It’s a philosophical question often posed, but if you could, would you want to live forever? What if, barring accidents, you could cheat death? Swap diseased organs for healthy ones, dead brain cells for future memories? For the vast majority of us death is just a fact of life, but to some it is simply a challenge to be surmounted. They call themselves immortalists and they put their faith in the future. They believe in cryonics.
Cryonics, the science of freezing people after death in the hope they can be revived in the future, has long been the stuff of science fiction and Hollywood blockbusters, reserved for bespectacled geeks and muscled-up action heroes. The prospect of life after death – of cheating time, the Reaper and the taxman – is one that has captured the imagination since time immemorial and, belief systems aside, has thus far eluded us.
But people in white lab coats have a habit of turning science fiction into science fact. In 1901, writer H.G. Wells put man on the moon; NASA delivered the real deal in 1969. In the future of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Captain Kirk has a personal communicator; big deal, who hasn’t these days? And in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein reanimated a dead body…
Actually, on that one the men in white got there first – kind of. Because some fifteen years before Shelley’s eponymous scientist brought his monster back from the grip of Hades, real-life Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini (1762 -1834) was astounding and horrifying the scientific world in equal measure with some very macabre experiments of his own.
Following in the footsteps of his uncle, Luigi Galvani (whose own work in the medical uses of electricity became what we now know as galvanism), Aldini postulated that electricity was the vital life force coursing between the brain and the body. In 1803, he visited London and demonstrated his theory in spectacular fashion at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Before an audience of medical contemporaries and the general public, Aldini took conducting rods connected to a battery and passed electricity through the cadaver of one George Forster. According to press reports the results were startling: the “jaw began to quiver… the muscles contorted… the left eye opened… and the whole body convulsed.” To terrified onlookers it must have seemed as if Forster was returning to life.
Aldini made no claim to bringing back the dead, but such was the outrage of his peers that he was forced to flee the country. There is little doubt, however, that his experiments marked the beginning of genuine scientific research into the mechanics of death.
Flash forward one hundred and sixty years (as all budding immortalists are hoping to do) and we find the start of cryonics theory proper. In 1964 Robert Ettinger, a college physics teacher, published The Prospect of Immortality. In what is now considered the cryonicists’ bible, Ettinger argued that technology and medicine were advanced enough to start freezing people as a means of accessing the medical technology of tomorrow. What appears to be fatal today, he conjectured, may be reversible in the future. “If civilisation endures, medical science should eventually be able to repair almost any damage to the human body, including freezing damage and senile debility or other cause of death. No matter what kills us, whether old age or disease, sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us.”
Reaction from the scientific community at the time was unsurprisingly contemptuous, and Ettinger himself admitted: “I had and have no credentials worth mentioning, being only a teacher of college physics and math. It is precisely this that prevented me, for so long, from doing more… but as the years passed and no one better came forward, I finally had to write, and later felt I had to form organisations, although others had come into existence.”
Buoyed by media interest and the backing of none other than Isaac Asimov – who erred on the side of caution, but concurred that Ettinger’s ideas were based on sound scientific principals – Ettinger continued to explore his undiscovered country, albeit in a theoretical manner. He left it to others to pursue the technological problems of how this life insurance might be achieved, but remained active in the cryonics movement, most notably with the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, until his death (or deanimation, as committed cryonicists prefer to call it) from respiratory failure in July 2011.
Numerous cryonic organisations have come and gone over the years, some under controversial clouds, others merging with one another, but the Cryonics Institute remains one of the big three in the preservation and storage of human beings; the other two being KrioRus near Moscow and the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.
Ettinger may have been the godfather of cryonics, but it is Alcor who hold the baby’s head, as it were, in the hands of Doctor James Bedford – a psychology professor generally regarded as the world’s first cryonically preserved human on 12th January 1967. He’s still on ice in their storage facility to this day, frozen in time like a pickled egg-head.
On their website Alcor claim to have furthered the cause of the cryonics movement more than any other organisation, citing their willingness to embrace new medical procedures and emerging technologies as part of their success – but such advances have not come without controversy.
In 1987 Saul Kent, one of the founders of the Cryonics Society of New York, brought his terminally ill mother Dora to the Alcor facility, where she died and was placed in cryostasis as a neuropatient – preservation of the head and brain only (the thinking being that future scientists will simply clone a whole new body from the subject’s DNA). The body, minus the head, was passed on to the local coroner who issued a death certificate giving the cause of death as natural causes. Following an autopsy, however, the coroner’s office changed the cause of death to homicide when the presence of barbiturate was detected throughout Dora Kent’s body. Alcor was raided, the staff arrested and the facility ransacked. Computers and records were seized by police.
Alcor insisted that the barbiturate had been given to Kent after legal death in order to slow brain metabolism, but the coroner’s office was sufficiently concerned to want to seize the head for autopsy. The head, however, had been removed from the Alcor facility and taken to a location that, to this day, has never been disclosed. It was a macabre event, but Alcor later sued for false arrest and illegal seizure and won both cases – setting a precedent for other cryonics organisations. Since then, most if not all cryopreservations have taken place without incident or from legal interference.
The science of cryonics is, of course, still in its infancy – much of it still theory, all of it based on a tenet of hope: that future science will somehow have all the answers. In that respect, in the belief of life after death, cryonics is a much a religion as it is a science. After all, while it isn’t too difficult to preserve a dead body, that body is still dead. And when you’re dead, you’re dead, right? So how do you un-pickle a pickled egg? Well, the men and women in their proverbial whites have been working on that one too.
In 2005 scientists at the University of Pittsburgh announced they had successfully placed dogs in suspended animation and then brought them back to life. The dogs’ circulatory systems were drained of blood, which was replaced by a low-temperature saline solution. After three hours of being clinically dead, the dogs’ blood was then returned to them, and the animals given an electric shock to the heart. All of them returned to life; all without brain damage. A year later doctors at the Massachusetts General Hospital announced they had achieved similar result using pigs, reporting a 90% success rate on 200 test cases. It’s gruesome, but it seems Giovanni Aldini wasn’t so wide of the mark.
But dogs are dogs, and pigs are pigs; and man is another beast altogether. Medical and technological limits aside, perhaps the biggest obstacle cryonics must surmount is the one many scientific advances have faced: the theological question. Science and religion are rarely good bed-fellows, but the possibility of cheating death must surely place cryonics head and shoulders over other religious concerns surrounding, say, cloning or stem-cell research. After all, if science finally brings us to immortality, then whither religion? God, or rather his representatives here on earth, would be out of a job.
It seems unusual then to find little opposition to cryonics from organised religion, perhaps because they still have the monopoly on the one thing science cannot yet determine: the existence of the human soul. Indeed, some cryonicists have even courted controversy by claiming Jesus was a committed immortalist, rising as he supposedly did from the dead, which has produced some social media challenges to cryonics on religious grounds but as yet no pronouncements from theological bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Dennis Kowalski, current President of the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, sees the religious question in pragmatic terms: “Just as the first heart transplants were considered controversial to some religious beliefs, so cryonics faces some negative feedback from those who misunderstand it. But those who do understand cryonics range from atheists to all denominations of religion. Just as you can be religious or atheist and opt for or against a heart transplant based on your beliefs, so too can you support or oppose cryonics.”
So what does it cost, life in the freezer? At the time of writing, the bill for keeping the Grim Reaper from knocking varies greatly – from a mere $10,000 for head or brain preservation at KriosRus, to a whopping $250,000 for the full body suspension at Alcor. Belying their own visionary leanings somewhat, all the cryonics companies require payment upfront – usually with an additional yearly fee to cover those little unforeseen circumstances such as natural disasters or utility companies upping their prices.
The Cryonics Institute fee currently does not include the extras, which aren’t optional at all, such as a standby team of cryonic professionals waiting for death – sorry, deanimation – and commencing procedures at the bedside. Nor do they offer rapid transportation where said professionals aren’t immediately available. Those services can be covered by an extra fee to the Florida-based company Suspended Animation Inc.
But what will it really cost, life in the future? Philosophically speaking, returning to life in 400 years time would make us a ghost of things past – an exhibit in the museum of a more “civilised culture”. What would we be to that culture other than an amusing ancestor to be poked and prodded at like the savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? And what would be the social and political implications of a population that can extend its life indefinitely? As committed cryonicists point out: there’s only one to find out.
The growth of the cryonics movement has been slow from the very beginning, often beset with medical, legal and philosophical problems and suffering a lack of business support. Scientific interest has been, for the most part, cautious, while the threat of government intervention has been a constant concern. Robert Ettinger, a confirmed atheist, saw the problem in almost religious terms: “The tragedy of the slow growth of immortalism pertains mostly to them, and perhaps to you – not so much to us, the immortalists. We already have made our arrangements for cryostasis after clinical death, signed our contracts with existing organisations and allocated the money. We will have our chance, and with a little bit of luck will taste the ‘wines of centuries unborn.’”
Paying tribute to his father in 2011, David Ettinger said “My father devoted himself to doing what he could to enable his family, his friends and others to come back and live again. Whether he will achieve that nobody knows at this point, but we think he has a good shot.”
True to his beliefs, Robert Ettinger was cryopreserved alongside his deanimated mother and his two wives. Whatever their future holds, if they bring them all back it’s going to be complicated.
The Cryonic Man: an interview with Dennis Kowalski
By Leon Horton
Photographs by kind permission of the Cryonics Institute
Dennis Kowalski is President of the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. A fire fighter and paramedic for the city of Milwaukee, he is certified in advanced cardiac life support, advanced paediatric life support and as a CPR instructor for the American Heart Association. In addition, he teaches emergency medicine at the Milwaukee Fire Academy and the Milwaukee County Emergency Center. He is also a member of the Cato Institute – a public policy research organisation dedicated to the principles of individual liberty.
Raised in a small Milwaukee suburb, Dennis was a prize-winning pugilist at high school; served in the US Marine Corps on special assignment to Alpha Company 3rd Reconnaissance as part of an intelligence gathering unit; and studied philosophy and astronomy at the University of Waukesha. Science has always been and continues to be his great love, and as an advocate of cryonics and nanotechnology he sees advancements in these fields as the logical conclusion to the quest for prosperity and longevity.
Dennis is happily married to his wife Maria. They have three children, a dog and a cat.
Hi, Dennis, thank you for finding the time to speak to me. How and when did you first become interested in cryonics?
“I learned of cryonics when I was young and it made sense to me to at least attempt to allow future medical technology to solve problems that current medicine cannot. Advancements in medicine seem to support this logic. Later, I learned about molecular nanotechnology and the hacking of life such as genetic engineering, stem cell tissue regeneration, 3D bio printing and other technologies that firmly support cryonics.”
What was it that led you to get actively involved in the cryonics movement and when did this come about?
“As a paramedic I have an interest in emergency medicine and have witnessed the power of technology over life and death. About 15 years ago, I signed up for cryonics with the Cryonics Institute – and in 2010 was elected to the Board of Directors. Five years ago, I was elected CI’s 4th President.”
Are you personally signed up for cryopreservation?
“Yes. All of CI’s management and our Board of Directors are signed up and thus have a vested interest in the success of cryonics. As a bylaw requirement, to be elected to the Board of Directors you have to first be a member signed up for suspension. This helps to discourage fraud or embezzlement since we are not in it for the money, but for the success of our mission goal.”
How many people are members of your organisation, and how many of those are currently in cryostasis?
“Approximately 1,350 people are signed-up – 140 of them frozen. The numbers are growing faster than in the past.”
It’s an urban myth that Walt Disney is cryopreserved, but could you describe an atypical cryonicist? What sort of people sign up for suspension?
“They tend to be well educated middle- to upper-class people with technology educations and a genuine optimism about the future. We are disproportionately represented by members of Mensa and people engaged in the fields of medicine and computers.”
What would you say have been the biggest advances in cryonics, medically and technologically, in the last twenty years?
“Vitrification [the process of freezing] and improved cryoperfusion formulas [the chemicals used in preservation] have been hugely important in recent years. And thanks to technology we now have better cryostats [storage units].
“Standby procedures are also improving – along with scales of economy as more people sign up. As medicine and technology advances, more and more people see cryonics as a rational and logical attempt to advance emergency medicine by running a sort of clinical trial. Cryonics is simply an ambulance to a future hospital.”
What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about cryonics?
“I would recommend reading our popular misconceptions page, but I would have to say that the biggest misconception is that since our patients are dead, we are wasting our time. If this was the attitude in emergency medicine, we would not have CPR and cardiac defibrillation. Of course, 75 years ago if your heart stopped you were dead – or so everyone thought. Today people once considered dead are routinely brought back to life. No one can say for certain what the future will bring, but the smart bet is that we will in the future be able to do many things once considered impossible today. With cryonics, we have the process and time to find out what is possible and perhaps save lives – prematurely defined as dead – from the primitive present.”
With new advances and research, has the scientific and business worlds taken more of an interest in supporting cryonics?
“Yes. We have been approached by serious biotech companies who are considering investing money and research into cryonics and organ cryopreservation. Also, the [US] Department of Defense is currently offering $50 million in prize money for a successful organ cryopreservation, which, in turn, is driving forward interest in cryonics and vitrification technology.”
“Recent advances in 3D biological printers, stem cell regeneration, cloning, brain imaging, and molecular nanotechnology – all of these new sciences are helping to vindicate the science of cryonics and support the ultimate goal of some day repairing and rejuvenating those who were once considered dead.”
“Here is a link to 62 Phd’s who support our research and see what we are doing as credible science. http://www.evidencebasedcryonics.org/scientists-open-letter-on-cryonics/
How do interested parties become members of the Cryonics Institute and how much can they expect to pay?
“Simply read our website at cryonics.org or call us for the membership application paperwork. Membership at the Cryonics Institute is a $1,250 one-time fee or $120 annually. After that, a member is allowed the ability to prefund a suspension at CI for $28,000. The price for non-membership suspension sign-up is $36,250. This pays for cryonic suspension and perpetual storage. Most of the money is invested so that the interest can pay for perpetual overhead and storage costs. Cryonics is very affordable and most people use life insurance to pay for cryopreservation by naming CI as their beneficiary.”
Finally, how far in the future will it be before it’s possible to revive cryonics patients?
“That’s a good but tough question. It’s always difficult to predict the future, but I think a reasonable estimate is no sooner than 45 years which is when futurist Ray Kurzweil is predicting accelerating technology will propel us forward at exponential rates.
“The conservative side of me, however, says no more than 200 years. I would hedge my answer with a range of between 45 and 200 years. Of course, predicting if something is possible and when it will happen are two completely different things. Fortunately cryonics buys us as much time as we need to figure out the medical science of revival and rejuvenation.”
Thank you for answering my questions, Dennis. Keep up the good work and count me in.
Cryonics: Who Wants to Live Forever?
Anyone interested in further information on the Cryonics Institute can contact Dennis at Dennis@Cryonics.org
About the Author
Leon Horton is a cultural journalist and humorist. After completing his Masters at the University of Salford, he worked as a court reporter at Manchester Crown Court, cut his wrists on local magazines, enjoyed a caretaker stint as the editor of Old Trafford News then returned to freelance writing. His work is published in International Times, Literary Heist, Nexus Magazine, Empty Mirror and Erotic Review. His portfolio can be viewed at www.cuttings.me/leonhorton
Leon lives in Manchester, England, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org