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Want to live forever? Why not try cryonics – an expensive and unproven scientific procedure with tempting ...
2021-01-18 09:00:00

A Long Nap in the Freezer
A Brief History of Cryonics

A Long Nap in the Freezer

For a five-figure sum – in dollars – your body, or just your head, can end up in a thermos of liquid nitrogen. And who knows? Maybe after a few hundred years, the doctors of the future will awaken you from your cryonic nap.

Read in 12 minutes

Tradition and religion provide us quite a precise recipe for immortality, don’t they? “[I believe in] the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” But fewer and fewer people ‘buy’ this vision unreservedly. CBOS opinion research indicates that although 95% of all Poles consider themselves Roman Catholic, only 70% believe Heaven exists, and barely 56% fully agree to the entire package, including Hell (and almost nobody remembers Purgatory). The number is also growing of those who, when asked whether death is the end of our lives, answer firmly: “There is nothing after death.” In 2015, that was 18% of all Poles.

In short, it looks like our belief that we deserve life after death  – for religious reasons – is getting weaker and weaker. Society places ever stronger trust – significantly stronger than its confidence in representatives of the clergy – in scientists and engineers. So maybe they’re about to offer us an afterlife? Because some of them think all it takes is a big thermos of liquid nitrogen.

Our friends from the future

The father of cryonics, meaning the science of freezing people with the idea of later bringing them back to life, was Robert Ettinger – a physics and maths teacher, and veteran of World War II. Although in the early 1960s the topic of cryopreservation (as the procedure is sometimes known) suddenly exploded in the American media – and cryonics companies sprang up like mushrooms after a rainstorm and self-appointed ‘experts’ in this area began to appear – it was Ettinger who became the public face of this movement for years. His book The Prospect of Immortality was published in 1964; today it’s still cited as one of the key works on this issue.

Ettinger later told journalists that this idea had given him no rest ever since as a 12-year-old he had read Neil Jones’s The Jameson Satellite. In this story, which appeared in 1931 in Amazing Stories magazine, the body of a certain Professor Jameson ends up in Earth orbit, where it’s frozen and circles our planet (hence the title) for many millions of years. In the end it’s brought back to Earth, and brought back to life by the mechano-organic descendants of contemporary humanity.

The first sentence of Ettinger’s book reads: “Most of us now living have a chance for personal, physical immortality.” What an opening line! And the reader also gets an inspiring assurance that the word ‘dead’ is really just a clumsy synonym for ‘currently untreatable’ – insofar, of course, as we act fast. The idea is simple:

“If civilization endures, medical science should eventually be able to repair almost any damage to the human body, including freezing damage and senile debility or other cause of death.” He continues: “Hence we need only arrange to have our bodies, after we die, stored in suitable freezers against the time when science may be able to help us. No matter what kills us, whether old age or disease, and even if freezing techniques are still crude when we die, sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us.”

And here’s the vision Ettinger is selling:

“The tired old man, then, will close his eyes, and he can think of his impending temporary death as another period under anaesthesia in the hospital. Centuries may pass, but to him there will be only a moment of sleep without dreams.

“After awakening, he may already be again young and virile, having been rejuvenated while unconscious; or he may be gradually renovated through treatment after awakening. In any case, he will have the physique of a Charles Atlas if he wants it, and his weary and faded wife, if she chooses, may rival Miss Universe. Much more important, they will be gradually improved in mentality and personality. They will not find themselves idiot strangers in a lonely and baffling world, but will be made fully educable and integrated.

“If civilization endures, if the Golden Age materializes, the future will reveal a wonderful world indeed, a vista to excite the mind and thrill the heart. [...] You and I, the frozen, the resuscitated, will be not merely revived and cured, but enlarged and improved, made fit to work, play, and perhaps fight, on a grand scale and in a grand style.”

It might seem that only an incurable fantasist could write these words, but in fact Ettinger’s book also discusses a range of specific problems – medical, (the sub-chapter titled "The Mechanism of Freezing Damage"), technical (“The Limits of Delay in Treatment”), economic (“The Cost of Commercial Freezers”), moral (“Husbands and Wives, Aged Parents and Grandparents”), and even religious, hence the long chapter titled “Freezers and Religion”. In this latter part Ettinger, himself an atheist, attempts to persuade ‘our Christian friends’ that there is no serious conflict between cryopreservation and Christian doctrine. What’s more, this programme can even deliver certain eschatological benefits! “In the case of the unconverted soul, surely the pious must welcome a chance to preserve his life and thereby extend the opportunity to save him. Letting him rot would seem to condemn his soul to Hell, whereas freezing him would allow future missionaries (or the same missionaries after their reanimation) another chance at him.”

The first organization to publicly announce it was ready to freeze a person immediately after death and preserve the body was the Life Extension Society, founded in 1964 by one of Ettinger’s competitors. For decades, a rumour has stubbornly persisted that the first client was Walt Disney, who died on 15th December 1966. Unfortunately, those who are counting on the resurrection of the creator of Mickey Mouse will be sorely disappointed: according to documents and Disney’s family, his body was cremated two days after his death. (This story – and particularly the version in which Disney’s frozen body is resting somewhere in Disneyland – was so troublesome and annoying for the Walt Disney Company that another rumour has it that the Frozen films were only made so that people Googling ‘Walt Disney frozen’ would be directed to information about the animated adventures of Elsa and Anna.) But the timing fits: the first person subjected to cryopreservation was frozen barely a month before Disney died.

The glass rabbit kidney

That person, frozen with the hope of being awakened, using procedures prepared especially for this purpose, was the American psychologist James Bedford, who died on 12th January 1967. Bedford, who had a keen interest in cryonics, at the end of his life left $100,000 to the Life Extension Society, which announced at the time that it would freeze the first volunteer free of charge. Bedford didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, and for his cryopreservation he simply paid the competing Cryonics Society of California (CSC), founded by the businessman Robert Nelson. Rumour has it that his wife spent a similar amount on a court battle for the freezing of her late husband to be legally allowed. The procedure was performed just a few hours after Bedford’s death by the chemist and futurologist Robert Prehoda, and in honour of this event 12th January is celebrated in some circles as James Bedford Day.

Bedford’s cryopreservation vividly illustrates all of the difficulties related to the procedure. First of all, during the freezing process, tissues may suffer irreversible damage: it’s easy to see this even just by freezing a tomato. The ice crystals that form during freezing can destroy cells, displace them or disturb the connections between them, which is particularly important in the case of the mind: the last thing a person agreeing to this procedure is counting on are ‘shuffled’ or destroyed connections between their neurons. When he froze Bedford, Prehoda introduced into his circulatory system 15% dimethyl sulfoxide and 85% Ringer’s solution – a mixture that’s sometimes still used today as a cryoprotectant (a substance that protects tissue against the harmful effects of freezing). Today it’s believed that such a solution is not neutral for tissues, and in certain cases may damage them at the cellular or genetic level. So we don’t know whether Bedford’s mind is – speaking colloquially – ‘fit for purpose’ (particularly as Prehoda, we now know, wasn’t prepared to carry out the procedure and was making it up as he went along, injecting the solution into the carotid artery and attempting to spread it through the body using manual heart massage).

Drawing from the archives (no. 826/1961)
Drawing from the archives (no. 826/1961)

Still today, despite the ceaseless efforts of cryobiologists, we don’t know any reliable method of freezing large organisms or entire bodies. For context: in 2009 it was hailed as a gigantic success when the successful freezing and thawing of a rabbit’s kidney – with the recovery of function! – was announced. A quick freezing procedure was used to cool the organ to –135°C, resulting in the vitrification of the water it contained, using a new cryoprotective cocktail. But brains are more delicate: it was only in 2016 that for the first time a technique was described for ‘aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation’ of a rabbit’s brain so perfect that later examinations with an electron microscope confirmed the undisturbed condition of the synaptic connections. However, a side effect was its complete ‘immobilization’: the brain is completely unsuitable for ‘use’ and is simply a perfect laboratory specimen.

But let’s assume that we’re radical optimists and place unlimited faith in our ‘friends from the future’, who will be able to revive us, even though before freezing we were filled with epoxy resin. It turns out that a factor that seems like the most banal thing in the world could be an obstacle: an unbroken cold chain. Because before the doctors of the future can get to work, our frozen bodies will rest in the hands of creatures who are slightly less perfect: contemporary businesspeople and our relatives.

Quick, they’re thawing!

In response to the ‘cryonic boom’ in the US in the late 1960s, many not entirely professional institutions emerged, which eagerly took new clients under their wings, but weren’t prepared to provide the proper conditions to freeze them. Let’s look at the drastic condition of this market through the (frozen) eyes of James Bedford.

Barely six days after he was frozen, Bedford’s family brought the psychologist’s body from the offices of CSC to the competitor Cryo-Care. Today it’s hard to figure out what caused this sudden transfer; most likely it was the suspicion that Nelson, a person without any scientific education, who before becoming California’s king of cryonics was a television repairman, wasn’t in fact the right person to entrust with their frozen husband and father for the next couple centuries. They were right. Nelson initially kept his clients on the grounds of a facility belonging to a mortician friend, Joseph Klockgether, but regular supplies of liquid nitrogen were so problematic that in the end he decided to move them to a rented vault at Chatsworth cemetery near Los Angeles. Due to the limited space, it was necessary to place four frozen bodies in one large ‘thermos’ (technically known as a Dewar vessel). Nelson and Klockgether toiled all night, pushing their clients into the container and testing various configurations: head to head, head to foot, back to back... They managed in the end, and a few hours later called in a welder to quickly close up the slowly melting unfortunates in the container. In May 1970, the bodies made it to Chatsworth, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – most likely financial ones – by the end of 1971 they were completely thawed. It seems that Nelson made a deliberate decision to rent space in a cemetery so that the bodies could quietly thaw out, legally and without any fuss.

Meanwhile, over at Cryo-Care, Bedford was not resting in peace. Edward Hope, a professional percussionist who ran the company, didn’t have the necessary technical knowledge or self-restraint to run a cryonics company. When it turned out that cryopreservation isn’t actually such a great business, he simply shut down the facility, telling the families of his clients to pick up their thermoses. One of the people treated this way was Eva Schulman, frozen at the start of 1968. Her son ended up driving around in desperation with a slowly thawing body, laid out in the back of a cargo van on hastily purchased blocks of dry ice (solid carbon dioxide, sometimes used as an ad hoc method of maintaining a low temperature), from one cryonics company to another, attempting unsuccessfully to extend her cryopreservation.

Bedford, meanwhile, after several moves and a transition period spent at his son Norman’s house, in 1982 was taken into the care of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, founded in 1972 in Arizona, where he remains until this day. On 25th May 1991, during a move to a more modern container, the condition of the psychologist’s body was checked. Incredibly, it was good. It was confirmed that since 12th January 1967 the body’s temperature had never got significantly close to 0°C, and for almost the entire time, with the exception of two incidents, it hovered around –190°C. Thus, Bedford is not only the first professionally frozen person in history, but also – thanks to the outstanding sacrifices of his family – miraculously survived the era of ‘cowboy cryopreservation’, when dozens of similar bodies were irreversibly damaged or completely thawed. Alcor seems to place great hope in the treasure it’s keeping, as on its website today we can read a long letter addressed to Bedford, to be read by him in the distant future after a successful thawing.

35 bodies, 39 heads

Today, most scientists believe that restoring a person to life after freezing will never be possible. ‘Upstanding’ cryobiologists and neurologists, pestered about this by journalists, usually snort in irritation, describing cryonics as a religion, with no scientific basis. But because it hasn’t been the subject of systematic, rigorous scientific analysis (and not many specifics can be discerned from dismissive snorts), in fact it’s hard to put your finger on an unequivocal argument against the possibility of waking somebody up from a cryonic dream in the distant future. After a careful reading of several such counterarguments, one can be tempted to point out a few of the main lines of attack.

First of all, there is a very narrow time window between the confirmation of death and the moment when irreversible damage begins to take place in the brain. The ideal, of course, would be to freeze somebody before they died, but this could be, to put it lightly, problematic from the ethical and legal point of view. Second, there are serious doubts concerning the actual process of ‘vitrification’ – though the sellers of cryonic services like to present it as a foolproof method of preserving the structure of the brain down to the sub-microscopic level, from the scientific point of view this method has in fact been tested only on significantly smaller samples of animal tissue. Third, it seems that anatomy isn’t everything: our mind and sense of identity seem to also be dependent on the model of our brain’s activity, and not just on the system of neurons and synapses. In short, it’s not certain that the clients of cryonics firms reposing in Dewar vessels today contain in their skulls the complete ‘set of information’ essential to recreate their personalities, memories and sense of identity. In other words: there is no guarantee that if the scientists of the future, even after filling in the missing data by some miracle, ‘restart’ a brain like this, they would be resurrecting the same person...

But arguments aside, there’s no shortage of interested people. What’s more, it appears that after a few quiet decades, cryonics is back in vogue. Today, it seems, Alcor is one of four companies (three in the US and one in Russia) offering services of unlimited-duration cryopreservation. Its website boasts 181 ‘patients’ under its care. Alcor’s Russian competitor, KrioRus, offers two basic services: cryopreservation of an entire body for $36,000, and of a head for $18,000. At the moment, 74 people are resting under their care (35 complete bodies and 39 heads), along with more than 10 dogs, 19 cats, four birds, four hamsters, two rabbits and a chinchilla. Hundreds more people have signed agreements with suppliers of cryonics services. And in this whole issue, what fascinates me most is the idea that – though we ourselves today have no idea whether bringing these people back to life is possible – in a certain sense they already know perfectly. Because, of course, from their point of view this would be just a short nap…


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino