Two-headed dogs, monkey head transplants, standalone living brains, and brains transplanted in dog necks. These are the experiments that shocked the world during the 1950s and 1970s.
Although the media and the scientific community often referred to the authors of these experiments as “monsters”, “Frankensteins”, “beasts”, “mad scientists” and cataloged their work as “grotesque”, I will still refer to them as Dr. Vladimir Demikhov and Dr.Robert White, due to the respect I have for people that dedicate their lives to science. However, that does not mean I subscribe to their methods.
Russian doctor Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov is known as a transplant pioneer who did his first experiments in the 1930s and 1950s. His surgeries included the transplantation of a heart into an animal and lung-heart replacement in an animal, but the thing that intrigued most scientists and average people is the creation of his two-headed dogs. Although the first to do this was the American physiologist Charles Guthrie, the dogs of Dr. Demikhov were the first to possess full cerebral functions. The difference in method implied the amount of time allowed to elapse between decapitation and attachment of the donor’s head to the recipient’s body. The operation itself was a success, but the dogs would all die within six days’ time. The doctor and his team proved their success by filming the dogs and showing that the new animal was able to drink milk with both heads attached to the same body. I refuse to post images or videos with the animals “created” by Dr. Demikhov, though they can be found all over the internet. Weak hearts, however, should never be near them!
Demikhov’s work has been appreciated by the American surgeon Dr. Robert White, that took science to an even more outrageous level in 1962 when he removed a dog’s brain and kept it alive outside the skull. In 1964 the brain of a dog has been transplanted into the neck of another dog, connected to the last’s blood supply, and monitored with electrodes for activity. Although he managed to keep the standalone brain alive, Dr. White failed to prove consciousness. Like this wasn’t enough, in 2001, Dr. White horrified the scientific world again, by transplanting a full monkey head to the body of another’s.
Video footage shows the transplanted head exhibiting facial movements, and being able to receive liquids and react to stimuli, although the rest of the body was paralyzed. It’s not hard to understand that the procedure was absolutely useless, considering the fact that there couldn’t be such thing as a complete head transplant since repairing nerve damage in the severed spinal cord is impossible (at least until now) and the head can’t control the new body. The whole experiment ended with euthanized monkeys.
Both doctors justified their research and experiments with the possibility of discovering a way to help paralyzed humans, especially quadriplegics, where a head transplant would be the only solution to guarantee life. Dr. White believes such operations will be possible in the not too distant future and he actually tried to find donors and volunteers for the test’s final act: a human head transplant. As a psychologist, I know our brain stocks information (such as memories) related to the experiences we encounter in our existence. These experiences are undoubtedly related to our physical body, so I must ask myself what it would be like for a human being to wake up and have memories that pass as his own, as far as the memory is concerned and yet the facts, the body, won’t sustain them. Assuming the operation would succeed, I can’t think of a worse way of feeling trapped in another body and definitely can’t imagine a psychologically normal life for the patient.
Many desires and plans have been verbalized by Dr. Demikhov and Dr. White, and yet, all they really had on their operation tables at the end were mutilated, paralyzed, and dead animals. Is that acceptable if one acts “in the name of science”? I understand the desire to expand human knowledge, but does it need to be done at any expense? According to Darwin, we are the most advanced type of ape, with the highest level of intelligence, but does that mean we are entitled to use the less evolved species for our own intentions? Are we entitled to torture and kill “in the name of science”? Do we need to be that unmerciful selfish ape?