Getting Ahead in the Cold War
The 1950s and '60s were a golden age for scientific optimism. Humans were venturing into outer space, watching television and finally glimpsing the cascading grace of DNA's double helix -- all of which helped to soften the blow of looming nuclear annihilation. Still, provided humanity didn't destroy itself, the future looked bright. In the wake of the first successful long-term human organ transplant (a kidney) in 1954, could human head transplants really be that far off?
While sometimes more morbid than scientific, our fascination with life-after-decapitation stretches back pretty far -- past the guillotine gawkers of the French Revolution and back to the era of cruelly sharpened stones. Even today, it remains one of medicine's final frontiers, offering possible alternatives to quadriplegics with organ failure.
As was often the case during the mid-20th century, dogs and monkeys wound up making some huge sacrifices for human science. U.S. surgeon Charles Guthrie transplanted one dog's head onto the neck of another in 1908 and, with government funding, the Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov attempted a canine upper body transplant in 1951.
Not to be outdone, the United States funded the work of neurosurgeon Robert J. White in the mid-1960s. White experimented with the transplantation of dog and monkey brains into the necks and abdomens of other animals. His work culminated with a 1970 experiment that saw the head of one living rhesus monkey transplanted onto the headless body of another.