History of cryonics

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History of cryonics

Ancient times

The historical predecessor of cryonics was, of course, the mummification of pharaohs by the ancient Egyptians.

Possibly the oldest reference to the general idea of cryonics can be found in a letter written by Benjamin Franklin:

To Jacques Dubourg.

I wish it were possible... to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But... in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection...

I am, etc.


The cryonics movement began in 1962 with the publication of two books: The Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger; the first non-fiction book to seriously consider and advocate cryonics, and the privately-published Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now by Evan Cooper, which also advocated cryonics, under the name of a "freezing program". The former reached the masses in 1964 when reprinted and distributed by Doubleday following a suggestion by science-fiction author Isaac Asimov.

It was Cooper who founded the world's first cryonics and Immortalism organization, the Life Extension Society; whose purpose was to create a world-wide network of Cryonics organizations. Believing it would not be a plausible option in his lifetime, Cooper ended his involvement in cryonics in 1970. He was a boat carpenter and sailor for the next 13 years of his life until being lost at sea.

1964 - 1972

"It was show business. I never wanted to freeze people if I had to dig them up and they’d been embalmed. But Ettinger said, ‘Freeze ‘em, they’re better off frozen than not frozen.’" - Curtis Henderson

  • Early on, there had been optimism. Robert Ettinger wrote in The Prospect of Immortality, "My own guess is that most of us will be frozen by nondamaging methods . . ."[1]
  • Following the publication of The Prospect of Immortality and Ettinger’s mass media expositions of the idea, he again waited for prominent scientists, industrialists, or others in authority to see the wisdom of his idea and begin implementing it. By contrast, Cooper was an activist, and must be credited with forming the first cryonics organization (although that name was not to be coined until 1965) the Life Extension Society (LES). LES advocated immediate action to implement cryopreservation and established a nationwide network of chapters and coordinators to develop a grassroots capability for delivering cryopreservation on an emergent basis. Cooper left cryonics activism in 1969, and was lost at sea in 1982, but his work with LES was indispensable in helping to launch the first Cryonics Societies. The first of these was the Cryonics Society of New York, formed in 1965 by writer Saul Kent, attorney Curtis Henderson, and mechanical engineer Karl Werner. It was Werner who coined the term “cryonics.”
  • In 1966 the Cryonics Societies of California and Michigan were formed. Ettinger was elected President of the Cryonics Society of Michigan (CSM).
  • It wasn't long though, before it was recognized that there would be problems in getting even one person frozen, despite the best efforts of a few dedicated individuals
  • After two years of promoting the concept, Evan Cooper in December, 1964 fumed in exasperation, "Are we shouting in the abyss? How could 110 million go to their deaths without one, at least trying for a life in the future via freezing? Where is the individualism, scientific curiosity, and even eccentricity we hear so much about?"[2]
  • Cooper's Life Extension Society, in June 1965, offered to freeze the first person free: "The Life Extension Society now has primitive facilities for emergency short term freezing and storing our friend the large homeotherm (man). LES offers to freeze free of charge the first person desirous and in need of cryogenic suspension." [3]
  • there were some near-misses
  • Wilma Jean McLaughlin of Springfield, Ohio expired of heart and circulatory problems May 20, 1965
  • Ev Cooper filed a report the following day

"The woman who almost became the first person frozen for a possible reanimation in the future died yesterday. The attempt to freeze her was abandoned. The reports on why the freezing was given up vary considerably according to the newspaper, newscast, or long distance call. However, the following are apparently some of the obstacles that developed."

    • Though the husband was pro-freezing, some of the relatives and their minister were against it
    • The physician would not aid in the experiment
    • he hospital administration and trustees refused to go along with certain procedures after death
    • Leonard Gold of Juno, Inc., as reported in the Washington Post, said his company's `capsule' or insulated container wasn't available
    • The subject for freezing did not know anything about the plan according to most reports
  • Dandridge M. Cole was a brilliant scientist and technological forecaster who had received a pre-publication copy of Ettinger's book in 1963, and had been deeply impressed.
    • His own most recent book, Beyond Tomorrow, had devoted several pages to the subject of suspended animation.
    • He had expressed a wish to be frozen after death to several friends and relatives, and had had a long discussion on the subject with a close friend and colleague, Robert Prehoda
    • Cole was only 44 when, on Oct. 30, 1965, he suffered a fatal heart attack. After some delay a call was placed to Ettinger, who later would write, "I was consulted by long-distance telephone several hours after he died, but in the end the family did what was to be expected -- nothing."
  • the first freezing
    • April 22, 1966
    • An elderly woman (never identified) who had been previously embalmed was straight-frozen, though only after a long interval of non-frozen storage. The freezing was by Cryocare Corporation in Phoenix, Arizona, and the woman appears to have come from the Los Angeles area. "Someone has been frozen at last!" Cooper jubilantly responded, but added a cautionary note:
      • "There is little or no thought that this first frozen pioneer will rise again in the 21st or 22nd century as considerable time elapsed between death and freezing. If the cooling and perfusion of the person with cryoprotective agents isn't begun immediately at death the memory which is believed a matter of fine molecular placement would soon disintegrate. As this first person was frozen long after death there is no known hope for re-establishing the original memory and thus the personality. Yet this imperfect beginning may be a step forward toward bringing an extended life to others via cryogenics."[6]
    • (Within a few months the woman was removed from suspension. [7])

  • the first REAL freezing
    • Dr. James Bedford January 12, 1967, in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb
    • Bedford was a 73-year old retired psychology professor who had written several books on occupational counseling. "A SECOND PERSON HAS NOW BEEN FROZEN IN CALIFORNIA. REVIVAL A GOAL" was how Cooper broke the news in the January, 1967 issue of Freeze-Wait-Reanimate, from which the quotations that follow were taken.[8]
    • The freezing was carried out by affiliates of the newly-formed Cryonics Society of California: Robert Prehoda, author and cryobiological researcher; Dr. Dante Brunol, physician and biophysicist; and Robert Nelson, President of the Society. Also assisting was Bedford's physician, Dr. Renault Able. Several advances were outlined in Cooper's report:

"1. The time between death and beginning the cooling has been drastically reduced. This means there may be some hope for reanimation in the distant future when reanimation techniques have been perfected and a cure for cancer [the cause of death] has been found.

"2. This reduction in time was made possible by the person in danger of death making his wishes known, in locating a suitable place and a willing doctor. A nursing home was located in this instance. Nursing homes, the home of a doctor or nurse, or the patient's home are the most likely places for these pioneering freezings. In these homes only one or a few people need to be convinced of the worth and rationality of freezing. Whereas, in a large hospital the chain of acceptance is a long one. . . .

"3. Another advance is that this second person is reported to have been perfused with cryoprotective agents whereas the first person was embalmed. Is there a difference? Yes, perfusion at its best in a good hospital or clinic under careful scientific control can be quite a complicated procedure in comparison to embalming. The aim of perfusion is to extend that process to man which has been most successful in freezing, storing and reanimating micro-organisms, tissue and organs. Embalming fluids would be quite destructive to tissue in comparison to the protective acton of DMSO and glycerol."

    • Unfortunately, Nelson's fledgling cryonics operation would not prove viable; nine cryonics patients would be lost, some years later, in what became known as the Chatsworth disaster. (Happily, Bedford escaped by being transferred by relatives, only six days after the freezing, to another facility, Cryo-Care in Phoenix, from which he would continue a long and eventful journey across time.)

Chatsworth Scandal

"The stench near the crypt is disarming, strips away all defenses, spins the stomach into a thousand dizzying somersaults." - Walker, David: "Valley Cryonic Crypt Desecrated, Untended." Valley News newspaper, June 1979.

File:DeBlasio before.jpg
Ann DeBlasio enters the Forever Flask.
File:DeBlasio after.jpg
The remains of Ann DeBlasio and an unidentified woman. Photo by Mike Darwin.

After James Bedford was cryopreserved, Robert Nelson looked for a cooperative mortician for future cases. In September of the same year, he received a letter from Joseph Klockgether, in reply to an ad placed in Mortuary Management magazine. Nelson replied, claiming he had received offers from 147 mortuaries, but Mr. Klockgether's letter had caused such an impression on him that he had chosen him.

Mr. Klockgether, who owned the Renaker Mortuary at Buena Park, California; accepted the flattery which a decade later led to a million-dollar lawsuit. The first 'patient' under his care was Marie Phelps-Sweet, who died in the summer of 1967 and was stored in dry ice at the mortuary due to lack of proper storage facilities. Helen Kline followed, again suffering storage at dry ice (While it is a coolant, its temperature is significantly higher than that of Liquid Nitrogen, so long term storage causes significant decay). Mrs. Kline had virtually no money; and so Nelson continued keeping his patients in dry ice. Decades later he complained that he had to drive 200 miles every day, carrying dry ice to mantain care, and that this ruined the upholstery of his car. (He drove a Porsche, and couldn't afford a simple dewar).

In September of 1968, Russell Stanley (The most 'gung-ho cryonicist' Nelson had ever known) died of a heart attack. He was frozen after 24 hours of ischemia; and left behind a substantial sum of money (Between $5,000 and $10,000, according to different sources). He was the third patient to be stored in dry ice at Mr. Klockgether's mortuary, while Nelson used the funds to build a storage facility. At this point, Mr. Klockgether was insisting that Nelson finish his facility, since a California mortuary license only allows temporary storage of dead persons. "Get your facility built, Bob." He recalled saying in a later interview "Build the facility, Bob. I have to get these people out of here!".

File:Robert Nelson conference.jpg
Robert Nelson at a press conference, announcing the cryopreservation of James Bedford.
File:Cryonic Interrment.jpg
Robert Nelson stands next to a Liquid Nitrogen tank with "Cryonic Interrment" written on the side. The location where this photograph was taken remains unknown.

In 1969, the facility remained incomplete; yet Nelson gave an interview to Cryonics Reports magazine claiming it already existed. He claimed patients were stored in containers 14 feet in diameter (pictured), capable of holding 15 to 20 people. Each of these patients, he claimed, were stored in pods "very similar to the units that were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey," and were "moved by a series of stainless steel cables that guide them into position, and they can be introduced and retrieved at will". It should be noted that the picture in the magazine, besides being fake, was of a tank destined to the storage of bulk nitrogen, and could not possibly have stored cryonics patients.

Marie Bowers, daughter of Louis Nisco, who had been cryopreserved by Ed Hope of CryoCare Equipment Corporation, met Nelson at a cryonics conference and showed her an artist's rendering of the facility, showing technicians with lab coats standing in front of capsules with viewing windows, gauges and dials. He convinced her to turn her father over to his care, saying he would pay $1,100 to Ed Hope to cover her long term storage debts, and she would have to pay less than $50 a month for maintenance. Nelson opened the dewar, and placed Marie Sweet, Helen Kline and Russ Stanley inside. "We put this one in head first, that one in feet first," Klockgether stated. "It didn't look like there was room, but they fit". Later on, Mike Darwin contacted the welder that had sealed the dewar, who described it as one of the worst experiences of his life, claiming he could smell hair and flesh burning as he welded the inner can shut. The tank was only meant for one person, leaving little room for Liquid Nitrogen, something none of the relatives of any of the patients were informed of.

Unable to store it in a non-existent facility, Nelson stored it in Klockgether's garage. In July of 1970, Ms. Bowers wrote to Nelson, saying she could not continue paying, but hoping her father would remain in cryopreservation. The facility was finally completed in the same year: Two 8 by 10 feet concrete vaults undernath a 10 by 20 feet plot in the Oakwood Park Cementery in Chatsworth, California. The lot cost $3,872.

While the single storage dewar was filled with four patients; Nelson searched for new members. He visited Iowa where Terry and Dennis Harris, brothers and sons of Mildred Harris, said they wanted to have their mother, who they thought was dyeing, "perfectly preserved". For $10,000, he stored Harris in dry ice, and even disinterred her husband, Gaylord Harris.

The next case was eight-year-old Genevieve de la Poterie, who died from kidney cancer that metastasized to her lungs. Nelson claimed to have a deep emotional concern for the girl, stating that he "adopted her like my own child" and that "I loved her, and I watched her slowly get sicker and sicker... I never saw this little girl smile till we took her to Disneyland... I told her mother I was going to speak French to the little girl, to make her smile, and that was the only time I saw her smile. Heartbreaking." She died in January of 1972 and was stored in dry ice.

The problem of storage was solved in the same way: Steven Jay Mandell was a 24-year-old Aerospace Engineering student who died in 1968 and was frozen by the Cryonics Society of New York. The cementery that housed CSNY's facilities evicted them, not due to unpaid rent but after the realization that cryonics would not be a profitable business venture for them. Pauline Mandell, Steven's mother, and Nick DeBlasio (Who were romantically involved at the time), whose wife died of breast cancer at the age of 43 and later joined the cast of CSC's victims; objected to the two being transferred to a leased facility in Farmingdale, L.I., NY, insisting that the only legal place to store cryopatients was a cementery. Nelson convinced Pauline Mandell to transfer the tank to him, in exchange for charging a reduced fee for Liquid Nitrogen. Ann DeBlasio was only moved to Mt. Holiness Cementery on 17 September of 1971.

"What I had in mind," Nelson said in an interview, "is that this capsule could hold 3 or 4 people. Perhaps I misled her. But on the other hand, perhaps I didn't, you know? I told her I would do my very best to keep that capsule in operation, as long as I possibly could. What more could I promise her than that?". Mildred Harris and Genevieve de la Poterie were moved from dry ice to the Mandell dewar, which was stored at Chatsworth.

In October 1974, Nelson quit his position of president of the Cryonics Society of California; stopped maintaning the tanks and went to Hawaii. In a letter to Marce Johnson, former treasurer of CSC, he wrote: "I am maintaining the facility--have installed a new alarm system and ordered an additional capsule." Nelson started spreading rumors about CSNY, saying the patients were not fully submerged and that their heads were above dry ice temperature. Mike Darwin called Curtis Henderson, who told him to come over and see for himself the state of the facilities. "He was visibly nervous," Darwin said. "One eye kept twitching the whole time. I asked him more and more questions, and he got more and more evasive." Nelson had stated that he had no formal arrangement for LN2 deliveries, that he was friends with a driver of a Liquid Nitrogen delivery tank who'd give him what was left over. When Darwin tried to confirm this, not only did the suppliers find the idea ridiculous, they asked if he knew Nelson for he owned them several hundred dollars worth of Liquid Nitrogen bills. Virginia Gregory, President of Gilmore Liquid Air, said Nelson had kept two LS-160 delivery dewars worth almost $7,000, in today's dollars.

Nelson's fraud was found out in 1979, when Genevieve's father began wondering whether his child was properly preserved. Klockgether told him the suspicion might be justified, and on April 2 of 1979 he disinterred Genevieve; who had decomposed. A local journalist picked up the story; and the Harris brothers found out. Dennis was vacationing in Acapulco, where he told the story to a stranger, who has the brother-in-law of attorney Michael Worthington. He was trying to collect a cryonics-unrelated debt from Robert Nelson. In June, of that same year, Worthington and a news team smashed the lock of the door to Nelson's vault. All of the patients had thawed and decomposed, the Liquid Nitrogen having long vaporized. An observed claimed that the bodies had "sludged down into what I can best describe as a kind of a black goo." "I never promised anyone anything." Nelson was quoted as saying. "They had cameras and would zero in, maybe, on a fly on top of the vault, and say, Oh, the stench! But there was no stench whatsoever."

The victims of the Cryonics Society of California were: Mildred Harris, Marie Phelps-Sweet, Steven Mandell, Louis Nisco, Genevieve de la Poterie, Helen Kline, Russ Stanley, Clara Dostal, Gaylord Harris, Pedro Ledesma, and the eight year old son of an Orange County ADA. The scandal affected cryonics for the rest of its history: There were almost no signups in the early 1980s. Matt Groening, who had followed the Chatsworth Scandal in his youth, was unboudtedly inspired by it when the pilot episode of TV series Futurama featured a company called Applied Cryogenics: No power failures since 1997. Cryonics became a joke.

In 1980, Chatsworth was repeated when the dewar that contained Ann DeBlasio and a still unidentified woman was recovered: The bottom of the dewar had rusted (Even thought it was made from stainless steel), it had been sitting in six inches of water on a concrete hole on the ground (The 'facility' Nick DeBlasio and Robert Nelson had built). The dewar had long lost its vacuum and the bodies of the two women thawed and decomposed. Nick DeBlasio tried to freeze his late wife yet again, but the Los Angeles court ordered that her remains be buried.

1972 - 1981

File:TT storage.jpg
put in place the first scientific perfusion and storage facilities in the world. Photo by Mike Darwin, 1981.

In 1972, Alcor was founded as a response team for the Cryonics Society of California.

In the early 70's, a Bay Area mathematics grad student named Art Quaife, along with electrical engineer John Day and other cryonicists, decided to form Trans Time, Inc.. TT's focus was to reboot cryonics as a legitimate business and medical practice. Their perfusion equipment was purchased from Manrise Corporation and they developed the first complete business model of cryonics, and were the first to undertake the effort of clarifying legal issues surrounding the practice. They were also the first to actively market cryonics.

File:Ray Mills cryo.jpg
The cryopreservation of Ray Mills. The tissue is edematous due to the toxicity of DMSO. Photo by Mike Darwin.

Facilities for perfusion and storage were set up in Northen California, on the same year of the first scientific human cryopreservation, that of Ray Mills (pictured). This first step showed the need for research and animal testing in cryonics: The image shows severe edema, due to the use of DMSO in the perfusion. Dimethyl sulfoxide has excellent cellular permeability, allowing it to cryopreserve the most tissue; however, a factor that was unknown to them was that it caused severe edema, which in turn worsens perfusion by constriction of the blood vessels.

In 1976, the Cryonics Society of Michigan was transformed into the CryonicsInst and the Immortalist Society.

By 1979, Alcor had achieved good control over the perfusion and cooling. The latter, for example, was improved by replacing the use of dry ice cooling with immersion in a bath of isopropanol (Alcohol).

1981 - 1991

File:Leaf cryonics cover.jpg
Jerry Leaf was a cardiothoracic surgeon and Vietnam veteran who brought unprecedented medical expertise to cryonics, until his death and cryopreservation in 1991. His sudden absence drastically hurt the quality of cryonics.

Cryonics as practiced in the eighties reached a standard of care (If not cryoprotection, considering that Glycerol was still being used) comparable (If not exceeding) that of mainstream medicine. All of this lasted until September of 1991.

"Jerry Leaf is dead of a heart attack in the emergency room of Downey Community hospital." With this, and with Mike Darwin temporarily leaving to pursue cryobiological research, ended the best era of cryonics.

1991 - Present

At that time of Jerry Leaf's cryopreservation, Mike Darwin wrote that the news of Leaf's death was like waking up and discovering that the law of gravity had been abolished.
- Charles Platt

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