February 28, 2011

A "Mad Scientist" For Real? And In a Movie?

The Scientist features Jim Fields' documentary about neurologist Robert White, who died last year. Mr. Fields notes that Dr. White might fall into the class of the "real" "mad scientist," someone whose thoughtful integration of research and imagination led him toward the boundaries of what we now consider commonplace. But he did some unusual things in the lab, too--things we still consider odd, and maybe off-limits, such as grafting one monkey's head onto another body.

Bioethicists Will Gaylin and Dan Callahan, who co-founded bioethics think tank, The Hastings Center, in 1969, remember talk of brain transplantation when organ transplant technology was developing. "It used to be kind of a joke," says Callahan. "If you transplant my brain into somebody else's head, who would that person be? Is a person the brain or the body?"
"Real mad scientists...are not lone wolves like in the movies," says Fields. "They're doing things that are sanctioned in their time and place, in society, that are only considered by later values to be wrong."


While Callahan doubts that White would have been allowed to do this research today, he notes that he likely received approval from a number of organizations in his day. But does that context of permission make his actions ethical? "I don't think you can go back and prejudge generations of people," says Gaylin, "but by the time he was doing his research, there were a significant number of people talking about medical ethics in an advanced form."
So which is it? Was White a researcher outside the boundaries of bioethics or a man doing right by the standards of his time?

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