A noted scientist conducting controversial transplantation expirements on living monkeys has received death threats from animal-rights activists.
Dr. Robert White looks like the average family practitioner. A devout Catholic and a father of 10, he lives in a house with a white picket fence in suburban Cleveland. Every morning, he takes breakfast at a cozy diner where everyone knows his name. He, in turn, inquires on the state of his neighbors' arthritic knees and fluttery hearts. When he wants a refill of coffee, he gets up and pours it himself, topping off other patrons. "He's just our Dr. White," the hostess says proudly.
But this doctor is also a world-famous neurosurgeon whose controversial research has been called "Frankensteinian." White believes that it now is possible to separate the head from a diseased and failing body, attach it to a new body and keep the brain alive and functioning.
Though his idea sounds like the scenario of a B movie, White is a respected scientist who already has made medical history. In the early sixties, his experiments on monkeys showed that the brain could be cooled to record levels and restored to body temperature with no ill effects, paving the way for longer, more complex operations. "He's one of the most imaginative researchers I've ever met," says Dr. Maurice Albin, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Texas who worked on the project.
At the time, White headed up (pun intended) what would become one of the world's preeminent brain research labs at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital. Following his "cooling" experiments, he began work on a more daunting problem - isolating a living brain - and on January 17, 1963, succeeded in isolating the brain of a rhesus monkey.
By perching the brain on a small platform of bone, White was able to insert tubes into four major arteries still connected to the monkey's body. The arteries were severed, the spinal cord cut and an artificial circulation system activated. Electrodes installed in the brain showed strong electrical activity. For the first time, a higher animal's brain was isolated and kept alive outside of its body.
In the early seventies, White and his collaborators took the next step, transplanting the head of one monkey onto the body of another. "The reason for using the whole head instead of an isolated brain," White explains, "is because we have no way of sewing or splicing together the major nerves that subserve things like vision, hearing and tasting. …