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Rewrite – ‘Soul, Your Very Soul,’ 3/23/2021

         Rewrite: ‘Soul, Your Very Soul’—3/23/2021  By James A. Fragale Did you know you had one?  Dr. Robert J. White and the New York Post seems to think you do.  I skimmed an article one evening in March 2021 that then haunted me.  Some days later, I had to go back and re-read the piece, a work spawned by a newly released book with a […]

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         Rewrite: ‘Soul, Your Very Soul’—3/23/2021  By James A. Fragale Did you know you had one?  Dr. Robert J. White and the New York Post seems to think you do.  I skimmed an article one evening in March 2021 that then haunted me.  Some days later, I had to go back and re-read the piece, a work spawned by a newly released book with a weighty title, Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul by medical historian Ms. Brandy Schillace, (Simon & Schuster).

 Simply, or not so simple, back in the 1970s, a Cleveland brain surgeon and researcher, Dr. Robert J. White, experimented on monkeys with what he called body transplants, the exchange of heads and bodies—an attempt to perform what was known then as primate head transplanting–the attachment of a conscious, living head of a macaque monkey to the breathing, vital body of another like primate, thus creating a fresh single animal. White was first to execute this operation. His initial subject survived for nine days, affirming, in his mind at least, “the brain is the vessel of personality, the literal seat of the soul.”  He had my attention.

            My interest, initially, the Post appeared cavalierly to confirm that a person had a soul. For openers, it’s good to know. Not everyone is privy to such information. Secondly, that a respected neurosurgeon, nominated for a Nobel Prize for developing lifesaving surgical techniques, was doing “groundbreaking work” with, we assume, the ultimate goal of performing an operation that would let a human soul encased in its own brain live on an after its original body had moved on—wrestling with the larger questions about life, death and the human soul. Where does the human soul reside?  In the brain?  The Body?  He was also able to remove brains from skulls and keep them alive in jars?  Could such a brain think?  (The New York Times tells us surgeons in Italy and China today are actively pursuing head transplants.)

I was hooked.

Here was this doctor, a clump of contradictions, a practicing Roman Catholic, a medical doctor who attended Mass daily, father of ten, friend of two R. C. popes, experimenting with “hypothermic perfusion.”  (Know that the procedure is done today on trauma patients and those in cardiac arrest.)  I was a Roman Catholic child with all that that entails. Baptism.  Catechism classes in summer (while my Protestant friends had the summer off.)  Rosaries. Novenas. No meat on Friday’s. Confession. And, inappropriate priest-ial behavior, twice (nipped in its bud.)  I was further fascinated. 

Back to the issue, unfortunately, Dr. White—who ironically called himself “Humble Bob”–shot himself in the foot. He had an unhealthy penchant for publicity which, to his detriment, gave him “a whiff of quackery.” He made the mistake of appearing on a nationwide, controversial, syndicated tabloid television show, Halloween Day no less, Hard Copy, to talk about his landmark work that earned him the nickname Dr. Frankenstein.  He loved it! He went so far as to even stencil the words “Dr. Frankenstein” on his medical bag. 

Consequently, after that bit of conceit, he was then turned down for the needed $4 million to pursue his life-long monkey work as well denied the necessary hospital approval to go on.  He blew it. Showmanship done him in. I’m sad to report, his high-minded philosophy that “human life and the brain were worth saving at almost any cost” was lost to low-minded, self-sabotaging hubris. It rankles ones very soul, that is, if one has one.  The votes not in. 

FOOTNOTE: 1) “Doctor tried to surgically save the human soul—after death,” by Mary Kay Linge, New York Post, March 6, 2021. 2) Mr. Humble & Dr. Butcher, by Brandy Schillace, medical historian at Case Western Reserve University, Simon & Schuster. 3) 3/23/2021

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