presumably so they could put Lenin’s (or was it Stalin’s?) head on a dog and revive him. I could just imagine such a beast with Lenin swearing to chew off my capitalist ankles.

    As for my good friend Dr. Moreau, he may be gone but his legacy lives on. Have you seen those mice with ears on their backs? How about the glow-in-the-dark mice with ears on their backs? Laboratory chimera? George ‘Dubbyah’ Bush, Dick Cheney, Ken Ham? You’ve got Dr. Moreau to thank each time you see such monstrosities.

  30. Blake says

    It’s not the monkey head transplant that bothered me most. (although that DID bother me, as the amount of suffering clearly inflicted on that animal was imo grossly disproportionate to the value of knowledge gained) It was the dog brain transplant that bothered me most and White’s casual matter of fact way of talking about it. That dog brain was removed from an animal, attached to another dog’s blood supply, then shoved into its abdomen and sewn up. EEG electrodes verified that the experiment was a “success”, in that the brain was still alive for a long time afterward. Is this not the most horrific scenario a conscious entity can imagine itself being in? If you think about it, it becomes clear that this is an unspeakable nightmare. It’s far worse than “locked-in syndrome”. Here, you would wake up to discover that you now reside in a realm of absolute nothingness. No sound, no vision, no sensory input whatsoever, no information about your location. Just consciousness, floating in an infinite blank void, and now, because you have no control over a body, you can’t even kill yourself. You have no ability to even end your own agony. This is perhaps the single most disturbing and terrifying thing that I have ever contemplated. Thanks for the nightmares PZ!

  31. Doug says

    In Kansas we used to have a guy that would sew goat testicles on people to cure impotence. Monkey heads? That’s so Dr. Moreau.

  32. Ray Mills says

    On the subject of Reanimator and Herbert West, has anyone here read Anno Dracula? in the first novel set at the time of the Ripper murders the author, Kim Newman, has a world where vampires have become part of mainstream society sort of like true blood, but before the novels were written and has various characters both real and ficticious working together. In the first book you have Doctor Jeckyll and Doctor Moreau working together, in the second set during WWI he has Moreau and West working together as well as a vampire Biggles, Lamont Cranston etc in a squadren together with a pet beagle as their mascot.

  33. Rich Keller says

    This raises a number of fascinating questions about scientific ethics and the seat of consciousness and the self, none of which I am going to touch upon, however. But, a scientist who does head transplants -and- who has is own table at McDonald’s? That’s like a villain from the Venture Brothers.

  34. karen says

    I only watched the first installment. Kinda glad, after reading some of the comments.

    This guy has less distraction when writing when at McDonalds than at his own house? WTF goes on his house?!

  35. Bruce says

    >Chris, other than by moving the brain, I don’t see how you can transfer a mind into a new body…

    Destructive scanning (fine-cut salami style) is not only possible, both it and neuro-simulation are on an exponential improvement curve. The processed dataset would be only 500 hard drives and dropping rapidly (scanning in every synapse would take 100’s of years – as of this year). Stuffing the connection network back into a living neural net though, I’d agree, probably never will be possible. Still, androids are also rapidly improving, though it’d be less fun than biology. But a true digital afterlife is probably no more than 20 years away from being technically possible.

    Of course, you’re pretty severely dead in between, not just “off” but actually shaved into brain slushy. Arguably there’s even less point to it than the monkey head-swap; to your friends they have a digital ghost of you to talk to, but from a first person perspective, you still died.

    The *really* interesting question about these concepts is the possibility of editing. This also applies to advanced biotech. What’s to prevent us from all becoming our own version of Micheal Jackson? How sane will society be when people can edit their bodies, memories, and even motivations as they see fit?