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The Weird History of Cryonics, or Freezing People to Bring Them Back to Life in the Future

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We have long tried to find ways to extend our life expectancy and avoid the inevitable specter of death, but some of these methods really stand out as truly strange. One persistent field of prolonging life deals with not keeping someone alive for longer, but rather putting them in a suspended state of no decay, as if an insect in amber, so that they may be theoretically brought back to life in the far future when medical technology catches up. The field is called cryonics, and it basically involves the flash freezing of a corpse or even just the head of a corpse, using materials such as liquid nitrogen, and then keeping the body preserved at extremely low temperatures below −130 °C, usually at −196 °C, while using chemical cryoprotectants to prevent ice formation during the procedure. The idea is that when the body or brain matter is frozen in this way, usually within minutes to an hour after the death of a patient, and if the brain structure remains intact, the information content and personality of the person’s mind can be put in a stasis that can theoretically be revived in the future with technology we do not yet have. This could be decades or even centuries in the future, but to the person in cryostasis, they would theoretically wake up as if they had only taken a nap, fully resurrected, restored, and ready to live life again. How did such a bizarre idea come about? Let’s take a look at the rather strange and undeniably creepy history “cryonics,” AKA, straight up freezing people solid in order to resurrect them in the future.

Although this all sounds like pure science fiction, and indeed the field of cryonics is mostly seen by mainstream science as fringe pseudoscience and quackery at best, the quick freezing of human cells through use of cryopreservation has been going on since the 1950s, with the idea of actually cryofreezing whole human bodies coming around in the 1960s. The main figure who put the idea out there into the public consciousness was an American academic and physics and mathematics professor by the name of Robert Ettinger. Since his childhood, Ettinger had been fascinated by fantastical science fiction stories, and it was one day in 1931 as he was reading a copy of the magazine Amazing Stories that he had an epiphany that would change the course of his life and eventually go on to spawn the field of cryonics. It was a story called The Jameson Satellite, by Neil R. Jones, about a Professor Jameson having his corpse sent into earth orbit to keep it preserved in the cold vacuum of space, only to be revived millions of years in the future by a race of robots long after humanity had gone extinct. This was the 1930s, and the science behind the story was pretty weak at best, but for Ettinger it was a revelation. He pondered this concept continuously, convinced that biologists would inevitably stumble across the secret to doing this for real within his lifetime, and that it was possible to similarly freeze a human body in order to have it resurrected far in the future by our descendants.

As he grew up and no such breakthrough was made over the years, Ettinger realized that no one was really interested in freezing and storing dead human bodies for the purpose of eternal life, and so he made it his mission to be the one to do it, or at least to ignite the fire. In 1960, the impatient Ettinger tried to raise awareness of the theory of cryonics by sending a summary of what it entailed to 200 important scientists, academics, and influential people, but this was met with little interest by academia at large and a lot of raised eyebrows. Undeterred, in 1962 he went about writing a book about cryonics titled The Prospect of Immortality, which he sent out to various publishers, managing to catch the attention of the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, no doubt helping it to finally be published in 1964 to great fanfare. The book would be a massive hit, earning itself a place on the Book of the Month Club, translated into nine languages, and turning Ettinger into an overnight celebrity, while at the same time putting cryonics on the map. Ettinger used his newfound celebrity status to appear on TV, radio, and in countless news articles, where he relentlessly promoted the concept of cryopreservation and raised awareness about this new field, earning himself the nickname of “The Father of Cryonics.”

With this new interest in cryonics, over the years several institutes began popping up to seriously research it and put it all into practice. The first was the Life Extension Society (LES), founded in 1964 by Evan Cooper, and it would pave the way for others like it. There was the Cryonics Institute (CI), started by Ettinger himself in 1976 in Detroit, Michigan, and another of these was the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, originally called the Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia (ALCOR), founded in 1972 by Fred and Linda Chamberlain, as well as many others. These companies were not messing around, either, as they started actually putting their theories into practice by actually freezing bodies and putting them into storage, beginning from as early as 1965.

The first person to be seriously put into cryopreservation was an American psychology professor at the University of California by the name of James Hiram Bedford, who happened to be very interested in cryonics and had read about it extensively. On January 12, 1967, Bedford passed away due to a combination of complications from kidney cancer and cardiac arrest, leaving behind much money donated for further research, and within 2 hours of death his corpse was being prepped for cryopreservation. He was successfully frozen and stored with liquid nitrogen, moving around to several facilities over the years before finally coming to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in 1982, where he remains to this day, still on ice. Bedford is not only considered to be the first person put into cryostasis with the aim of reviving him in the future, but he is also the longest to have remained in this state. Unfortunately, the methods used at the time of his cryopreservation were still crude, the technology in its infancy, and so it is thought to be unlikely that he will ever be successfully revived, even among people in the field, but who knows?

After this, the list of cryopreserved bodies would grow, including not only human beings, but animals as well, and the techniques would become more refined. Not only would better cryoprotectants be developed, but new techniques such as vitrification would further ensure that damage to the cells through freezing was kept to the barest minimum, sometimes even managing to stop ice formation completely. However, even as the technology grew and new facilities sprang up, the field of cryonics would encounter setbacks that served to tarnish its reputation. One of the first major scandals involving cryonics was in the 1970s, when a lab known as the Cryonics Society of California allowed nine bodies to thaw and decompose when they ran out of money to maintain the stringent and expensive storage criteria. Indeed, money seemed to be an issue with many early cryonics start-up companies, which would often go out of business and simply let the bodies thaw to be disposed of.

Other scandals and controversies haven’t helped the reputation of cryonics either. In 1992, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, now based in Scottsdale, Arizona, was accused of having hastened the death of a terminally ill AIDS patient through the use of a paralytic drug, in order to be able to carry out the cryopreservation process more immediately after death. In 1994, Alcor was again accused of similar behavior, when a coroner claimed that a customer named Dora Kent had been administered a drug that killed her before having her head removed to be cryopreserved. Alcor insisted that the drug had been given after death, which the courts eventually agreed with, but the damage had already been done with the bad publicity. In 2002, Alcor was in the news again when the head of baseball star Ted Williams was put into cryonic stasis. Not only was this a big name being put through this spooky and untested sci-fi procedure, but Williams’ family would be in turmoil, as some family members claimed that he had in fact wanted to be cremated, not have his head frozen. Alcor would further be accused of having drilled holes into Williams’ head and of accidentally cracking the skull, rendering it useless even if it worked. Considering how weird and even somewhat ominous the idea of freezing people and heads has been to the mainstream public, it did not take much at all for these types of stories to stoke fears, controversy, and even panic.

Despite such obstacles, cryonics has only grown over the years, and there have been many who are willing to undergo the procedure after death, regardless of the high costs and the uncertainty that it even works at all, including many of the pioneers of the field such as Ettinger himself, who was put into cryonic suspension after his death in 2011, as well as his first and second wives and his mother, which could be a bit awkward if they ever do wake up in the future. As of 2014, about 250 dead bodies had been cryopreserved in the United States, with a further 1,500 people having made arrangements for cryopreservation of their corpses, and the number has only grown since. People who have been cryopreserved range in age from a 101-year-old woman to a 2-year-old child, sometimes their whole bodies and sometimes just the head, with more and more people signing up for the procedure all of the time. Some companies such as Alcor have in fact seen steady growth over the years, with a 2019 estimate being that they have 172 full bodies cryopreserved in tanks, 96 heads, and 33 animals. There seems to be no shortage of people on the waiting list either, despite the fact that preservation can cost between $28,000 to $200,000. Well, you can’t take the money with you, so why not?

Cryopreservation tanks

Although it may seem to many like this must surely be some type of scam, many of these cryonics companies take this very seriously indeed. For instance, Alcor, still probably the most well-known and funded of the companies, maintains a network of paramedics and surgeons all over the country, on call 24 hours a day to rush to the location of the death of one of its patients to immediately begin the procedure and transport them to the base of operations in Arizona. They also send doctors and teams to be on remote standby at a location where a customer is facing imminent death, with time always of the utmost importance. The medical teams use the most advanced equipment and transport the deceased patients with great care, and independent inspections of the Alcor facilities have shown them to be highly maintained and cutting edge, with California deputy coroner Dan Cupido saying that Alcor had better equipment and facilities than most hospitals. Alcor even moved their base of operations from California to Arizona in order to eliminate the risk that a catastrophic earthquake would damage their operation and put their patients at risk. They obviously seem to take it all very seriously and certainly seem to actually do what they are advertising, but does any of this really work at all? That seems to really depend on who you ask.

At the moment there are many problems evident with cryonics. One is that it is completely unproven technology. We are in uncharted territory here. No one has ever frozen a person like that and successfully revived them, and certainly not just a head. Mainstream scientists are also highly skeptical of the theory and “science” itself, stating that it is simply not feasible, and that the damage to the cells caused by freezing is unlikely to be reversed, as well as that that freezing a brain does not by any known metric also catch the person’s thoughts and personality in time. But with cryonics we are talking about the far future, right? Maybe by that time they will have worked this all out, right? Well, even if it is all valid, we are left with the fact that these bodies need to be stored for who knows how long, possibly centuries, so we have to think about how likely they will be able to keep these bodies in storage for as long as it takes, and even if they do, why should the people of the future want to revive them in the first place? What would they care? Are these people doomed or are they going to be having the last laugh when they are woken up to a hopefully better world? Whatever the answers may be or wherever this is all leading, it is a fascinating dive into the weird, and perhaps only those who have gone under will ever know for sure how this all turns out.

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