Robert Ettinger — The Father Of Cryonics
“Most of us now living have a chance for personal, physical immortality” wrote Robert C. W. Ettinger in 1962.
So begins his famous book ‘The Prospect of Immortality’, the work with which he shared his views on the possibility of an alternative to permanent death, thus initiating the cryonics movement. Today, the cryonics community counts thousands of members and interested people all over the world. Several cryonics societies are opening on different continents, allowing Ettinger’s dream to come true: a world where anyone can decide how long they want to live. We want to celebrate the 60th year since the publication of this milestone by remembering Robert Ettinger — the Father of Cryonics.
From science fiction to reality
Robert Chester Wilson Ettinger was born in Atlantic City, US, in 1918. Son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he later became an atheist and worked as a mathematics and physics professor. The idea of using very low temperatures to preserve bodies over a long period of time is not entirely original to Ettinger. In fact, as he often recounted, it was a science fiction story that stimulated his imagination in the first place.
Ettinger read a story, called “The Jameson Satellite”, in the popular science fiction magazine Amazing Stories when he was 12. In the story, the hero-scientist Professor Jameson, knowing that he is about to die, asks his nephew to put his body in a rocket and launch it into deep-frozen outer space. There, he remains “preserved” for 40 million years until an advanced alien cyborg species discovers him. The aliens warm him up and bring him back to life by transplanting his brain into a mechanical body. While the idea of connecting brains to machines is nothing new today, consider that when Ettinger was 12 years old, i.e. in 1930, most people didn’t even have a television set yet.
Ettinger’s ideas on human deep-freezing preservation were also supported by later events, which led him to discover first-hand the successes of experimental medical technologies. During World War II in fact, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Germany, where he was seriously injured. An experimental (at the time) bone-graft surgery saved his legs and the many months he spent at the hospital to recover sparked his interest in the possibilities of medicine.
The Prospect of Immortality
Inspired by these two events, Ettinger started researching scientific material to support his vision and finally developed the concept behind cryonics. The result is The Prospect of Immortality, the book at the origin of the cryonics movement. Ettinger privately printed the book in 1962 and he had to wait until 1964 before the publishing company Doubleday accepted to publish it. As he wrote:
“By preserving our bodies in as nearly life-like a condition as possible, it is clear that you and I, right now, have a chance to avoid permanent death. But is it a substantial chance, or only a remote one? I believe the odds are excitingly favorable, and it is the purpose of this book to make this belief plausible.” (Read the full book here)
Ettinger’s fame was immediate. The book became a selection of the Book of the Month Club and was published in nine languages. Many newspapers, the New York Times and Newsweek to name a few, wrote about the topic and Ettinger himself was invited to several tv and radio shows to argue the idea of cryonics. His presentation was well articulated and supported by scientific evidence and soon captured the audiences’ imagination.
Ettinger’s work in cryonics
Despite his activism in promoting human cryopreservation, Ettinger wasn’t the one that founded the first cryonics society. Evan Cooper, who in the same year as Ettinger’s book came out also published a book on cryonics called Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now, (read the full book here) founded the Life Extension Society (LES) in December 1963. Furthermore, the first human cryopreservation, James Bedford, was carried out in 1967 by yet another company, the Cryonics Society of California.
Only about 10 years later (on April 4, 1976) Ettinger founded his nonprofit society, the Cryonics Institute (CI), in Detroit, Michigan. In September of the same year he also established The Immortalist Society, a charitable organization devoted to research and education in the areas of cryonics and life extension. Donations received by The Immortalist Society Research Fund are often used to financially support CI’s research.
Ettinger’s first patient was his mother, Rhea, who died one year after CI’s foundation at the age of 78. Both his first wife Elaine, who died in 1987, and second wife Mae, who died in 2000, were cryopreserved and are now stored at Cryonics Institute.
In 2003, after more than 40 years of cryonics activism, Ettinger left his position as CI’s group president and retired.
CI’s 106th cryopreservation
On July 23, 2011 Robert Ettinger died of respiratory failure. He was 92 years old. Suffering declining health for weeks before his legal death, he and his son prepared to make sure he could receive a punctual and high quality cryopreservation, minimizing the damage caused by ischemia (lack of oxygen to the brain).
- Firstly, they arranged for 24 hour nursing care, both to provide Ettinger with every comfort and to make sure they knew the exact moment to start the procedure. The 3 nurses had to be trained on what to do in case Ettinger stopped breathing or if he showed signs of imminent death.
- Secondly, they got him into hospice care. This was crucial to ensure that there was a competent person nearby who could officially declare legal death (thus starting the procedure).
- Thirdly, they made an arrangement with Emergency Medical Services (EMS), to ensure there was a person to declare legal death — even if it took place in the middle of the night.
- Finally, they prepared coolers filled with ice along with the iron heart to pump blood during the cooling process, provided by CI.
Thanks to the measures taken, Ettinger’s cryopreservation was optimal. He was CI’s 106th patient. Read more here.
Ettinger wrote in his masterpiece: “No matter what kills us, whether old age or disease, and even if freezing techniques are still crude when we die, sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us.”
At Tomorrow Biostasis we share Ettinger’s mission and his optimism in the possibilities of future technologies. If and when revival works, Ettinger and our members may have the chance to live a second life in the future. Would you like to join us?