In the book you describe White meeting a 45-year-old Cleveland man named Craig Vetovitz. He saw White’s work as “noble,” and White saw Vetovitz as his “perfect patient.” Why was that?
People said, “Well, if you succeed, you’ll create a paralyzed patient.” It’s a very ableist argument, isn’t it? But for Craig, he was already quadriplegic. And he had a very full life. He’s like, “No, my life is good. I travel, I have children, I’m married. I own my own business. I have a full life, and that life is worth preserving.”
He was interested in taking part because his organs—this is true of many quadriplegic patients—their organs begin to shut down eventually. So for him, he felt like he didn’t have a lot to lose: “Okay, I will still be quadriplegic, but I will live because I’ll have a better body.” And this is partly why White called it a body transplant, he quit calling it a head transplant. They’re just giving you an organ transplant, but all the organs all at one time. It does sound better when you think about it that way.
Ultimately Vetovitz did not have the surgery, and paralysis remained a lingering hurdle for approving body transplants. At WIRED, we’ve covered brain computer interfaces, prosthetics, and patches to treat paralysis. How far do you think we are from that tech taking off?
I don’t think it’s as far away as people think. I’m blown away by the changes that have happened in the last five years, much less what can happen 50 years from now. But it’s only because the brain itself is so plastic and flexible, that the brain is going, “Okay, so this is a thing we do now.” And then it makes faster connections the next time.
White faced some backlash, of course. From whom?
Animal rights activist groups were extremely incensed by the things that he did. Even the way he talked about animals was upsetting to many people.
And transplant medicine also has a kind of racist history, right?
It became a real fear that Black bodies would be harvested to serve white patients. This was something that was extremely troubling to the Black community when heart transplants started happening in the 1960s. And one of the first heart transplants, which happened in South Africa, is a Black patient whose heart goes into a white man. South Africa was still under apartheid at the time. And the papers said, “Look, now his heart can go places his body wasn’t allowed to.” It can go into theaters inside the white man that it couldn’t have gone to inside the Black man.
After writing this book, do you think you would still be yourself after a body transplant?
If I had to guess, I’d say I don’t think so. I think that we’re such composite creatures. And actually, the LGBTQ movement talks a lot about this too. People who are transitioning, for instance, what their body is and does and who they are, are really intrinsically linked for many people. And I think that, as a result, identity is an interesting fraught thing that doesn’t fit well in boxes, even the box of our head for that matter.
What was Robert White like as a person?
I leaned somewhat heavily, not on the Frankenstein idea, but on the Jekyll and Hyde idea. He really did seem to me to be almost two people. He’s a family man. And he is saving children from cancer and preserving people’s lives and their ability to get around. At the same time, I would read his accounts, how he would just eviscerate people—sorry, probably a bad choice of words. But he was fantastically good at rhetoric. I’ve seen debates that he did with animal rights activists, and his ability to just cut people was alarming.