After 18 hours under anesthesia, doctors, nurses, and a team of assistants stood by anxiously waiting for a sign that the two risky operations had been a success.
Cleveland brain surgeon Robert White tapped the monkey’s nose. The monkey, a midsized primate called a macaque, snapped his jaws in an attempt to bite the doctor.
The room cheered. The operations had been successful.
Dr. White successfully performed the world’s first primate head transplant. He attached the conscious, living head of one macaque to the breathing, vital body of another, creating a “new” animal.
“Dangerous, pugnacious and very unhappy,” White said about his patient.
“The monkeys did not like Dr. White, and they really retained that,” Brandy Schillace, author of “Mr. Humble & Dr. Butcher” (Simon & Schuster), said.
The dislike for Dr. White was a common factor in all five of the macabre head transplants White performed. This confirms, for him at least, that the brain is the vessel of personality. It is where the soul sits.
In her new book, Schillace explores White’s career as a groundbreaking surgeon and researcher. He never achieved his ultimate goal, which was to perform the operation that would let a human soul live on after the body died.
“It was perfume, but now it’s an empty bottle,” Dr. White said in 1967, as he held an isolated brain in his palm. “But the fragrance is still there.”
By then, White’s surgical experiments had already led to techniques that preserve function in injured brains and spines. This gave neurosurgeons time to do their lifesaving work. The approach, known as hypothermic perfusion, is still used today on trauma patients and those in cardiac arrest.
But for 40 years, until his death in 2010, White hoped of performing his monkey surgery — which he preferred to call a body transplant — on humans.