A History of Cryonic Preservation

by M-Gillies
Dewar cryopreservation container

Four patients and six neuropatients (head and brain only) can be immersed in liquid nitrogen in this “bigfoot” Dewar. Photo courtesy of Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

Once upon a time, in 1626, English philosopher Francis Bacon became a martyr to experimental sciences when, while journeying to Highgate through the snow he was inspired by the possibility of using snow to preserve meat. However, for Bacon, his experiment resulted in him contracting a severe chill, resulting in his death three days later.

Though Bacon had died as a result of his experiment, in the simplest terms, he had toyed with the notion of cryonic preservation. Four centuries later, cryonic preservation is very much a reality and consists of putting a dead person into an indefinite deep freeze in the hope that science will eventually come up with a way to thaw that person from their slumber and revive them.

But while cryonic preservation has become an increasingly emerging and popular procedural science, it wasn’t always looked at like that. In fact, prior to the 1960s, cryonic preservation was nothing more than a science fiction subplot, particularly as described in the short story The Jameson Satellite, written by Neil R. Jones in 1931.

In the story, the titular character’s corpse is sent to orbit earth, where it is preserved indefinitely at near absolute zero temperatures. Millions of years later, with the human race extinct, mechanical men with organic brains rule the earth and happen upon the Jameson, where upon they revive him and repair his brain by installing it into a mechanical body.

It was this story in which Robert Ettinger (born 1918), an idealist lieutenant infantryman of World War II, would develop a life-long passion for the process of cryopreservation. It was upon reading the story The Jameson satellite at the age of 12 that Ettinger developed a fascination with the possibilities of cryopreservation. As he grew older, he held onto a belief that biologists would soon learn the secrets of eternal youth, but by the 1930s, his hopes were appearing bleak.

Though, in 1947, he had discovered that a French biologist named Jean Rostand was doing research in the area of cryogenics, it wasn’t enough to spark the movement.

By the time Ettinger was 42 years old, in 1960, he was becoming more aware of his own mortality, and though he had waited expectantly for prominent scientists to take a position of public advocacy on cryopreservation, he was beginning to see that it would be something he’d have to do.

Characterizing his decision as a historically important mid-life crisis, Ettinger summarized the idea of cryonics in a few pages, with emphasis on life insurance. Though the response to his article was small, he realized what was required was further education on the topic.

In 1962, Ettinger took it upon himself to privately publish a preliminary version of what would be called, The Prospect of Immortality, a book in which he explained future technological advances that would have the ability to bring people back to life. When a major publisher first saw the book, it was promptly sent to Isaac Asimov who gave a seal of approval on the science behind cryonics.

It wasn’t long before Doubleday approved the manuscript and in 1964, released the book, launching the cryonics movement and propelling Ettinger into an overnight media celebrity.

After the successful publication of his book, Ettinger again waited for prominent scientists, industrialists or others in authority to take the reins of implementing cryopreservation.

Though, in 1962, activist Evan Cooper had authored a similar manuscript entitled Immortality: Scientifically, Physically, Now and further formed the first cryonics organization, the Life Extension Society (LES). However, Cooper soon left cryonics activism in 1969, and was lost at sea in 1983, but it was his activities and the basis of LES that provided the groundwork for the first Cryonics Societies.

In 1965, as a means of generating interest in cryopreservation, Life Extension Society began offering to preserve one person, free of charge. In response, a University of California psychology professor, Dr. James Bedford offered his own body for the process, due to having kidney cancer that had metastasized to his lungs, and was at the time, untreatable.

Upon his death on January 12, 1967, Bedford’s body was frozen within a few hours of his death, making him the first person ever to be cryonically frozen.

Meanwhile, Cryonic Societies were becoming established chapters in California and Michigan, adopting the groundwork laid out by Cooper’s Cryonic Societies, which called for immediate action to implement human cryopreservation and develop grassroots capabilities for delivering cryopreservation on an emergent basis. It was during this time that Ettinger was elected President of the Cryonics Society of Michigan (CSM), and further transformed CSM into the Cryonics Institute and the Immoralist Society, by the 1970s.

During the mid-70s, Ettinger’s mother became the Cryonics Institutes’ first patient.

While progress within the cryopreservation movement was slow in picking up support, one couple, Fred and Linda Chamberlain soon changed the course of history. Having met in 1970, while organizing the Third National Conference On Cryonics, sponsored by the Cryonics Society of California, Fred and Linda soon became a couple and immersed themselves in the progress of cryonics.

It didn’t take long before they formed a cryonics corporation called Manrise, and further wrote the first detailed procedure manual for cryonics in the spring of 1971. With their procedure manual complete, the couple soon gave a presentation of their manual, complete with a working prototype of a perfusion system at the Fourth National Conference On Cryonics in San Francisco, but were met with strong resistance to taking cryonics into high technology too quickly.

Not long after, the couple found they were growing disillusioned with the Cryonics Society of California, which included the near total secrecy about how CSC made decisions and the way the society was organized and operated.

By 1972, the Chamberlain’s formed Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia and soon saw the employ of Mike Federowicz Darwin (he adopted the surname Darwin so as to not endanger his early career as a dialysis technician, due to his association with cryonics). Though he had only worked for Alcor as a full-time cryonics researcher for one year, Darwin would later collaborate with Alcor and other prominent researchers in the years following.

In the late 70s and 80s, the cryonics movement saw its most influential input when cardiothoracic surgery researcher, Jerry Leaf founded the for-profit organization, Cryovita Laboratories. It was through Cryovita, which Alcor would soon be provided cryopreservation and transport services. That’s when Leaf and Darwin began their collaborations.

While Leaf had made a name for himself by introducing technologies and procedures of thoracic surgery, such as heart-lung bypass for improved blood vessel access and life support of cryonics patients, it was his work with Darwin, for which he would become most famous. Together, the two men developed a blood substitute shown capable of sustaining life in dogs for four hours at near-freezing temperatures. They further developed a standby-transport model for human cryonics cases with the goal of intervening immediately after cardiac arrest and minimizing ischemic injury.

Though the movement was advancing, its support was still minimal until 1986, when American television producer and actor, Dick Clair learnt he was diagnosed with AIDS.

Perhaps most recognizable for his comedy routines on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dean Martin Show, Clair, had for many years been an active member of the Cryonics Society of California, dating as far back as the 1960s. His pursuits even saw him go so far as contribute $20,000, in 1982 to the cryonics organizations Trans Time so as to keep a husband and wife cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen.

However, upon learning of his diagnosis, Clair was hospitalized in 1988, and was soon faced with opposition from the hospital and the State of California, concerning his desire for cryonics treatment.

To prevent any discrepancies in Alcor taking his body for cryopreservation, Clair sued the California Public Health Service, who had already been threatening to refuse issuing a death certificate if the body were given over to the company. If the California Public Health Services won, no death certificate would mean no access to human remains.

So Clair sued, and emerged victoriously, allowing the legal right of persons to be cryonically preserved in the state of California. Shortly after his court case had ended, Clair died on December 12, 1988 at the age of 57. His body was further cryopreserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, making him the thirteenth member to be placed in cryopreservation.

Since the early days of cryopreservation, the cryonics movement has seen a steady increase in global interests, from celebrities to youth suffering incurable diseases. As of April 30, 2013, Alcor has 974 members and 117 patients currently in cryonic stasis, and are expected to have an increase of over 1000 members, along with 120 patients in cryonic stasis by 2015.


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