Jan in a Pan is the street-smart title of a 1959 black and white B-grade, science fiction/horror film (released in 1962). I happened to watch it a few nights ago, utterly fascinated by the issues it raised. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (the actual but only marginally more serious title) stars Jason Evers and Virginia Leith. Evers plays Dr. Bill Cortner, a brash, abrasive, and thoroughly demented surgical genius. The guy has developed a method for transplanting body parts—legs, arms, heads—and a “serum” to block tissue rejection.

I n an episode of reckless driving, his automobile flips and his beautiful fiancee Jan Compton (played by Miss Leith) is decapitated. Dr. Cortner saves the head and we thereafter see it, animated and talking from, well, a pan. (Miss Leith’s scenes thereafter are pretty much limited to headshots.) Dr. Cortner goes in search for a body to which he may attach his fiancee’s head. If you think it’s tough finding organ donors, try conscious body donors.

Movieland’s first transplant physician is a ghoul—visiting strip clubs, seeking just the right female body for his main squeeze. For being a respected surgeon and all, Dr. Cortner has an unusually seedy side. The strippers all seem to know him, but what they don’t know is that he has no qualms about murdering a no-class stripper for his better-class girl friend. He simply chalks it up to the glory of medical science.

Malpractice of this sort cannot go unpunished, and it does not. But I can’t give away the movie’s ending, now can I?

You should notice, though, that where science walks, sci-fi has already trod. Dr. Cortner’s medical ethic permits him—encourages him—to plot the medically induced death of one human to save the life of another, based on a judgment of relative worth.

The similar willingness of the medical research establishment to kill human embryos for stem cells, promising me a cure for my diabetes in exchange, sounds like a remarkable B-grade instance of been there, done that.