Robert J. White

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Robert J. White
Robert Joseph White

(1926-01-21)January 21, 1926
DiedSeptember 16, 2010(2010-09-16) (aged 84)
EducationUniversity of St. Thomas (B.S., 1951)
Harvard Medical School (M.D., 1953)
University of Minnesota (PhD, Neurosurgery, 1962)

Robert Joseph White (January 21, 1926 – September 16, 2010) was an American neurosurgeon best known for his head transplants on living monkeys.


White was raised in Duluth, Minnesota, by his mother and an aunt. His father was killed in combat while serving in the Pacific theater during World War II.[1] White stated in a 2009 Motherboard interview that his interest in the human brain started in high school when his biology teacher admired his dissection of a frog cranium and told White that he should become a brain surgeon.

White began his undergraduate studies at the University of St. Thomas before entering the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1949; he later transferred to Harvard Medical School in 1951, where he earned his medical degree cum laude in 1953.[2] White had ten children with his wife, Patricia Murray, a nurse he met at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital while completing his surgical internship and residency. A devout Roman Catholic, Dr. White was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He attended mass regularly and prayed before performing surgeries.[1]

Throughout his career, White performed over 10,000 surgical operations and authored more than 900 publications on clinical neurosurgery, medical ethics and health care.[1] He received honorary doctorates from John Carroll University (Doctor of Science, 1979), Cleveland State University (Doctor of Science, 1980), Walsh University (Doctor of Humane Letters, 1996) and the University of St. Thomas (Doctor of Sciences, 1998).[3] White received invitations worldwide to speak, lecture and share his medical expertise. He was a consultant to the Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery in Moscow and was the only foreign member of both Russian and Ukrainian Academies of Medical Science. He lectured extensively in the U.S., Russia, China and Europe.[2] White also became an adviser to Pope John Paul II on medical ethics. He established the Vatican's Commission on Biomedical Ethics in 1981 after his appointment to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Under White's leadership, the Commission influenced the church's stance on brain death and in vitro fertilization.[1][2]

He nicknamed himself Humble Bob. White founded Metro's neurosurgery department. Many people know him for being the leading target for protesters. A PETA activist went as far as to call him "Dr. Butcher" and described his experiments as "epitomizing the crude, cruel vivisection industry."[4] For 40 years, White was a neurological surgery professor at Case Western Reserve University medical school, a well-liked teacher and an acclaimed surgeon.[1][2] He was one of the best known neurosurgeons in the United States, notably for his head transplant experiments on rhesus monkeys.[5] White died at his home in Geneva, Ohio, on September 16, 2010, at age 84 after suffering from diabetes and prostate cancer.[1]


In 1970, after a long series of preliminary experiments, White performed a transplant of one monkey head onto the body of another monkey. Because the surgery included severing the spine at the neck, the subjects were paralyzed from the neck down. After the surgery, because the cranial nerves within the brain were still intact and nourished by the circulatory system from the new body, the monkey could still hear, smell, taste, eat and follow objects with its eyes.[6]

Ultimately, immune rejection caused the monkey to die after nine days.[7] Dr. Jerry Silver, an expert in regrowing severed nerves, called White's experiments on monkeys, "fairly barbaric."[8]

During the 1990s, White planned to perform the same operation on humans and practiced on corpses at a mortuary. He hoped he could do head transplant surgery on the physicist Stephen Hawking and the actor Christopher Reeve.[7] The continuation of White's work in head transplantation research and application has been discussed recently in the neurosurgical literature by Dr. Canavero;[9] the feasibility of spinal cord reconstruction and cephalo-spinal linkage in humans received support in 2014 from a German study.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Segall, Grant (September 16, 2010). "Dr. Robert J. White, famous neurosurgeon and ethicist, dies at 84". Retrieved February 4, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d "Robert J. White, MD, PhD – Hall of Honor 2011 Inductee". Metro Health 2012-2014. Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  3. ^ The Pontifical Academy of Sciences Yearbook 2008, pp. 255–7.
  4. ^ Bennett, Carla (August 26, 1995). "Letter to the editor: Cruel and Unneeded". New York Times. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Retrieved April 26, 2015.
  5. ^ [National Geographic video]
  6. ^ Mims, Christopher. "First-Ever Human Head Transplant is now possible, says Neuroscientist, July 1, 2013". Retrieved May 1, 2014.
  7. ^ a b McCrone, John (December 2003). "Monkey Business". Lancet Neurology. 2 (12): 772. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(03)00596-9. PMID 14636785. S2CID 5254407. Archived from the original on February 28, 2015. Retrieved January 20, 2015. (As reproduced at author's personal webpage)
  8. ^ Bennett, Carla. "Cruel and Unneeded — Letter to the editor". The New York Times, August 26, 1995. Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  9. ^ Canavero, Sergio (June 13, 2013). "HEAVEN: The head anastomosis venture Project outline for the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage (GEMINI)". Surg Neurol Int. 4 (2): 335–42. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.113444. PMC 3821155. PMID 24244881. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
  10. ^ Estrada, V; Brazda, N; Schmitz, C; Heller, S; Blazyca, H; Martini, R; Müller, HW (2014). "Long-lasting significant functional improvement in chronic severe spinal cord injury following scar resection and polyethylene glycol implantation". Neurobiol. Dis. 67: 165–79. doi:10.1016/j.nbd.2014.03.018. PMID 24713436. S2CID 22390960.

Further reading[edit]

  • Schillace, Brandy (2021). Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey's Head, the Pope's Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781982113827.