To lend credibility to his fraudulent account of an execution, the pretentious Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" sings:
"Now though you'd have said that head was dead(For its owner dead was he),
It stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred,
And bowed three times to me!"
For a century audiences have chuckled over Gilbert's whimsy, but recently, viewers of ABC's evening news watched something reminiscent of Pooh-Bah's story that was no laughing matter: a rhesus monkey's severed head, connected by tubes and sutures to the trunk of another monkey, and showing unmistakable signs of consciousness.
The demonstration was an unsettling reminder that an organism, human included, is the sum of many mechanical and chemical parts that ordinarily work in concert but can be made to survive as disembodied entities.
Some viewers certainly flinched while watching the ABC program, but it is worth remembering that modern surgery began with the kind of body-parts experiments that inspired Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to write "Frankenstein."
Three decades before the publication of her novel, the abundance of freshly severed heads from the guillotine of the French revolution had kindled a new field of study for some surgeons and scholars.
In the televised presentation of his surgical handiwork, Dr. Robert J. White, 72, a professor of neurosurgery at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, demonstrated the grafting of the trunk of one monkey to the head of another in an operation he calls a "whole body transplant."
Most of the experiments on monkeys, cats and dogs described in the broadcast were first conducted in the 1960s, but White believes the time is ripe for similar body transplants on humans. He acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times that reconnecting the millions of neurons bridging the brain with the spinal column is as yet impossible, and that a person (or rather, a head) who acquired a new body in this way would be paralyzed and insensible from the neck down. But the brain would retain its memory, its intellect, its perception of sight and sound, and its sense of self.
"For a quadriplegic who is already paralyzed, the main cause of death is generally the eventual failure of several organs," White said. "If such a person were to be given a new body, it would be a new lease on life, even though he or she would still be paralyzed."
The transplanted heads of experimental monkeys evince little tolerance of their executioners. "You now have, as these animals showed, total capability of seeing, hearing and tasting. And if you get your finger too near the mouth of one of these animals, it will bite it off," White said.
But what is it like to be a severed head?
"I happen to believe that what you and I are is basically within the 31/2 pounds of tissue between our ears," White said. "I think the mind and soul are within the brain. I expressed that view to the Holy Father once, but I don't believe he was convinced."
People have always considered the head to be a special and somewhat mysterious body part. From the trophy hunters of the Amazon headwaters to the followers of Britain's King Charles I (who reverentially sewed back his severed head after he died on the block), people have held the head in special regard.
But the "Age of Enlightenment" in France, which brought the guillotine into prominence, opened a new field of study. As the revolution claimed a rich harvest of heads, surgeons began testing pet theories with the help of electrostatic generators and other inventions of the late 18th century.
The new investigatory spirit was inspired by thinkers like Voltaire and natural philosophers like Antoine Lavoisier, who is remembered today as one of the founders of modern chemistry. (Lavoisier, who was also France's chief tax collector, lost his own head to the guillotine - a device promoted by and named for a medical doctor, Joseph Ignace Guillotin.
He considered decapitation to be a humane alternative to hanging, disemboweling and other popular 18th-century modes of execution.)
But from the very beginning of France's Reign of Terror (1793-94), some doubted whether death by beheading was instantaneous. Gallows anecdotes recounted in a book by the French historian Andre Soubiran told of heads with moving lips, blinking eyes and other signs of life; witnesses claimed that the lips of some severed heads formed the shapes they would take if they were capable of screaming.
Surgeons proposed that condemned prisoners be persuaded to try to demonstrate post-beheading consciousness by some agreed-upon facial signal. (There are no records that this stratagem ever succeeded.)
White and other experts say the brain remains alive for at most a few seconds after decapitation, until the lack of circulating blood starves it of oxygen and the nutrients needed to continue metabolism. Is the brain conscious during those last few seconds? White doubts it.
France abolished capital punishment in 1981, but the subsequent lack of fresh human heads has not impeded progress in the transplantation of other body organs; the replacement of kidneys, livers and hearts has become almost routine.
The origins of such lifesaving surgery are grounded in a long history of gruesome experiments.
Among the most famous of the body-parts experimenters in modern times was Dr. Alexis Carrel, a French-American surgeon who was awarded the 1912 Nobel prize in medicine for devising the technique of suturing blood vessels together. In later years he and Charles A. Lindbergh, the famous aviator, collaborated in building a glass heart and in keeping organs removed from animals alive for long periods.
In the 1930s Carrel and Lindbergh championed political views compatible with some of those of the Nazis, and in World War II they lost much of their popularity in the United States. But Carrel is nevertheless remembered for his invention of techniques that have made organ transplantation possible.
Perhaps human suffering will one day be reduced by the suffering of a legion of wretched animals who have lost their heads to science. The balance sheet has yet to be made out.