Many Are Cold, Few Are Frozen

W. Patrick McCray

James Bedford’s words – “I’m feeling better” – would have been funny had they not been the last utterance of a dying man. On January 12, 1967, the retired psychology professor in Glendale, California passed way. Or as advocates of cryonics would later phrase it, Bedford “deanimated.”

Major newspapers from coast to coast described the “eerie commotion” that accompanied Bedford’s passing in morbid detail.1 After he was pronounced dead, an anti-coagulant drug was injected into him while a mechanical heart maintained blood flow. Other chemicals followed. Six hours later, his body wrapped in aluminum foil was placed in dry ice before members of the Cryonics Society of California transferred it to a “cryo-capsule” – a giant dewar filled with liquid nitrogen fabricated by a Phoenix-based wig-maker – for transfer to storage center in Arizona.

Dewars at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Each of these can hold four wholebody patients. (Photo courtesy of Alcor Life Extension Foundation.)

Doctors at UCLA branded the experiment “absurd” but, not surprisingly, it received wide press coverage. Advocates claimed, given cryonics’ potential benefits, that academic scientists should at least investigate before dismissing the idea.2 Science fiction writer-futurist – a “blue skyer” according to the New York Times – Frederick Pohl told a group of insurance industry executives that they should prepare for the “$30 trillion market of the future” and write policies to cover cryonic suspension.”3

Fiction writers had already engaged with cryonics for decades. Edgar Allen Poe and Jack London both wrote stories featuring cold-induced immortality before 1900. It remained a durable theme in magazines published by Hugo Gernsback before World War Two. After 1945, ideas for cryonic suspension were discussed seriously by reputable scientists at established institutions, often with some sort of connection to space exploration or technological utopianism in general. For example, two medical scientists discussed the possibility of lowering a person’s metabolic rate in order to permit long-term space travel, coining the word “cyborg” at the same time. Books and articles about life extension via freezing appeared, the best known one being Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality. In 1966, Columbia University physicist Gerald Feinberg discussed the science of life prolongation in the widely read magazine Physics Today.4 While these helped bring cryonics to a wider audience, mainstream scientific publications, not surprisingly, remained chilly to the idea.5

Nonetheless, 1967 stands as the tipping point for public awareness of cryonics. News coverage of the fledgling cryonics movement situated it somewhere between, hubristic, hopeful, and humorous. If the average person had missed coverage of James Bedford’s suspension, they might have seen a variation of the idea a month later on national television. On 16 February of that year, CBS broadcast the Star Trek episode called “Space Seed.” It wove a series of themes – extended human space travel, life extension via cryogenic suspension, and personal improvement via genetic modification – which became standard motifs for the transhumanist movement a few decades later.

In “Space Seed,” the crew of the Enterprise encounter Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically superior yet morally deficient tyrant who, after the “Eugenics Wars” of the 1990s had been cryogenically suspended and exiled into deep space.6 Some 13 million Americans watched Capt. Kirk and his crew awaken Khan from his cold-induced sleep. After reviving, Khan, aided by a sympathetic, smitten historian, fights to take over the Enterprise. After failing to win control, Kirk banishes Khan again, this time to an abandoned planet. Khan accepts his fate, seeing it as a both a challenge and chance to tame a new world. The superhuman Khan became a popular, profit-generating character for the Star Trek franchise well into the 21^st^ century.

After the publicity following Bedford’s cryonic suspension, new organizations sprang up to support the small but growing cryonics community. To help make their case, advocates of cryonics cited major advances in medicine and technology – space exploration and nascent genetic engineering were often given as evidence – that had occurred throughout the 20^th^ century. To them, this was evidence that future technologies would surely offer some means to revive them from their preserved state.7 A typical argument advocates deployed followed a logic reminiscent of Pascal’s Wager, stating that the benefits of signing up for cryonics, even if the likelihood of revival was small, far out-weighed the costs. This is a point, often missed, that cryonicists make. Their goal is not to bring a person back from the dead but rather to interrupt the dying process before it has proceeded too far. As one organization phrases it – “Would you rather be in the experimental group or the control group?”8

Membership was especially active in the Los Angeles and Silicon Valley areas where people, perhaps more than other regions, had a passion for technology, seen literally as their potential savior, and an unabashed faith in the future. In 1969, the Cryonics Society of California, for example, claimed 500 members and announced plans to build a “long-term depository” in Barstow.9 Fred Chamberlain, an employee at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, started a company called Manrise in La Canada with his partner Linda. Three years later, they self-published one of the first manuals for cryo-preservation.10 The Chamberlains formed the Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia which became the world’s largest cryonics organization.11 Art imitated life a few years later and humor trumped horror when Woody Allen used cryonics to set up the plot of his goofy comic film Sleeper.

Cryonics rests in an overlapping space between science fiction and certain kind of speculative research, seeking mainstream scientific respectability albeit unsuccessfully. Just as intriguing is the way in which cryonics intersects with people’s perceptions of the future. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1972, “The Future. Cryonics leaders talk about it with a passion bordering on reverence. The future, they say, belongs to science. The Golden Age of Biomedical Technology is at hand. Are they wrong?”12

The hundreds of people who have signed up for cryonics believe fervently in the future. For them, spending years suspended in liquid nitrogen, awaiting a possible reawakening is neither hilarious nor horrific. It is act of hope. Cryonicists believe in a future where they will be healthy once again, perhaps reunited with friends and family. Moreover, they imagine that the intervening years between death and reanimation will be stable enough, economically and socially, to maintain their suspension. During this time, they trust advanced technologies will be developed and perfected so as to enable their rejuvenation. The apogee of this optimism is that, for cryonicists, the future is a temporal place where they both wish to exist and where they will be accepted, wanted, and perhaps loved. As one adherent stated, “I think the future is going to be kinder and gentler than the present. Cryonics is another medical procedure.”13

Cryonics might appear to skeptics – and, to be fair, most mainstream coverage of cryonics trends this way – as an outlier even in the “freak show that is the boundless-optimism school of technological forecasting.”14 A more historically accurate and empathetic reading, however, can situate cryonics into a wider frame. We can, for example, see it as part a long-standing secular belief, especially common among Americans, in technological millennialism.15 By this, I mean the idea that a new more perfect age waits and technology, not divinity, will construct it. This new age will not, however, be available for all but only open to those who have invested their faith and a little fortune.

What does the spike of interest in cryonics in the 1960s tell us about the histories of science and medicine? It reminds us to reconsider that pervasive yet elusive term “context.” As researchers developed artificial organs and life support systems, death itself was subject to reexamination.16 In 1968, a legal dictionary defined death as “stoppage of the circulation of the blood, and a cessation of the animal and vital functions consequent thereon, such as respiration, pulsation, etc.” But this definition was already under scrutiny by doctors, ethicists, and theologians.17 As death became less of an event and more of a process, optimists’ belief in the possibility of cryonics becomes more understandable.

The emergence of cryonics c. 1967 also tells us something about science itself. The experimentation of the early cryonicists reflects their belief that much remained to be discovered about the natural world. In this telling, science means progress and improvement, with advances coming that are both unexpected and full of possibility. Coupled with this was a growing materialist philosophy which held that a person’s intelligence and personality resided in the physical structure of their brain.18 Preserve this and – like extracting information from a failed hard drive – revival might be possible.

Ultimately, cryonics connects to what Reinhart Koselleck called “horizons of expectation.”19 Understanding the experience of people experimenting with cryonics in 1967 becomes richer when we consider their expectations for the future. Cryonicists, frozen in the present, expected a future in which they might live again. However, as we (and they) approach the temporal horizon, it forever recedes, etching a fine yet eternal line that separates present from future, real from possible, and science from faith.

  1. Homer Bigart, “Group Advocates Freezing of the Dead,” The New York Times, 29 January 1967: 68; Dave Larsen, “Cancer Victim’s Body Frozen for Future Revival Experiment,” Los Angeles Times, 19 January 1967: A1.

  2. Homer Bigart, “Group Advocates Freezing of the Dead,” The New York Times, January 29, 1967: 68.

  3. William H. Honan. “The Futurists Take over the Jules Verne Business.” New York Times, April 9, 1967, M243.

  4. Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics, 1960, September: 26-27, 74-75; Anonymous. “Spaceman Is Seen as Man-Machine.” The New York Times, 22 May 1960, 31; Robert Ettigner, The Prospect of Immortality: self-published (Doubleday edition in 1964), 1962); Gerald Feinberg, “Physics and Life Prolongation,” Physics Today, 1966 19, 11: 45-48.

  5. D.E. Goldman, “American Way of Life?,” Science, 1964 145, 3631: 475-76.

  6. The idea of people going into cold-induced suspended animation has long been a staple of space travel in sci-fi fiction and films. American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard even speculated on the possibility of “generation ships” that might carry people, their life functions suspended, far out into space. “It has long been known,” he wrote, “that protoplasm can remain inanimate for great periods of time, and can also withstand great cold, if in the granular state.” From “The Great Migration,” from p. 1611-1612 of Robert Goddard and G.E. Pendray, eds., The Papers of Robert H. Goddard. Vol. 3 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970).

  7. This form of reasoning later attracted considerable ridicule; Michael Shermer. “Nano Nonsense and Cryonics.” Scientific American, September 2001, 29: “Look how far we’ve come in just a century, believers argue – from the Wright brothers to Neil Armstrong in only 66 years. Extrapolate these trends out 1,000 years, or 10,000, and immortality is virtually certain.”

  8. http://alcor.org/AboutCryonics/index.html

  9. Ken Lubas, “Cryonics Society’s Facility for Frozen Death to Open,” Los Angeles Times, 20 April 1969: B1.

  10. Titled “Instructions for the Induction of Solid-State Hypothermia in Humans.”

  11. Described on Alcor’s website (accessed September 2014).

  12. A. Michael Aron. “The New Ice Age.” Los Angeles Times, 10 June 1972. This article was focused on the cryo-preservation of a Californian teenager who died of cancer in 1972; according to the article, she was preserved at a California facility with seven other patients.

  13. Ben Best, quoted in 2012 film We Will Live Again.

  14. David E.H. Jones, “Technical Boundless Optimism,” Nature, 1995, 374, 6525: 835-37.

  15. John M. Bozeman, “Technological Millenarianism in the United States,” in Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements, edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer (New York: Routledge, 1997), 139-58.

  16. For example, see discussion in President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Defining Death: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death, 1981.

  17. In 1968, physicians at the Harvard Medical School offered a new set of criteria, defined as “brain death.” “Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to examine the definition of brain death. A definition of irreversible coma.” JAMA 1968; 205: 337-40. See also how The concept of brain death did not evolve to benefit organ transplants.

  18. Ashlee Vance, “In Pursuit of a Mind Map, Slice by Slice, “The New York Times, 27 December 2010: D1.

  19. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambridge, 1985), esp. Ch. 14.

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