The Cold War saw great competitions arise between the Soviet Union and the United States. If the USSR did it, the US wanted to equal if not better their results. Mostly, we remember the arms race and nuclear tensions between the two countries, but there were many other stranger battles to be fought on the fringes of science. Top secret experiments in mind over matter including telekinesis and remote viewing played out in secret on both sides. The race was on to find out who was better at the advancement of science.
In one of the lesser-known and bizarre scientific ventures, Soviet scientists such as Vladimir Demikhov were taking organ transplantation far beyond its acceptable boundaries. It was 1954 when he unveiled his greatest experiment (or abomination) in the form of a two-headed dog. Somewhere between the mythological Greek hell hound Cerberus and mutated animals displayed in carnival freak shows around the world, Demikhov’s creation was an attempt to push transplant science to its absolute limits. (You can click here for an image of one of his two-headed dogs after surgery; dog lovers, you have been warned.) One of his two-headed dogs was later taxidermied and today is on display at the Pauli Stradini Museum Historiae Medcinae in Latvia.
This extreme step forward was replicated in the shocking experiments over the following decade in a quiet lab in Cleveland, Ohio.
What began in 1962 at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine were similar experiments on dogs, seeing if a second brain could be connected to a living dog and kept alive. Early successes led to attempts by Dr. Robert J. White to keep a brain alive free of the body. According to EKG machines hooked up to a monkey’s brain suspended over a pan and pumped full of blood, the brain appeared to remain conscious even 12 hours after removal from the body. But this wasn’t enough for his colleagues. graphic results were one thing, yet proving the brain is still conscious is another matter entirely.
White set out to revise his experiment in a manner that could positively show that the disembodied brain was still functioning normally. This time, he set out to take the head of a rhesus monkey and surgically attach it to the body is another monkey. Essentially, it was surgical head swapping.
In 1970, Dr. White realized his ambitious experiment. The head was successfully attached to a different body and responded to external stimuli. Unfortunately, this experiment would only truly allow for brain survival, as any attempt to connect the two spinal cords together would be far too impossibly complex to even attempt. The monkey only survived for eight days before the host body’s immune system rejected the transplanted head, although with modern advances in neurosurgery, Dr. Sergio Canavero of Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group believes we have finally come far enough to make a complete head transplant possible.
In a strange echoing of the past, White was contacted by Russian scientists who were very interested in the work he was performing. He went to the USSR in 1966 where he witnessed first-hand the two-headed dogs, along with dog heads being kept alive by machines built to mimic the circulatory and respiratory functions of a body. Their deeper motivations were not very humble; Russian scientists were eager to learn the secrets of extending life far beyond the death of the body.
In 20o7, Jim Fields produced a short documentary about these experiments titled A: Head B: Body. Fields traveled to Cleveland to interview the famous doctor as well as explore his old lab, sealed up for years but remaining much as it had been at the time of the experiments. This was one of White’s last filmed interviews; he passed away in 2010.
This macabre dabbling in living disembodied heads bubbled over into popular culture of the time. These early experiments inspired a stable of low-budget horror films, including The Head (1959), originally a German film titled Die Nackte und der Satan (or The Nude and the Devil). When it premiered in Cleveland in 1961 at the Hippodrome, shrunken heads were given away free to patrons. The American film The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (created in 1959 but not released until 1962) raised questions about the morality of such experimentation with Jan’s head pleading for her own death, but for fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it provided a lot more hilarious entertainment value.
While we might cringe at the sight of surgically decapitated animals seemingly aware of their predicaments and debate the ethics of such experiments, what was learned from these surgeries has had a profoundly positive effect on neurosurgery as we know it. Techniques including the cooling of the brain as was done in the experiments have helped save lives and led to major advances in repairing damage from brain trauma. Yet White’s long, successful career and great contributions to neuroscience will forever be overshadowed by the day he turned a monkey into a real-life Frankenstein’s monster.