Historical Steps Toward the Scientific Conquest of Death

by Mike Perry
Physical Immortality 1(1) 7-10 (3rd Q 2003)
This article is adapted from Chapter 2 of my book, Forever for All, which includes references

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment was specially significant for its emphasis on progress, which extended to ideas about lengthening life. Earlier it had been thought that extra-long life had already been achieved either in remote antiquity (before the biblical flood, for instance) or in faraway places, or possibly closer to home with the aid of elusive assistance such as a “fountain of youth.” Cornaro and other Renaissance hygenists had begun to develop a new outlook, emphasizing approaches that were more commonplace and accessible (thus more likely to have substance at all). Now this viewpoint was dramatically extended by such thinkers as Benjamin Franklin, William Godwin, and Antoine Condorcet, who saw new possibilities for future betterment through a scientific approach, including great prolongation of life by eliminating aging. Science had by then begun to make advances in the direction of extending life. For example, Leeuwenhoek in 1702 had revived rotifers after stopping the life process through desiccation. Science clearly was progressive, and, these thinkers hypothesized, in the future should be able to secure benefits not then possible. Humanity thus might become godlike, shedding its frailty and limitations for something unprecedented and far better. But there was a negative. The  world of near-godhood was a world of the future, something that was not imminent. Except for the eventual divine intervention that was widely believed in, there would be no deliverance for those of their time.

This position, personally pessimistic but collectively optimistic, was echoed more starkly in the following century. In the 1870s British explorer-philosopher Winwood Reade, in The Martyrdom of Man, saw a coming age of immortality through the scientific control of biology but denied a personal God or the possibility of resurrection or other escape from death (hence the “martyrdom”). Similar sentiments were expressed a generation later by American physician and neurologist C. A. Stephens, whose book, Natural Salvation, elaborated a philosophy of the same name. Stephens too believed that all those then living must be lost forever—an especially painful thought in view of what would be open to future generations.

A contemporary of Reade and Stephens with a more optimistic outlook was Russian moral philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (1829–1903). Fedorov was a self-taught itinerant schoolteacher who became librarian of the Rumyantsev Museum in Moscow. His manner of life was ascetic, and he regularly turned down more lucrative but distracting employment while taking pains to assist needy students with the funds and provisions he could spare. Fedorov was among the first to seriously consider the possibility of a physical resurrection of the dead through scientific as opposed to supernatural means. He also based his entire life and work around his ideas of resurrection and developed them into an extensive philosophy. His proposed methods were doubtful by today’s standards but not at variance with known science. For example, individual atoms might be tracked down and repositioned with very sophisticated future devices to reconstruct deceased individuals and restore them to a living state. His focus, however, was understandably not on the technical details, but on the implications for the meaning and purpose of life and the ordering of society. The resurrection, if carried out in full, as Fedorov believed it should be, would restore the bad along with the good. An evil nature, however, is a curable affliction. So when all diseases and disorders, physical or mental, had been cured, all would live forever in a state of love, harmony, and unity. Fedorov saw the resurrection as the “common task” that would unite all humankind in a final, everlasting era of peace and brotherhood.

It was necessary, Fedorov believed, for the resurrection to be engineered by humanity, through rational, scientific means, rather than by a supernatural or transcendent intervention, and to be realized here, in the visible universe, and not some mystical elsewhere. His arguments in this case were moral ones. Fedorov was no atheist but a committed Christian, believing in a transcendent Godhead. He felt, however, that a resurrection brought about by such a power would render humanity’s God given gifts superfluous. Similarly, if the resurrection must occur somewhere outside this world then this world is a mistake. The proper role of the Christian Trinity then was to inspire or admonish our species, not solve our problems for us. For this reason the role of the supernatural is really not critical, and Fedorov can be credited with the first philosophy of life in which the important promises of traditional religion, including resurrecting persons of the past, were to be realized through nonmystical means.

Fedorov’s philosophy of the common task, which became known as Supramoralism, was dismissed as impractical or nonsensical. The decades following his death witnessed the bloodiest human confrontations that have ever occurred, the turmoil being especially violent in his homeland of Russia. A widespread horror and distrust of technology (which has never lacked its vocal critics) was nurtured, and many in the turbulent twentieth century longed for a “simpler time” or went so far as to champion the view that there is something necessarily evil about our species and our works.

Not everyone succumbed to pessimism, however, and some even saw in technology a road to salvation that was otherwise lacking. One such optimist was Robert C. W. Ettinger, who grew up around Detroit, Michigan. As a boy in his father’s store he would read the pioneering science fiction periodical, Amazing Stories. The July 1931 issue contained a story by Neil R. Jones, “The Jameson Satellite.” In it, professor Jameson’s body is chilled at death and placed into Earth orbit, to be revived millions of years later by an alien race, which has also conquered aging and other ailments. To the twelve-year-old Robert, the resuscitation of a human in a future without aging and illness held a fascination that would not be forgotten in the decades to come.

In 1944 Ettinger was wounded in battle in Germany and spent several years recuperating in an army hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. This offered him the opportunity to write a science fiction story of his own. Published in the March 1948 Startling Stories, “The Penultimate Trump” is about a wealthy man, H. D. Haworth, who is frozen at death and eventually resuscitated, with youth and health restored. In two important respects Haworth’s reanimation differs from Professor Jameson’s: (1) it is planned for by Haworth himself (Jameson simply intended to be well-preserved, not eventually brought back to consciousness); and (2) it is carried out by humans and not through a chance encounter with aliens. To Ettinger this seemed a plausible, real-life approach to personal life extension and betterment. He expected that others with better scientific credentials would soon be working on the freezing idea.

In fact the idea was not new but had a venerable if somewhat checkered history. Ancient Roman writers such as Ovid and Pliny the Elder noted that fish trapped in ice and apparently frozen and dead could sometimes return to life. Experiments in the controlled freezing of organisms were carried out as early as the 1600s, one researcher being English scientist Robert Boyle. He reported the successful reanimation of fish and frogs after brief exposure to subfreezing temperatures, though he was unable to achieve the same results after longer exposures. In the next century English surgeon John Hunter also thought that human life might be extended by this method. In 1768 he reported his experiments on reanimating frozen fish by simple thawing—but these had failed. Still there was progress, both with freezing and with the related technique of desiccation. Both could achieve a limited sort of reversible suspended animation, or anabiosis. By the early 1900s many small creatures such as worms, tardigrades, and rotifers had been revived from an inert and “lifeless” state induced by extreme cold or drying. A Russian experimenter, Porfiry Bakhmetiev (1860–1913), started research with hypothermic mammals, and successfully revived bats cooled below 0° C, but he died before the work had progressed very far.

By the 1940s some modest additional progress had been made. An important innovation with deep freezing was the addition of a protective agent such as glycerol beforehand to reduce the severity of damage. Single cells could then be frozen and cooled to very low temperature with successful resuscitation much more likely, though still not guaranteed. Larger organisms, including mammals such as hamsters, would soon be partly frozen and recovered. A new field, cryobiology, was born.

But beyond such initial success, progress was slow. Little serious attention was paid to the fantastic possibility that Ettinger and others before him had envisioned, of cryogenic storage as a means of defeating death. So in 1960 Ettinger, who had by then earned master’s degrees in both physics and mathematics and become a college professor, set to work again. His first, modest effort was to circulate a short summary of his ideas to a few hundred people in Who’s Who. Response was minimal, so he then set out to write The Prospect of Immortality, which advocated the idea of freezing people and storing them for later reanimation. The first draft of the book was completed in 1962, and an expanded version was offered commercially in 1964. Many thus became aware of the freezing idea. Eight years later Ettinger produced a sequel, Man into Superman, that explored some possibilities for becoming more-than-human. During this time the first freezings of humans for intentional reanimation occurred, a practice that became known as cryonics.

Meanwhile another immortalist pioneer, Evan Cooper, had also hit on the freezing idea and in 1962 had written a short book of his own, Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now. Never commercially published, the typed, mimeographed manuscript was privately circulated to a few. Ettinger responded enthusiastically, noting the similarities with his own just-completed book. Cooper’s independent effort contained some original thinking too, drawing inspiration from The Bedbug, a 1928 play by Russian Vladimir Mayakovsky in which a man is frozen by accident and resuscitated decades later using new technology. Another of Cooper’s sources was The Human Use of Human Beings, a nonfictional study by cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener in which the human personality is compared to a computer program. The program representing the living person might be transmitted to another body or, in more recent parlance, “uploaded.” The new body could be a natural, biological product or an artificial device, opening considerable vistas for shedding old limitations and entering upon new modes of existence. This, it should be added, is among the possibilities Cooper considered without claiming dogmatic certainty that any of them would come to pass. More generally, a cautious, if optimistic, scientific stance became a hallmark of the developing immortalist movement.

In December 1963 the Life Extension Society was founded in Washington, D.C., with Cooper as president, to promote the freezing idea. The September 1965 issue of the LES periodical Freeze-Wait-Reanimate carried stirring headlines: ASTOUNDING ADVANCE IN ANIMAL BRAIN FREEZING AND RECOVERY …. Dr. Isamu Suda and colleagues, at Kobe University in Japan, had detected electrical activity in a cat brain that had been frozen to –20° C ( 4° F) for more than six months and then restored to body temperature. The cat had been anesthetized and the brain removed. The blood was replaced with a protective solution of glycerol prior to freezing; the glycerol was again replaced with blood on rewarming. Not only did the brain revive and resume activity, but the brain wave pattern did not appear to differ greatly from that of a live control. Here, then, was dramatic evidence that cryonics might work, especially if possible future advances in repair techniques were taken into account.

But despite such successes and widespread media exposure, cryonics was a difficult practice to get started. Ettinger and Cooper played pivotal roles, and critical contributions were made by others, yet the problems were great. Few who were dying wanted to be frozen, nor did their healthier contemporaries show much interest; support and funding were meager. As for the activists, there was a steady turnover among those initially eager who later lost interest and quit. The casualties even included Cooper himself. Active for a few years, his LES could never complete a primary mission of establishing a cryonics facility, though others succeeded. Cooper left the movement and, indulging a passion for sailing, was tragically lost at sea in 1982.

Progress in actual human freezings, the all-important end product, was slow and uncertain. In April 1966, after several years of failed promotion, a success of sorts finally occurred. An embalmed body was frozen—but only after weeks of above-freezing storage, which was highly damaging to any prospect of reanimation. Relatives maintaining this preliminary suspension gave up after a few months, and the body was thawed and buried. A much better freezing occurred in January 1967 by a team organized by a California businessman, Robert F. Nelson. In this first, true cryonic suspension, an elderly cancer patient in Glendale, California, was placed in dry ice shortly after death and transferred to liquid nitrogen a few days later. Nelson’s group, the Cryonics Society of California, would freeze several more people over the next few years. But his operation did not meet expenses; nine cryonics patients thawed and were lost, and when relatives sued, Nelson and an assistant were ordered to pay nearly $1 million in damages. Another operation, the Cryonics Society of New York, also folded, though without legal recriminations and despite the heroic efforts of its principals, Curtis Henderson and Saul Kent. Bitter though they were, these failures inspired greater and more careful efforts.

Alcor Foundation was started in 1972 by Fred and Linda Chamberlain after they broke with Nelson’s group. In coming years it would establish a strict funding policy so that suspensions no longer depended on the financial backing of relatives and would also pioneer head-only freezing. (The rationale is that technology that could repair a brain and resuscitate frozen tissue could probably also recreate the missing body from DNA and other clues. Human heads or “neuros” are less expensive to maintain, and none to date has been lost through thawing.)

Progress also brought a new level of effectiveness to the procedures used in cryonic suspension, which must go far beyond simple freezing to protect the tissues as far as possible from the damage of cooling to low temperature. Jerry Leaf and Michael Darwin pioneered better techniques of perfusion with higher concentrations of glycerol prior to freezing. Work by Leaf, Darwin, and Hugh Hixon of Alcor, and Drs. Paul Segal, Harold Waitz, and Hal Sternberg of rival Trans Time, demonstrated the reversibility of the early stages of such procedures. (This was a follow-up of similar work in the 1960s performed by noncryonicist Gerald Klebanoff.) Test animals, chilled to near the freezing point and left cold and apparently lifeless for hours (though not actually frozen), were revived without ill effects. Confidence increased that deep-frozen large organisms, including humans, could also eventually be recovered.

Then suddenly a crisis loomed over legal issues. In December 1987 Saul Kent had his eighty-three-year-old mother, Dora, frozen as a head-only. The woman, in fact, had died at Alcor’s facility in Riverside, California, which prompted a coroner’s investigation. When the frozen head was demanded for autopsy and could not be located, several Alcor officials were taken into custody but were later vindicated in court. A judge ruled that the head was not needed to decide the cause of death and there was no evidence of foul play. A few months after this there was an attempt by the California Health Department to have cryonics declared illegal—also eventually rebuffed in court. The legal challenges cost the small and privately funded Alcor dearly. But cryonics gained respectability both in and outside the state, and it was clear that some were willing to struggle very hard to keep the practice going and keep individual patients frozen.

The legal battle over Dora Kent involved a personal confrontation. I was one of the six Alcor personnel placed in handcuffs on January 7, 1988, and taken to the local police station. There we remained some hours until an attorney determined there was no proper legal ground to hold us—whereupon our restraints were unlocked and we were set free. (One of our number, Carlos Mondragon, alerted the media during the arrest and helped manage this crisis.) There would be anxious days, weeks, and months, however, before the matter would finally be resolved in Alcor’s favor. In general, cryonics has been fortunate to escape the fierce persecution that has often accompanied the more unusual, freethinking movements of the past. But this incident and the subsequent struggle over legality in California were sobering events. Cryonics, a heroic, rational attempt to save and extend the lives of human beings, was not well received in certain “mainstream” quarters. Opponents tried to stop it through legal sanctions rather than recognize its life-affirming potential. Thankfully, their efforts did not succeed.

Another legal battle of a different sort concerned the wish of one person to be frozen. Thomas Donaldson, a Ph.D. mathematician, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1988. The tumor, an astrocytoma, was a particularly virulent sort that is usually fatal within a few years. Donaldson had been active in cryonics for many years and wanted to be frozen before he sustained substantial brain damage, though not immediately—radiation treatments had brought at least a temporary remission. But the freezing procedure, when needed, would have to be started while he was still alive. By current legal criteria it would be deemed assisted suicide or perhaps homicide. Donaldson went to court. Unfortunately, narrow legal definitions prevailed and he did not get his wish. (Thankfully, the tumor stayed in remission and Donaldson is still alive and active at this writing; other cryonicists with brain malignancies have not been so lucky.) The case also generated much favorable publicity for cryonics and helped dramatize the plight of those who wish to choose, without interference, the circumstances of what others consider their death.

A tiny yet vigorous and growing cryonics movement now exists, and several organizations, most based in the United States, offer their services. Robert Ettinger was instrumental in starting one of these, Cryonics Institute, and remains active as do others whose involvement stretches back decades, though some, like Jerry Leaf, and (very recently) Paul Segall, have “fallen asleep” and been frozen. Rivalries and contention have sometimes been fierce, as might be expected among the strong-minded individualists that cryonicists typically are and have split more than one organization, including the largest, Alcor. Still there is consensus that facing the common enemy—death—requires respect for others and a willingness to tolerate diverging views.

Research continues, though still privately funded due to continuing public disinterest in anything so radical. The ambitious “Prometheus Project” was organized in 1996 by Paul Wakfer to unite the various factions in work toward a common goal, in this case a demonstrated technique for full, reversible suspended animation through low-temperature storage. The project faltered before any research could begin, but subsequent work at California-based Twenty-first Century Medicine, financed by Saul Kent and William Faloon and endorsed by “Prometheans” and others, has yielded significant results. Assisted by this effort, Alcor in 2000 pioneered the use of “vitrification” in cryonic suspensions, in which the damage from freezing is greatly reduced. Work on vitrification continues at Twenty-First Century Medicine, along with a parallel effort at Cryonics Institute in Michigan led by cryobiologist Dr. Yuri Pichugin.

James Bedford, the first person cryonically suspended, remains frozen, along with Dora Kent and approximately four-fifths of the one hundred or so who have been preserved at low temperature. Almost everyone, in fact, who was frozen after 1973 is still frozen today, and probably about a thousand are now signed up for the procedure.

Through cryonics a small part of Fedorov’s great project of resurrection may actually be completed in the relatively near future (thoughtful estimates allow anywhere from 30 to 150 years). It seems clear, to those of us who have accepted it, that cryonics offers a better approach to death than the conventional one of allowing or causing the remains to disintegrate. But as yet very few of the many thousands who die each day are frozen. Concern with the welfare of humanity demands that cryonics—or some form of biostasis—become universal, at least until the happy time that death is no longer a threat. Thus cryonics itself could become a “common task” to reorder society along the lines of peace and life rather than war and death. Though it would take a large investment of resources to maintain many millions of people in frozen storage, it does not appear beyond the productive capacities of the world, particularly if the less-expensive neuro option is used. (Lower-cost possibilities such as high-quality chemical preservation may also offer benefit.) The outcome of such a program could be far more beneficial to humanity than, for example, the diversion of resources into technologies of destruction, something that has occupied a fearful world for a very long time.

Along with cryonics are some related developments that help make its case more credible and offer support to those who might be interested. Work of the pioneering futurist writer and cryonics advocate F. M. Esfandiary should be mentioned. FM, as he liked to be known, was a novelist of some note when he started a new series of futuristic, nonfiction books, advocating transformation of the human species to a higher, transhuman form. Technology would be instrumental, but must be guided by enlightenment. People must come to see themselves as not bound by old ties of race, nationality, or even family and marriage, but instead, as the enduring features of a global community. Titles in the series were Optimism One (1970), Up-Wingers (1973), Telespheres (1977), and Are You a Transhuman? (1989). To minimize traces of his own nationality (Iranian, though he abhorred all national boundaries), he legally changed his name to FM-2030 for the year in which he would celebrate his hundredth birthday. Though cancer claimed him in 2000 he rests in frozen sleep and may yet awaken to celebrate, if not his hundredth, at least his two-hundredth birthday!

Other efforts focused more on anticipated technological tools. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book, Engines of Creation, argued the case for nanotechnology. This atomic-scale manipulation violates no laws of physics and seems perfectly feasible, in principle, to many thoughtful people, though it has critics too. But it also has many potential applications, among which would be a kind of minute archaeology of a frozen organism. Damaged cells or subcellular structures should be repairable, missing parts replaceable, and the whole restorable to a functioning state, through swarms of tiny, intelligently controlled devices or other tools capable of acting at small scales of distance. A more technical book by Drexler, Nanosystems (1992), offers mathematical arguments for the feasibility of atomic-scale manipulators. An ambitious effort has since been undertaken by Robert Freitas to explore the prospects for curing diseases and extending human life span through developing nanotechnology. The first, massive volume of his projected, three-volume work, Nanomedicine, was published in 1999. Publication of part A of a second volume is now projected for July 2003. Meanwhile the case for nanotechnology is continually being strengthened by the progress being made, particularly with devices such as scanning probe microscopes that can track and position individual atoms and alter individual chemical bonds.

The Foresight Institute was organized by Drexler to promote nanotechnology and publish the latest developments. Other notable developments are cryonics-leaning organizations such as Extropy Institute and the Society for Venturism—both U.S.-based—and the Russian Vita Longa Society. There is also a proliferation of cryonics-related communication through the rapidly burgeoning electronic mail services, including the forum Cryonet. Philosopher and cryonicist Max More, who co-founded Extropy Institute, in 1995 completed a dissertation, The Diachronic Self, that explores issues of personhood and favors cryonics as a means for extending life. The First Immortal, a novel by Jim Halperin, realistically explores the idea of resurrecting people who were frozen, and shows how a coming age of immortality would make life happier and more meaningful.

Forever for All (2000), a philosophical treatise by R. Michael Perry, attempts to tie in cryonics with a larger, cosmological picture. A pattern-based or informational theory of personhood is developed that allows for survival through duplicates or copies. In principle, then, the dead could be resurrected scientifically by recreating or guessing the appropriate pattern or structure, even in the absence of original material or knowledge of its details. Serious difficulties both philosophical and technical would have to be confronted before a resurrection project such as that imagined by Fedorov could be attempted, but it is not ruled out in a more advanced future, and even is arguably inevitable. The conventional wisdom in cryonics that people are “gone forever” unless well preserved at death thus is challenged, in one possible way, on nonmystical grounds.  Cryonics nevertheless is strongly advocated on grounds of the expected benefits that would follow from the more straightforward, “historical” resurrection that it should make possible. The wise and well-disposed will choose it, and to such as these will belong the future.