On 19 May, 1987, the US Patent Office issued Patent No. #4,666,425 to Chet Fleming (a pseudonym) for “a device for perfusing an animal head.”
The “cabinet” would contain the severed head of an animal, kept alive by a series of tubes for oxygen, blood and so forth. This was a “prophetic patent” allegedly designed to prevent anyone else from attempting this for the life of the patent (15-20 years).
In a review of Fleming’s book about the patent in the British Medical Journal, immunohematologist Terence Hamblin wrote:
“Mr. Fleming has taken out a prophetic patent on severed heads. Such a patent does not commit you to making the device, but it does prevent anyone else doing so, unless you license them,” he wrote. “Mr. Fleming has done us a service in drawing our attention to this issue, and his ingenious method of stalling further development at present is rather fun.”
In response, Fleming disagreed with that assessment.
The technology for perfusing a severed head has important potential advantages, for research and for prolonging life in a conscious and communicative state with, probably, less pain than many dying people suffer today. The difficult question is whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and dangers.
Whole Earth Review published an essay from Fleming (n.d. but appears to be three years later) in which he details prior experiments with severed heads and expresses concern about the possibility of success:
I’m extremely worried about the potential for misuse of this operation. On one level are questions about the pain and suffering that will be inflicted on lab animals. Beyond those issues are questions about what will happen to human patients, their families, and all of society if discorporation is used to prolong human life. How would being severed from the body affect a person’s mind and thoughts? If a severed head is in intense pain, could someone do something to let it die without committing murder?
The patent has expired but the ethical issues remain, outside the realm of fiction, that is.