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The Strange History of Head Transplants (and what it tells us about medical ethics)

Seminar presented by Brandy Schillace

It’s not every day someone hands you a research notebook covered in monkey’s blood. But so begins my foray into the strangest scientific experiments of the modern era. Mr Humble and Dr Butcher follows the unprecedented work and life of Dr Robert White from his first surgery (an operation on a frog at the age of 15) to his final bid to perform a human head transplant before his death in 2010. Yes. A head transplant. We tend to give precedence to the brain, and so long as our consciousness remains intact, we are we. But should we have that brain removed from the body that houses it—well, that’s another story. In fact, it’s this story.

“We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation,” said Dr White. “It’s dead for all practical purpose — for over an hour — then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

Mr Humble and Dr Butcher will tell the incredible story of a “Frankenstein” event, the world’s first successful primate head transplant, but also how this bizarre encounter shaped, and in fact inaugurated, life-saving technologies that still save lives today.

The book will also explore a mystery that still begs to be solved: if you make a brain to live outside a body, what becomes of the self? Or as White puts it, “Can you transplant the human soul?”

And finally, this story will follow a contest every bit as determined as the space race: The Cold War contest between Russia and America to perform the first head transplant in a bid to overcome mortality and to bestow life.

Bioethics seminars

Bioethics Seminars occur weekly at the Bioethics Centre on 71 Frederick Street every Monday during the Semester. Due to current COVID-19 restrictions, seminars will take place online via Zoom.

Zoom details

Meeting ID: 922 351 556 : Password: 595584

Date Monday, 4 October 2021
Time 1:00pm - 1:50pm
Audience Staff,Postgraduate students,Undergraduate students,Allied health professionals
Event Category Health Sciences
Event Type Seminar
DepartmentBioethics Centre
LocationBioethics Seminar Room (Room 119), Bioethics Centre, Bioethics Centre, Level 1, 71 Frederick Street, Dunedin
Contact NameLeisha Cohen
Contact Phone03 471 6120

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