How a scientist’s daring experiments pushed the limits of medicine

Dr. Robert White standing behind medical equipment and a brain in a jar
Dr. Robert White standing behind medical equipment and a brain in a jar
Dr. Robert White in the Brain Research Lab. Image: Permission of White Family Archive

On a cold night in Cleveland in 1971, Dr. Robert White waited for signs of life. He stood, exhausted and still enrobed in a stiff surgical coat, over an operating table. Fluorescent lights bled color from the room, leaving it sterile, silent. A rhesus monkey lay before him — its shaved neck with the stitches still showing in a zipper seam that stretched 360 degrees.

On the line were years of work, months of waiting, and the stinging wounds of battles he’d fought against animal rights groups, the media, and even his own colleagues in the name of science. One…

Why scientists are manufacturing monkeys and hybrid embryos

Photo: Andre Mouton/Unsplash

On September 12th of 2020, scientists from US-based Revive and Restore cloned a Przewalski colt, last of the true wild horses, from 40-year-old DNA. Just this past February, scientists cloned a North American black footed ferret at a breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.

In both cases, low population numbers led to a lack of genetic diversity — often an evolutionary death knell, leaving a species vulnerable to disease. Wildlife cloning has been hailed as a conservation success, but some of the strangest features of cloning often get left out of the story.

For one thing, the DNA donors were…

The truth is always weirder than you think

Photo: Moritz Kindler/Unsplash

Animals grow from babies to adults, not the other way around. That’s what experience teaches us, and largely what the rules of bio-science teach us, too. It’s just sometimes false. Turns out, there are a lot of stories in science and medicine that turn our ideas on their heads. Fancy a bit of weird? Here are eight strange things from science you likely never knew:

ONE: Some Animals Grow Backwards.

Sometimes called the “immortal jellyfish,” the peculiar dohrnii jellyfish cheats death by reverting to a polyp (a baby jelly). There are plenty of cases where animals can regrow limbs, from…

Step One: Remove Cat From Keyboard

Photo by Carlos Deleon on Unsplash

If you have removed the cat from the keyboard, you may proceed. Note: Step one is usually repeated.

STEP 2: Most people assume the next step is “having an idea.” Ha. Nonsense. The next step is arranging the workspace. You are going to need some equipment, you know, and I don’t mean the hand-me-down PC your brother gave you last Christmas (or even the sparkly new one you bought yourself because you have better taste than he does). I mean moleskin journals and really good pens.

Coping With Death

Loss is loss, whether old or new, animal or human

Photo: Noah Silliman/Unsplash

I first saw the story on Twitter. Dr. Ben Janaway, NHS psychiatrist, educator and mental health advocate, posted a photo of himself at the gym — but this was not the usual workout selfie. His jaw set, his face grim, Ben explained that turning pain into physical activity helped him to grieve.

I have followed Ben for a while, though we aren’t personally acquainted outside the digital stratosphere. We both have interests in health access and social justice, and Ben — himself a doctor — is open about his own struggles with mental health. …

Or: How to find inspiration for a book about Cold War head transplants and disembodied brains

Book quote by Luke Dittrich

It’s not everyday you have a bloody notebook dumped in your lap. (At least, I hope not.) That’s essentially how my most recent book got its start — a phone call from a neurosurgeon pal, a visit to his office, and a creepy old lab notebook crammed with details about how to decapitate things, complete with rusty flecks of ... well. You get the idea.

The dog-eared binder had belonged to Dr. Robert White, a Nobel prize-nominated neurosurgeon-scientist who invented brain cooling perfusion, was friends with Pope John Paul II, and transplanted monkey heads onto different bodies. Does that sound…

You aren’t lazy. You are suffering the aftershocks of pandemic stress.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There’s a kind of pleasant fatigue that comes from a day of physical activity — hiking, biking, swimming, running. But this? This isn’t it. You feel exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious and even depressed. The heaviness of your limbs is only second to a heaviness of mind, a feeling of alienation, of isolation. You might say you are tired, but in truth, you feel utterly drained; everything is an effort, a drag.

Usually, this cluster of symptoms would be diagnosed as burnout, and a regimen of self-care recommended: take some time off, stay home for a few days, do something nice for…

I wanted to build a book club for peculiar people with weird interests. And then the authors turned up, too.

Official logo for the Peculiar Book Club

It began as a joke. Why, I asked, isn’t their an Oprah-style book club, by for Morticia Addams types? The old adage is true: don’t ask a question (on Twitter) if you don’t want an answer. There isn’t a peculiar book club, I was told. But there should be.

I am non-normative, a bit on the gothy side, into nerdery, and a lover of weird science and freaky facts. I’m hardly alone in that, and there are books out there in plenty to satisfy my desire for the edgy side of non-fiction. The trouble is, there isn’t much in the…

Coping With Death

What a curious Victorian practice reveals about our modern approach to death

Photo: Cody Board /Unsplash

It’s a wistful image. The unknown woman seems pensive, gazing reflectively into the foreground. Her head rests upon lace, possibly her own handiwork, and behind is a shelf of small vials, the homemaker’s apothecary. She is graceful, quiet, restive.

In truth, the woman is dead.

The picture (below) was taken postmortem, her body poised under the direction of memento mori photographers using the daguerreotype processes (iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor).

Why go through all this trouble? The nineteenth century saw a sudden and increased interest in public cemeteries and mourning rituals of all kinds (such as brooches made of…

Sure, it’s good exercise. But axes are also just plain cool.

Photo of the author, in front of the winter wood pile

Last winter, I was cutting up kindling behind my house when a young woman came to read the gas meter. She coughed politely. “I just didn’t want to alarm you,” she said. “Thanks.” I gestured at Mr. Stevens presently resting at my shoulder, “But I’m the one with the axe.”

I’m glad she found it funny instead of running for the hills. Mr. Stevens, by the way, is a four-pound black axe with a nice rubber-grip handle. I like him for kindling, though if it’s pine I’ll use Trudy. Yes. They all have names. We are sophisticated around here.

Brandy L Schillace

Author/Editor. Writing about history, science, & medicine for Scientific American, Undark, Globe and Mail, and more. Twitter:@bschillace

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