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Allen Furr

Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work
College of Liberal Arts

Allen Furr is a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work in the College of Liberal Arts. Furr received a bachelor's degree from Texas A&M University at Commerce in history, a master's degree in sociology from Stephen F. Austin University, and a doctorate in sociology from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He also holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Louisville. Before coming to Auburn to serve as chair, Furr was a part of the University of Louisville's pioneering research and clinical team studying both the surgical and psycho-social dimensions of face transplantation. He contributed to papers published in ethics and surgical journals and continues writing to address the social implications of the experimental landmark surgery. His current research is an extension of the face work and integrates his two interests by studying the stigma applied to Indian women who have been facially disfigured by acid and thermal fire attacks.

1. Can you tell us how you became interested in face and hand transplantation research?

The subject matter found me, actually. In 2003, I was asked to review a manuscript written by a group of scholars at Louisville that had researched the micro-surgery techniques necessary to transplant a human face and the immunosuppression regimen necessary to prevent rejection. They had then turned their attention to the last hurdle of attempting the surgery which was the many ethical issues surrounding face transplantation. Before that manuscript I had not really heard of face transplantation, but the team accepted my critique of that first ethics paper and they invited me to join them. At that point, I started reading everything I could about transplantation surgeries.

2. Can you tell us about the research team and what its purpose was?

Analyzing and evaluating the ethical and psychological implications of face transplants were a central part of the face transplant research program. Medically, we knew the ability to perform face transplantations was possible, so we asked the question, "just because something can be done, does it mean it should be done?" We wanted to sufficiently address the sociological, psychological and philosophical implications associated with transplantation surgeries by using good science and good logic. We also examined the controversy surrounding the use of immunosuppressant drugs. Anyone undergoing a transplant surgery is tied to a lifetime of these drugs and there was a lot of speculation and concern about the implication and side-effects. The team discovered that the risks associated with these drugs were not as high as once thought. Many medical ethicists and doctors believe that immunosuppression should only be used in life-saving surgeries; however, they never question the use of these drugs for kidney transplants, which is not necessarily a life-saving surgery.

We turned the tables. We concluded that these drugs in association with transplantation were indeed life-saving. A disfigured person's self-image, social acceptability and sense of normalcy are at risk. Many people who experience severe disfigurement experience what can be called a "social death." Because of how they look and how people react to them, many become shut-ins, depressed and suicidal.

3. How does someone become a candidate for face transplantation?

That's hard to say because there have been relatively few of these surgeries and medical records, of course, are private. In general, the trauma to the face has to be severe, yet reparable. There has to be enough bone for the new tissue to rest on and sufficient root nerve and blood flow to keep the new tissue alive and functioning. Socially and psychologically a recipient should have a strong pre-trauma sense of self in order to handle both the new appearance and the difficulty of adjusting to another person's body now being part of his or her own. Transplant recipients of organs such as hearts and kidneys typically talk about receiving a gift and being a "joined person." I would imagine, given the importance of the face, that successfully adjusting to having another person's face where yours used to be requires a person who is psychologically very stable, confident and resilient. That way, the joining of two bodies is more easily accepted.

4. Face transplantation seems to be a popular theme in the movie business. What do you think of movies like "Face/Off," "Minority Report" and "Vanilla Sky?"

Well, it's called science fiction for a reason. When presenting our findings on face transplantations, one critic actually cited the movie "Face/Off" as reason not to perform the surgeries (because the wealthy criminal types could use face transplantations as a way to hide from the police). The likelihood of finding a surgeon who is highly skilled in this particular area and ethically and morally void is almost nonexistent. And again, people undergoing the surgery would be married to these very specific and expensive immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives. Plus these drugs are controlled and easily traceable. It's entertaining fiction, but highly unlikely.

5. Now that you are at Auburn, how are you carrying on your research?

I'm still doing research on facial disfigurement and the stigma of disfigurement. I've been working with women in India who have been set on fire by their husbands. The stigma they face because of their appearance is, in a word, horrible. As one woman said, "I've faced two traumas in my life. The day I was burned, and everyday thereafter."

Oct. 10, 2011