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The First Cryonic Preservation Took Place Fifty Years Ago Today

Today, we still have no idea if the process will ever produce results

The cryonics industry and those who support cryonics refer to those who undergo the procedure after death as "cryonauts." (ValentynVolkov /iStockPhoto)
smithsonian.com

To some, it’s the possibility of another life for themselves or a loved one. To others, it’s science fiction.

Whatever it is, cryonics—defined by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation as “the science of using ultra-cold temperatures to preserve human life with the intent of restoring good health when technology becomes available to do so”— has now been around for 60 years, since the death of retired psychology professor James H. Bedford. Alcor, the company that still has his body in a frozen chamber, calls him the first “cryonaut.” (Cryonics is sometimes incorrectly referred to as “cryogenics.”)

Bedford was frozen long before Alcor was formed in 1976, but today that’s where he rests with 148 others, in the “Patient Care Bay” in Scottsdale, Arizona. After his death, aged 73, of kidney cancer, his body was put on ice, The New York Times Magazine wrote in 1997. Then his body was processed by “experts from the Cryonics Society of California,” the Times wrote.

Sam Shaw of This American Life got a little more detail on what happened when the first cryonaut was frozen. He interviewed Bob Nelson, a TV repairman who became president of the society, a nonprofit consisting mostly of people who wanted to be cryonically preserved. What he discovered: like Nelson, most of the society’s members were amateurs, and the scientists they had persuaded to work on the theoretical question of cryonics were skeptical. “They wanted to take things slow, conduct research, publish papers,” Shaw says. Then James Beford asked to be frozen, and they decided to go for it — in spite of the fact that they’d lose the scientific community’s support.

When Dr. Bedford died on January 12, 1967, they were all caught off guard. Dr. Bedford’s nurse had to run up and down the block collecting ice from the home freezers of neighbours. Cryonics was still just a theory, and the proceedings had the slightly manic quality of a local theater production, forced to open a couple of weeks early.

Bedford has been frozen ever since, although both his container and the place where he rests have changed. After his body was preserved, Alcor writes, he was handed over to family. “His very devoted son stored him at a succession of locations over some two decades before transferring both his care and custody to Alcor,” the foundation writes. According to the Times, his body was kept at a warehouse in Anaheim, a cryonics facility in Emeryville, somewhere else undisclosed and Fullerton before coming to Alcor. The reason for so many moves: fifty years ago, there was no cryonics industry and it was a fringe idea at best.

Around Bedford’s body, the landscape of cryonics has also transformed dramatically, but “despite Alcor’s strict protocols, there’s no proof that its method of cryopreservation is actually working,”  writes George Dvorsky for Gizmodo.  “For all we know, every single person at the facility is a goner.” Cryonics is still only the hope of a future for those preserved, even, as Dvorsky writes, when they’re terminally ill children.

If Bedford is ever re-animated, he will be in some strange company, writes Stacy Conradt for Mental Floss: mathematician Thomas K. Donaldson, a man who changed his name to FM-2030, Alcor vice president Jerry Leaf and both baseball player Ted Williams and his son John-Henry Williams are on ice at Alcor.

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