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Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: The story of vile scientist who raised ire from animal rights activists and interest from a Pope

Robert White experimented on monkeys dozens of times. In 1970 he succeeded in transplanting a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body. The monkey didn’t survive long.

HOWARD SCHNEIDER: The “title characters” of Brandy Schillace’s admirable biography “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul” were one and the same person: Robert J. White, a distinguished neurosurgeon, an accomplished neuroscientist and a man dedicated to searching for the means to transplant souls by transplanting the human brain. If this makes White sound macabre, Ms. Schillace’s account of his life, work and temperament is anything but. She deftly persuades the reader to take White seriously (he wasn’t even eccentric) and to ponder profound medical-scientific-philosophical issues…

As a young man, White, a devout Catholic, was convinced that the soul was located in the brain, what the author describes as “three pounds of gelatinous convolutions and a hundred billion nerves.” White felt it was his religious and medical duty to devise techniques for rescuing healthy brains from otherwise diseased and dying bodies. His solution was to transplant heads (containing their brains) onto cadavers that were brain dead but otherwise physiologically viable…

Before he could attempt such surgery on people, White experimented, mostly on monkeys, dozens of times, to ascertain and refine the necessary procedures. In March 1970 he succeeded in transplanting a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body. (A warning: Ms. Schillace’s descriptions of surgery are very detailed.) The transported head didn’t survive long, but the important thing for White was that sensors revealed electrical impulses emanating from the resettled brain. White believed that only brain death—the cessation of the brain’s electrical signals—meant true death. Therefore the monkey whose head was relocated, while its brain was still active, was, in White’s opinion, actually alive. He couldn’t wait to start on human transplants.

That day never came. During the era in which White conducted his experiments, politicians, doctors, journalists and celebrities were becoming deeply and increasingly dismayed by scientific experiments on animals. White ran afoul of the animal-rights advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and was threatened by animal-rights extremists (he remained imperturbable). White prided himself on scrupulously avoiding harm to his animal subjects. But he didn’t believe that animals had souls: For him, Ms. Schillace writes, “the human was more than animal, and equating the two was not only wrong, it was dangerous.”

One of White’s rejoinders to those who would halt animal experimentation was, to paraphrase: If you were a surgeon, how would you like to tell parents that their young child is going to die because the operation that might save him or her was impossible to perform, mainly because the necessary animal-dissection research that would have permitted it was forbidden by law or the medical canon of ethics? His foes never had a good answer…

Readers might find themselves admiring and perhaps even sympathizing with White, whose attitude toward brain transplants was always motivated by a principled desire to alleviate human misery. But the book’s value lies in challenging readers to contemplate some momentous concerns. What is life? What is death? Should religion play a role in medical decisions? Should scientists experiment on animals? Can technology that saves lives still be immoral? Who gets to answer these questions? SOURCE…


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