Close Mobile Menu

Into the Deep Freeze: What Kind of Person Chooses to Get Cryonically Preserved?

June 15, 2015
by Chris A. Smith

Before launching the first cryonaut, they had sandwiches and coffee. It was a Thursday afternoon in January 1967, in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. The ad hoc medical team—a physician, a chemist, and Bob Nelson, a voluble TV repairman and president of the newly minted Cryonics Society of California—huddled around the dead man’s bedside. In front of them lay the body of James Bedford, who earned his master’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1928. A retired psychology professor and vocational guidance expert, the 73-year-old had died of liver cancer an hour earlier. All of them, living and dead, were about to make history.

The team went to work. Adapting techniques from the field of cryogenics, which studies materials at low temperatures, they injected medical-grade antifreeze into his neck, diluting his blood. To minimize damage to his brain, they kept oxygen pumping through his system with a machine called an iron heart. Then they slipped the professor into a coffin-shaped capsule filled with dry ice. (Later, the capsule would be placed in a cylinder cooled by liquid nitrogen for permanent storage at -196°C.)

Four hours later the task was completed: They had frozen the first man.

At a triumphal news conference a few days later, Nelson, the TV repairman, explained the purpose of the professor’s “cryopreservation.” Bedford, he told the assembled reporters, “will be kept frozen indefinitely until such time as medical science may be able to cure cancer, any freezing damage that may have occurred, and perhaps old age as well.”

Bob Nelson demonstrating the cryonic process in 1967.

Suddenly, the DIY science of cryonics was a sensation. Bedford made it into Life magazine, and inquiries poured in from around the globe—Czechoslovakia, England, India—despite the fact that few in the mainstream medical community took cryonics seriously. “There is absolutely no evidence that low temperature storage and recovery procedures will be possible in the near future,” a 1964 article in Science declared. A University of Oregon medical professor told UPI after Bedford’s freezing, “He’s dead once he’s frozen, and he’s not going to come back again.” 

A half-century on, cryonics remains on the fringe. I emailed Boris Rubinsky, a UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering and cryogenics researcher. His work in freezing and reviving small animal organs is one of a number of studies that cryonicists cite as support for the idea that science will one day be able to do the same with humans. Rubinsky’s reply was polite but firm: “I prefer to stay as far away from cryonics as possible.”

Others view cryonics as little more than a modern burial ritual. Tom Laqueur, a Cal history professor and author of the forthcoming The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, places cryonics in a line of death practices stretching back to the earliest human societies. When Chinese and Mesopotamian rulers were buried with their servants, Laqueur says, there was nothing metaphorical about the practice, no ideas of Heaven or reincarnation; the ancients believed their monarch’s body would be walking around again in the next world. Cryonics, he says, is “a way of translating old faiths and beliefs into new languages. It’s old wine in new bottles.”

Max More has heard all of the criticisms. More is the president and CEO of Alcor, the largest of the world’s cryonics organizations, which counts 1,033 members—those who have committed, legally and financially, to freezing themselves—and 134 “patients” frozen in aluminum casks at its Scottsdale headquarters. As a 5-year-old, More sat awestruck in front of the TV watching the first moon landing, dreaming of different worlds. While pursuing his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford in the 1980s, he fell in with a group of futurists who believed that humanity’s best days lie ahead, courtesy of technology. They introduced him to cryonics, and the idea appealed to him immediately. “It’s not about the fear of death,” he says, “but the enjoyment of life—and wanting more of it.”

More comes across as a reasonable man who is acutely aware that most people think his ideas are insane, or repugnant, or both. Like most of the cryonicists I spoke to, he frames his points as appeals to logic, not emotion. His confidence is infectious. Eventually, he says, the emerging field of nanotechnology will allow us to fix pretty much everything that ails us. He adds that the freezing process itself has evolved from Bedford’s haphazard model into rigorous protocols aimed at doing as little damage to the patient as possible. “It really will come to seem crazy to do anything else,” he says cheerily. “People will look back on these days and say, ‘What was wrong with us? We used to stick people into the ground or shove them into ovens!’”

In 1931, the seminal science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories ran a piece by an obscure writer named Neil R. Jones. “The Jameson Satellite” tells the story of a scientist who freezes his body after death by rocketing himself into space to orbit the earth until the end of time. After 40 million years, an alien race, the “Zoromes of the planet Zor,” find his rocket and revive him, transplanting his head onto a robot body. Upon learning that the human race is extinct, the lonely professor considers killing himself. The Zoromes persuade him to join them instead. “Free your mind,” one of his new companions says, “and come with us to visit other worlds, many of them are both beautiful and new.”

Jones’s story wasn’t great literature, but its central idea captivated readers like Robert Ettinger, a Detroit physics professor who in 1964 published the founding text of the cryonics movement, The Prospect of Immortality. (Doubleday hesitated to publish the book until Isaac Asimov reassured the editors that the science, albeit unproven, was sound.) The first sentence of Ettinger’s book gets straight to the point: “Most of us now breathing have a chance for personal, physical, immortality.”

Though inspired by sci-fi, Ettinger cited reams of research on freezing and tissue damage, particularly work by the British cryobiologist Audrey Smith, who froze and reanimated hamsters in a 1956 study. His techno-futurist creed was in tune with America’s go-go, postwar mood; Ettinger went on The Tonight Show, and cryonics groups sprouted from Berkeley to Manhattan, awaiting the day when massive “cryotoriums” filled with patients dotted the nation. Anything seemed possible. We had just put a man on the moon, after all. Why not cryonics? As Nelson observed in his 1968 chronicle of the Bedford freezing, We Froze the First Man, “We are living in an age when the old answers do not fit the new questions.”

Then and now, cryonics tended to attract a certain type of seeker: numerically minded males, sci-fi fans, and those with a distinctly non-abstract view of the afterlife. Ralph Merkle, a Xerox PARC alumnus, inventor of computer encryption algorithms, and nanotechnology theorist, is representative of the tribe. Merkle, also a Berkeley alum, says there is no bright line between life and death; science has cured dozens of illnesses that meant certain death a century ago. He reasons that it’s just a matter of time before death can be delayed indefinitely. “What we refer to as ‘death’ is just a set of symptoms that have proven resistant to treatment.”

“You are noth­ing more than the sig­nals flit­ting through your brain. And if we can pre­serve that, we can save you.”

Most cryonicists are impatient with talk of the soul. They believe that the traits that make us unique reside in the brain, so the key is to preserve that organ with as much fidelity as possible. (This approach has led to “neuro” cryopreservations, in which just the brain is frozen in expectation of one day placing it on a cloned body. Half of Alcor members choose neuro, which costs $80,000 versus $200,000 for a whole-body suspension.) “You are nothing more than the signals flitting through your brain,” says Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University who was a UC Berkeley health policy fellow and researcher at NASA’s Ames facility in Silicon Valley. “And if we can preserve that, we can save you.”

In its unremitting focus on the tangible stuff of human existence—on bodies, rather than souls—and in its vision of an earthbound afterlife, cryonics differs from the tenets of religious faith. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of cryonicists—at least 90 percent, former Alcor president Stephen Bridge estimates—are either agnostics or atheists. Bridge was brought up Christian, but he became non-religious in college. His wife, however, believes cryonics clashes with her Christian faith and doesn’t plan to be frozen (such intra-couple disagreements are common, cryonicists say). “She’s allowing me to do it,” Bridge says. “But I’m sorry she doesn’t see the logic in it.”

Cryocapsule developers prepare the capsule for the body of cancer victim James Bedford.

Despite the differences, both kinds of belief draw much of their power from our rebellion against mortality—from humanity’s general unwillingness to go into the void without hope that our essence might continue to exist. Gregory Benford, a Nebula Award–winning sci-fi writer and UC Irvine physics professor who worked in Lawrence Livermore’s radiation lab, says he’d rather count on the march of civilization than on a deity in the sky. He compares cryonics to Pascal’s famous wager, which framed religion as a bet with little downside in life but a potentially huge upside after death. “There’s very little risk,” he says. “It’s just money, right? But in return you get life.”

While few cryonicists are willing to get specific about their hoped-for hereafter, optimism about mankind’s future is another commonplace among them. Merkle points to global trends to justify his sunny outlook: Standards of living are going up, people are living longer, wars are less lethal. A world that revives the frozen, they reason, certainly will have beaten climate change. As Merkle wrote, “Those who seriously believe that we are all doomed are invited to watch television, or otherwise amuse themselves. Those of us who think humanity has a future will continue to make plans based on this assumption.”

Not much is known about James Bedford, the first cryonaut, but he appears to have fit the profile in at least some ways. A World War I veteran who authored six books on job training, Professor Bedford spent much of his life in Southern California, teaching at a community college north of Los Angeles. He enlivened this quiet existence, however, with periodic bouts of adventure travel: He took African safaris and toured the Amazon, and was one of the first to drive the AlCan Highway, the road connecting the American mainland and Alaska, after its 1948 opening.

“There we were, lift­ing the lid of what could be noth­ing but a coffin, clouds of smoke arising from it, and not one per­son even gave us a strange look.”

By the time Bedford came across Ettinger’s book in 1966, his body was wracked by cancer. He wrote to Ettinger, who connected him to the local chapter of cryonics enthusiasts run by Nelson. Bedford held out little hope for his own revival, Nelson wrote later. Instead, he was focused on the future. As Nelson put it, “By offering himself this way, as the first human being in history to embark on this venture, he would improve the conditions for others.”

The men who froze Bedford were ill prepared to take care of his body. In the chaotic early days after the suspension, Bedford’s capsule was moved from his son’s house to a cryonicist’s garage, where it was watched over by Nelson’s children for a morning. (They earned $2 apiece for their trouble.) Later the body was driven up a steep, winding road to Topanga Canyon in a pickup, the capsule lashed to the truck bed with rope.

A couple of days later, Nelson drove the capsule down the hill to a city park, where he met an associate who had brought more dry ice. They topped off Bedford’s supply while children played on swings nearby. “There we were,” he wrote, “lifting the lid of what could be nothing but a coffin, clouds of smoke arising from it, and not one person even gave us a strange look.”

The next couple of decades were just as unsettled for the movement as a whole. Americans did not flock to be frozen at death, and hoped-for research money never materialized. Many cryonics operations, including a few shady ones, foundered. A much-hyped Ohio company named Juno, whose promotional materials promised a live-TV freezing, never got off the ground.

Nelson kept at it, however, occasionally acquiring new “patients.” (Bedford’s body was transferred to the care of his son, Norman, who would look after it until 1991.) At first Nelson kept his patients at a mortuary, but space grew tight—at one point he squeezed four bodies into a single capsule—and the mortician grew squeamish. In 1970, Nelson bought a vault at a cemetery in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley.

A model wrapped in aluminized nylon

Unfortunately, he was going broke. The relatives of his patients quit paying for the upkeep of their capsules and, finally, Nelson gave up too. In 1979, the media got wind that something was wrong in Chatsworth, and a local reporter broke the story: “The stench near the crypt is disarming, strips away all defenses, spins the stomach into a thousand dizzying somersaults.” Eventually, it emerged that Nelson had allowed nine bodies to thaw. The families of some of the patients sued Nelson, who protested his innocence. “I haven’t done anything criminal, anything other than a lot of bad decisions,” he told a reporter. Ultimately, Nelson was found guilty of fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and he and his business partner were fined $400,000 apiece. (Nelson didn’t have the money and later settled. Documentary film director and UC Berkeley alum Errol Morris is reportedly working on a movie about it all.) 

Another morbid incident a decade later would prove a turning point for the movement. When Dora Kent, the mother of a prominent cryonicist, died in 1987, she was frozen as a “neuro” at Alcor, which was then headquartered in Riverside, California. Despite an autopsy affirming Kent’s natural death, the county coroner, Ray Carillo, accused the cryonicists of giving her a fatal dose of barbiturates to speed the process. Intending to autopsy Kent’s head, Carillo ordered two raids on Alcor’s HQ. Police handcuffed employees and confiscated computers, but they never found Kent’s head—Alcor had spirited it off to an “undisclosed location,” as the Los Angeles Times put it.

Ultimately, Carillo overplayed his hand. A judge ordered the coroner to back off, and Kent’s head remains cryopreserved to this day. Macabre though it was, the affair proved good publicity, drawing new converts. It suggested to many that Alcor, which had been founded in 1972 and had struggled to survive financially, now had the muscle to fight mainstream antagonists and win. The group’s membership numbers spiked in the early 1990s and have been growing steadily ever since. More says they did a record 13 suspensions last year.

Many cryonicists appear baffled that the numbers aren’t greater. Presented with the chance of indefinite life, they ask, why wouldn’t you want it?

Many cryonicists appear baffled that the numbers aren’t greater. Presented with the chance of indefinite life, they ask, why wouldn’t you want it? “I have a hard time understanding it,” says Art Quaife, who earned his Ph.D. from Berkeley and is former president of the now-defunct East Bay cryo outfit Trans Time, which at its peak had 18 people (plus a few pets), including, briefly, Bedford, in suspension. “When I got involved, I couldn’t have imagined it would still be as small as it is.”

There are, of course, many possible explanations for the movement’s limited popularity, starting with the “ick factor.” But adherents suspect the resistance goes deeper than that. Few people like talking about their own death, and fewer still want to do the planning—socking away money, negotiating with skeptical relatives—that cryogenic interment entails. What’s more, cryonics butts up against ingrained cultural norms. Religious faith, despite its lack of empirical proof, offers a reassuring and socially sanctioned narrative of what happens to us after we die. Cryonics, the promise of which hinges on as yet undeveloped technologies, is a shot into the unknown. At least for now.

“I’ll tell you when cryonics takes off,” Benford says. “When it starts to work.”

Everybody has a guess as to when that might be. Merkle may be the most bullish, predicting that nanotechnology should be able to repair virtually all tissue or molecular damage within a few decades. Others point to a range: 50 years on the optimistic end, 150 years on the outside. The main question is how different the world will be upon your revival: Will it be a near-future in which your grandchildren welcome you back? Or will it be, as Benford puts it, “like someone from the Revolutionary War waking up in Southern California now?”

This “Bigfoot” can contain four whole-body patients and five heads.

Regardless, most expect to see enormous increases in longevity before anyone gets reanimation right. The field of life extension—the more socially acceptable cousin of cryonics—is hot in Silicon Valley these days. Google, through a skunkworks project called Calico, is researching aging and disease, and the head of a venture capital firm sponsored the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, a $1 million award that aims to “hack the code of life and cure aging.” Cryonics also shares DNA with the Transhumanist movement, which embraces the prospect of a “posthuman” mankind made smarter, stronger, and longer-lived by science—for instance, by getting computer implants in our brains.

Meanwhile, cryonics soldiers on. Alcor has been conducting its own research for years and working to certify that its preservation techniques are “reversible”—meaning they are not doing permanent damage to patients’ bodies. The organization also has made it easier to save money for freezing, devising trusts that don’t dissolve when you die and a monthly payment system similar to a life insurance policy.

These days, Alcor’s patient roster includes Bedford himself. More remembers when Bedford’s body arrived at the company’s HQ in 1991, after 24 years of being shuffled between cryonic facilities and storage lockers. Finally, Bedford would be transferred to a state-of-the-art capsule. But given the professor’s nomadic afterlife and the primitive nature of his freezing, More worried that he’d be in bad shape.

After cutting through the casket’s outer shell, Alcor staffers pulled the inner lid off and opened Bedford’s thermal bag. Once the vapor cleared, More could see that ice cubes from Bedford’s original freezing were still stuck to him. Improbably enough, the first cryonaut had never thawed. “He looked pretty darn good,” More says. “He’s got a shot at coming back for sure.” 

Chris A. Smith, M.J. ’01, is a magazine writer and college journalism and politics instructor in San Francisco. He writes regularly for California.

Share this article