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Off with his head!

By Russell Grenning - posted Friday, 5 January 2018

There is undoubtedly something very definite and final about beheading. Or is there?

King Charles 1 was the only English monarch to have his head chopped off, after being found guilty of treason by the republican Cromwell regime in January, 1649 and, after his head was severed, it was actually sewn back on to his body prior to his burial. Presumably, those who had sent him to meet his Maker wanted him to look his best, all things considered.

Whether it was for religious or just cosmetic reasons, there wasn't any suggestion that a quick stitch-up would somehow magically bring Charles back to life.


Yet, beheading and re-attaching a head is now all the talk of modern medical science although, to be fair, the actual term "beheading" is not actually used. We are far, far too sensitive and politically correct for that nowadays. Rather than consigning some reprobate and his wonderful body to the fiery pits of Hell, beheading is now being considered to be a potential life-saving or, at least, a life-enhancing procedure for a virtuous but physically challenged recipient.

Yes, nowadays medical science – well, the outer reaches of medical science – are considering what is fairly delicately being referred to as a "head transplant".

Late last year, Italian neurosurgeon, Professor Sergio Canavero, announced that he and a Chinese collaborator Dr Xiaoping Ren performed the first successful head transplant in a Chinese Medical University. While this might be seen as tremendously exciting there was a small but not insignificant problem – both the head donor and the head recipient were actually already dead. However, the intrepid medicos claimed that they had reconnected the spinal cord, nerves and blood vessels of the donor head and headless recipient. They have previously claimed to have performed successful head transplants on a monkey and numerous rodents.

"The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done," Professor Canavero announced in China. "A full head swap between brain dead organ donors is the next stage. And that is the final step for the formal head transplant which is imminent."

He has called his project – which he has been working on since 1982 – "Heaven" for Head Anastomosis Venture which is probably better and more encouraging than "Hell", for Head Experiment Laudable Legend".

Professor Canavero is not at all dismayed or depressed by the unanimous rejection of his claims by the medical establishment. After all, the history of medical science is littered with stories about how breakthrough discoveries were initially rejected but then accepted. One horrible example is that of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis who was working in a Viennese maternity hospital in the mid 19th century and who argued that antiseptic handwashing by surgeons and other hospital staff who dealt with patients would cut down the risk of cross-infection. Not only was he ridiculed, he was sacked, forcibly admitted to an insane asylum and so badly beaten he died after two weeks.


I'm not one to scoff at Professor Canavero. After all, he might be on to something.

If this procedure proves to be viable, I will be lining up to get a new body myself. Mind you, the body that currently supports my head has served me pretty well for nearly seven decades but I'm the first to admit that it has gone somewhat downhill since about 1975. While most of it still performs more or less as it should, it's not the trim, taut and terrific body that it once was. I still get admiring glances but, I suspect, this attention to due more to my razor-sharp wit, my endearing modesty and my warm humanity. My once six-pack torso is now more like a crate of beer.

So what I will require is the body of a superbly fit iron man. Now this means the iron man will necessarily be brain dead and no longer requiring his otherwise perfectly good body. It's just that I would be putting it to better use than consigning it to a funeral home. In fact, I'm even prepared to go to China for this little operation although I suspect there is a marked shortage of sun bronzed, superbly fit and athletically accomplished Caucasian young chaps there. I mean it would hardly be worth the effort to have my head attached to your typical Chinese peasant's body would it? I have nothing but admiration for the Chinese but my head is distinctively Caucasian so I need a body to match.

The good professor has confidently predicted that his head transplant procedure has a "ninety per cent plus" chance of success and I've wagered my hard-earned on horses in the past with a much less chance of success.

My research has uncovered a lot of scientific papers on this subject and, quite frankly, it is pretty gruesome. It was jolly interesting to learn that it would involve implanting an "electric paddle" in the recipient's head "because studies have shown that bursts of electricity help establish communication across a severed spinal cord."

Now I don't know about you but this sounds to me rather horrifyingly close to the process Mary Shelley described in her 1818 book, "Frankenstein" which told the tale of the young and idealistic Dr Victor Frankenstein creating a creature from left-over bits and pieces of human remains. I will never forget that classic scene in the 1930s movie when the good doctor flicks the switch and a huge burst of electricity brings the monster (played brilliantly by Boris Karloff) comes to life.

The un-named monster is described by Ms Shelley as being "hideously ugly but sensitive and emotional" and 2.4 metres tall. I'm tall – but not that tall – and certainly sensitive and emotional but the thought of having bolts in my neck to attach my head to a new body doesn't appeal one little bit.

I am still haunted by the nightmarish memory of my dear old dad chopping off the head of the Christmas chicken in about 1957 and the wretched bird dashing frantically around, bloody spurting from its headless body. I must have told my therapist this story a million times because whenever I'm on his couch he begins his caring and sharing session with a curt, "Not the bloody chicken story again Grenning". And I'm paying good money for this!

I'm not one to rush into things. I'm naturally very prudent and cautious. I think I'll wait until Professor Canavero's first head transplant patients not just survive but prosper before I put my hand up. And I must check if the Medibank Private people would provide a whacking great rebate.

And speaking of caution I remember that when South African surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard stunned the world with his first heart transplant in 1968, the patient only lasted a little over two weeks.

I couldn't even begin to do the things I have planned for my new body in a fortnight.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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