John Mellencamp had his head cut off when he was six weeks old

John Mellencamp smoking a cigarette
(Image credit: Myrna Suare)

Singer-songwriter John Mellencamp has detailed the startling surgical procedure that saved his life as an infant. 

Mellencamp, who was born with spina bifida – a condition where the spine and the membranes around the spinal cord are not properly connected, leaving the spinal cord exposed – underwent the pioneering operation not long after he was born in 1951. 

"I had my head cut off when I was six weeks old," Mellencamp tells Esquire. "There were three other kids who had that same operation that day. The other kids died, and I lived. One girl made it for a while, and I used to see her at basketball games. She was paralysed from the neck down. She died when she was about, I don’t know, thirteen."

In the early 1950s, most babies born with spina bifida did not survive, but for safety reasons it was normal to wait until patients were six months old before possible life-saving operations were performed. This resulted in a large percentage of infants succumbing to meningitis before they were old enough to be operated on, but Mellencamp's pioneering neurosurgeon, Dr Robert Heimburger, carried out an experimental procedure on him at just six weeks, charging the singer's parents a token $1 fee.

"The normal faces and intelligent eyes of the babies who were brought for my examination caused me to think that they deserved better than to wait six months for surgery," Heimburger wrote in his paper, Reflections On A Career In Neurosurgery.

Mellencamp was unaware that he'd undergone the procedure until he was twelve years old, when a classmate asked about a scar on the back of his neck. 

"My parents had never told me anything had ever happened to me," he said during his induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. "I'm lucky. And my Grandma, my entire life, from a little kid until she died, would always come up to me and whisper. She called me Buddy. And she'd go, 'Buddy, you're the luckiest boy in the world.' And I am."

Mellencamp and Dr. Heimburger met again in September 2014, when the singer performed a benefit show in Indianapolis for the Riley Children's Hospital at Indiana University Medical Center, where his operation had taken place decades earlier. Heimburger died the following year, aged 97. 

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.