The mesmerizing biography of a brilliant and eccentric surgeon and his quest to transplant the human soul.
In the early days of the Cold War, a spirit of desperate scientific rivalry birthed a different kind of space race: not the race to outer space that we all know, but a race to master the inner space of the human body. While surgeons on either side of the Iron Curtain competed to become the first to transplant organs like the kidney and heart, a young American neurosurgeon had an even more ambitious thought: Why not transplant the brain?
Dr. Robert White was a friend to two popes and a founder of the Vatican’s Commission on Bioethics. He developed lifesaving neurosurgical techniques still used in hospitals today and was nominated for the Nobel Prize. But like Dr. Jekyll before him, Dr. White had another identity. In his lab, he was waging a battle against the limits of science, and against mortality itself—working to perfect a surgery that would allow the soul to live on after the human body had died.
Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher follows his decades-long quest into tangled matters of science, global politics, and faith, revealing the complex (and often murky) ethics of experimentation and remarkable innovations that today save patients from certain death. It’s an enthralling tale that offers a window into our greatest fears and our greatest hopes—and the long, strange journey from science fiction to science fact.
Medical historian Schillace (Death's Summer Coat) delivers a fascinating portrait of neurosurgeon Robert J. White (1926 2017), who performed the first transplant of one monkey's head onto another's body in 1970 (the monkey survived for "almost nine days before the body rejected the head") and dreamed of performing the same procedure for humans suffering from multiple organ failure. Schillace explores White's deep Catholic faith and outsized ambitions (he ironically called himself "Humble Bob" ), and contextualizes his experiments with lucid discussions of the primitive state of American medicine in the 1950s and how Cold War tensions fueled an "inner space" race between U.S. and Soviet doctors to perform the first human head transplant. White's determination to prove that "the mind could outlive the body" contributed to breakthroughs in brain cooling techniques for the treatment of spinal cord injuries and head trauma, Schillace notes, even as his experiments led to highly publicized showdowns with animal rights organizations. Schillace explains the medical nuances of White's surgeries without too much gruesome detail, and her lyrical prose and psychological insights keep the pages turning. Readers will be riveted by this story of how White tried "to stretch the limits of what science could do."