“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” So wonders the unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Premature Burial. At the time the classic short story appeared in 1844, the public was fascinated by cases of people mistakenly pronounced dead and buried alive. There was even a market for coffins equipped with emergency devices that would allow a reawakened “corpse” to call for help. While there is scarce evidence that premature burials ever occurred, there have been philosophical and scientific questions about the moment at which life converts to death. Is there a difference between “brain death” and “biological death?” That is, could a person be declared dead if the heart is still beating?
In 1968, a Harvard committee was tasked with defining when death occurs. The conclusion was that when a person has no detectable brain activity according to a number of criteria, then that person is dead, because there has never been a case of anyone who has been correctly diagnosed as brain-dead ever showing any neurological recovery. This definition, however, has been the subject of several legal challenges, such as in the case of Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl who had severe blood loss after tonsil and adenoid surgery that deprived her brain of oxygen. She was placed on a ventilator, but was soon declared brain dead. Her mother refused to accept that declaration because Jahi’s heart was still beating normally. The hospital wanted to terminate life support. A legal battle ensued, with the mother eventually finding a facility in New Jersey that accepted Jahi and kept her on a ventilator until she died five years later without ever showing any sort of brain activity.
The case raises important questions. How can someone be dead in one part of the body and not in another? What about people who believe in the “healing power of God” and hold out hope that a miracle may occur as long as the heart is beating? Or those who believe that science will discover a way to reanimate the brain as long as the body is kept alive. There are also issues about costs and the extensive medical care required to sustain life artificially.
Then there are the philosophical questions. If humans have a soul, where does it reside, and when does it leave the body? Back in 1907, physician Duncan MacDougall designed an experiment to find out. He identified immobile patients in a nursing home who were close to death and placed their bed on a giant scale. MacDougall claimed that the patients’ weight decreased by 21 grams at the time of death, which he attributed to the soul leaving the body. He followed up by carrying out the same experiment with dogs, and suggested that the observation of no weight loss corroborated the notion that only humans have a soul. MacDougall’s experiments were widely criticized on numerous grounds, including flawed methods, small sample size and the likelihood that he poisoned the dogs.
Soviet physiologist Vladimir Demikhov didn’t care whether dogs had souls. What they had was a heart and circulatory system similar to humans. In 1951, he performed the world’s first heart transplant on a dog, eventually improving his pioneering methods to permit one dog to live for seven years with a transplanted heart. If hearts could be transplanted, what about heads? In 1954, Demikhov carried out the bizarre experiment that would eventually garner him worldwide attention when he transplanted the head of a puppy onto the body of a larger dog. Connecting the head’s vascular system to that of the host allowed the grotesque two-headed animal to survive for days with both heads capable of moving and even eating. When questioned about his work, Demikhov would quip that “two heads are better than one.”
While Demikhov’s head transplant conjured up images of Victor Frankenstein, there is no question that his heart, liver and lung transplants in animals laid the foundations for organ transplants in humans. Cardiac surgeon Christian Barnard, who carried out the world’s first heart transplant in 1967, was inspired by Demikhov, as was famed American neurosurgeon Robert White, who is remembered as much for his transplant of the head of a monkey onto the body of another as for his pioneering demonstration that cooling the brain gives surgeons more time to carry out successful operations.
Amazingly, the transplanted monkey head remained functional for eight days, and even attempted to bite White’s finger, seemingly remembering his tormentor. To White, this meant that the “essence” of the monkey was in the brain and led him to contemplate a human head transplant. Perhaps this would allow a brain, and possibly the soul, to survive after the body has failed. Stephen Hawking would be a perfect candidate, White believed. The head containing the brilliant brain could live on, attached to a new body after his own ceased to function. White, who died in 2010, even experimented with head transplants on corpses!
Because such transplants involve the severing of the spinal cord, the body would be paralyzed, as was the case with the monkeys. But Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero refers to some animal experiments in which spinal cords have been reconnected and has said he plans to carry out a human head transplant, probably in China. Based on what is known today, this seems like some macabre experiment by a mad scientist, but then again, organ transplants were once considered to be impossible. Now they allow for life where otherwise there would be death.
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The Science of Life and Death is our theme for this year’s Trottier Public Science Symposium. Due to COVID, it will be streamed live at 7 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 25 and 26. Join vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit, mortician Kari Northey, McGill neurologist Dr. Lesley Fellows and myself for a fascinating exploration of life and death. For more information and free registration please visit www.mcgill.ca/oss.
Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.