Although traditional methods of death and burial remain prominent in society, many people have been dead for years and their bodies are frozen. They chose a method called cryonics in the hope that when medical science has advanced, they will be thawed from their frozen state and cured of the diseases that killed them. Cryonics is an offshoot of cryogenics, the science of producing and using extremely low temperatures. The name “cryogenics” is a combination of two Greek words, “kryos,” which means freezing or cold, and “genes” which means produced or born. The first know example of cryogenics, occurred in 1626. English philosopher, Francis Bacon stuffed a chicken with snow, so that he could observe the effect of the cold in preserving it. Unfortunately, while gathering the snow, Bacon caught a cold and died from it shortly afterwards. Cryogenics has made progress since this incident and may one day enable a person to travel in space and to find an unlimited supply of cheap energy.
In the 19th and 20th century, scientists found that if gases were cooled, they turned into liquids. In July 1908, Professor Heike Kamerlingh Onnes of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands announced that he had liquefied helium at 4.2 kelvins on the absolute scale. This was the lowest temperature ever achieved to that date and represented a significant milestone in cryogenics. Dr. Onnes, considered the greatest of cryogenics researchers, later discovered superconductivity by cooling mercury with liquid helium. He received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1913. The most prominent discoveries in cryogenics has been in the use of liquid gases to cool metals to near zero -459 degrees F, -273 degrees C, the lowest temperature that can be recorded in the universe. It is the temperature at which all molecular activity ceases. If these super cooled liquids are applied to metals, the metals become brittle, for example, steel shatters to powder at one blow of a hammer. In addition, metals in this state are better conductors of electricity.
Another use of cryogenic cooling is in the food industry. Liquid nitrogen, which has no taste, or smell, gets farm produce into a frozen state faster than conventional refrigeration methods and preserves the flavor better. Meat, shellfish, and bread are now being preserved in this way. Also, blood can be stored indefinitely using cryogenics. The blood cells are soaked in an antifreeze agent and frozen to -320 degrees F, -196 degrees C. One promising possibility of cryogenics is liquid hydrogen, which has been successfully used as a fuel in space vehicles and may have far wider application, including possible use in automobiles.
Research into the rapid freezing of blood as well as human sperm and skin tissue, led to cryonics, the freezing of bodies in the hope of bringing them to life again. The bodies are frozen with substances such as liquefied gas, liquid air, and liquid nitrogen. Vitrification is one of the methods of preserving the corpses. The vitrification process is an ice-free method. Sixty percent of the cells’ water inside cells is taken out and protective chemicals are added, which prevents freezing. Freezing is avoided and instead, molecules move until chemistry stops at about 124 degrees C. Because no freezing occurs, no ice is formed and thus there is no damage in the body’s tissue. Living creatures, as well as samples of human tissue and brain, have been already frozen in liquid nitrogen, exhibiting no signs of life until they were heated and restored to functioning normal life. On the other hand, no one has ever frozen humans, stored them in a vault and then thawed them back to life. Only scientists in the distant future will be able to do that, adherents admit, though they remain enthusiastic about the prospects of using cryonics to live long, healthy lives in the distant future. This process has been used to reverse vitrified blood vessels. Although vitrification has been successful with bacteria and some living cells, the human body is more developed than simple organisms. Consequently, in the human body, when the temperature goes beyond 100 degrees C, the water that is flushed out of the cells crystallizes, rupturing the membrane and damaging the tissues.
Currently, about 142 frozen corpses are in cold storage at two major cryonics facilities in the US, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale AZ., and the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, MI. In 1967, James Bedford, a 73-year-old psychologist from California was the first person to be cryopreserved. Bedford, a retired psychology professor in Glendale, California, died of renal cancer, and is frozen at the Alcor cryonics facility. It is a myth that Walt Disney’s body is cryopreserved at one of these facilities, he is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Apart from a cure for cancer and hear disease, adherents of cryonics strongly believe in the possibility of rejuvenation and the eventual control of the aging process.
The cost of cryonics is commonly made through a life insurance policy, and the cryonics company is the beneficiary. The Cryonics Institute charges a minimum of $28,000 for whole-body suspension. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has two options: $150,000 for whole body preservation and $80,000 for neuropreservation, which is preservation of only the brain. Because of the expense of cryonics and the long period that corpses have to remain frozen, many people have been thawed after their estates ran out of money.
People who want to be cryopreserved are given an id necklace or bracelet informing hospital staff or EMT’s of the procedure for handling the corpse. Typically the cryonics company makes arrangements to pick up body, cooling it with ice until it reaches the facility. At the facility the body is treated with an agent that reduces the formation of ice crystals as the body goes through the process of being frozen. After the procedure, the body is put in a dewar, which is an insolated container containing liquid nitrogen at 196 degrees C,-320 degrees F.
There have been several legal issues regarding cryonics. One legal case involved Dora Kent, who at the age of 83 was admitted to the Alcor cryonics facility. Her son admitted her to the facility when she was very ill with pneumonia. After her death, her head was cryopreserved. No physician signed the death certificate, resulting in a coroner’s investigation. An autopsy revealed metabolites in her body, which indicated that she was still alive at the beginning of the cryopreservation process. Her death was ruled a homicide, however the court ruling was in favor of Acor. Her body remained in the facility. Another case highlighted the legal conflict that arises from respecting a love one’s wishes. When baseball star Ted Williams died in 2002, his three children argued over his wish to be cryopreserved. Although it has not been confirmed, Williams is reportedly cryopreserved at Alcor.
Although cryogenics, the science of preservation at low temperatures, has been proven to be effective in long-term preservation, cryonics, which preserves corpses for later rejuvenation, has not been proven, and is based on probabilities. As stated in The Washington Post by University of California San Francisco’s Leonard Hayflick, “There is no intervention that has been proven to slow, stop, or reverse aging. Period.” Most biomedical scientists and researchers reject cryonic, and believe that it is unlikely that the frozen corpses will be restored to life. The long-term storage of human blood cells, corneas, bone marrow, and sperm has been achieved through cryogenics. However, there are no effective cryogenic procedures for achieving long-term storage of major human organs. The ability to preserve major human organs would make it possible to obtain more precise matches between donors and patients, enhancing the success rate of implant procedures. The cryostorage of major organs is a difficult problem, because the formation of ice crystals cause fragile cells in tissues to tear apart, and because not all parts of an organ freeze at the same rate. Currently, the progress to freeze organs has been disappointing.
The primary reason that cryonics is not accepted in the medical community is because no clinical trials can be conducted to prove its efficacy and any method that is not supported by clinical trials is experimental. Kenneth B. Storey, a biochemistry professor at Carleton University, studies how small animals deal with cold temperatures. He only uses live animals and has not found any evidence that cold temperatures are effective in preserving dead bodies for later rejuvenation. He asserts that, “If you freeze huge creatures like humans who aren’t prepared, every one of their cells will be broken when they’re thawed out. You’re not only, not alive, but you don’t even look particularly good.” Other scientists and researchers, like Storey, have been successful in freezing and restoring living organisms and human brain and tissue samples in liquid nitrogen. However, the organisms that are dead have not been frozen and restored.
Cryonics is expensive and the odds of it working are very high, making it a costly venture with no guarantees. People who want to have their bodies have to believe that the procedures involved in cryonics will not damage the body further, and that a cure for what killed them will be discovered. Efforts to bring substances closer and closer to the goal of absolute zero will continue. However, there is no proof whatsoever that we will ever possess the technology to bring those already frozen back to life. According to Dr. William Jarvis, president of the National Council against Health Fraud, “Cryonics might be a suitable subject for scientific research, but marketing an unproven method to the public is quackery.”
There is no known way to freeze an entire body and revive it. This is confirmed by the fact that when the body is frozen, ice crystals form in the cells and destroy them; and when it is thawed, cells that remain die from lack of nutrients and oxygen. Although technology continues to advance, the structure of the body and its complexity makes it improbable that a corpse can be rejuvenated.
Bruce Bower wrote a humorous story about Ted Williams, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan waking up in 2102 and finding out they are wards of the Martha Stewart Living Foundation. It is titled, “Cold Comfort: A futuristic play of cryogenic proportions and located on the following website:
The Cryonics Gamble. (June 2004). Scientific American Special Edition, ol. 14 Issue 3, pp.82-83.
Jarvis, W.T. in Butler, K. (1992). A Consumer’s Guide to Alternative Medicine. NY: Prometheus Books.
Sandomir, Richard (2005). Please Don’t Call the Customers Dead. New York Times, Vol. 154, Issue 53124, Section 3, pp.1-4.
Stroh, Michael. (2003). Life on Ice. Science World, Vol. 59, Issue 7, p8.
Witt, Howard. (2005). The Cold, Hard Facts on Cryonics. Chicago Tribune (IL).