March 29, 2017

Book Review: Freezing People is (Not) Easy

Views and opinions expressed are those of the author only.

Recently I read Freezing People is (Not) Easy: My Adventures in Cryonics by Bob Nelson.1 It recounts his time as president of the Cryonics Society of California (CSC) during which he cryopreserved and then attempted to maintain the cryopreservation of a number of early cryonics patients. I’ve been thinking about and investigating cryonics of late, so I went looking for any and all related material I could get my hands on. Since this book was the only one I could source from my local library, it ended up being the first one I read. I was looking to gain insight into why cryonics has not become more popular and to learn some of the challenges faced when attempting to run a cryonics organization. What I found instead was a sad tale of typical human failings. It should be noted that the author has been a very controversial figure and some might claim that the veracity of this book is questionable. He has been called a fraud and a con man. If his memoir is to be believed, he was simply seeking to help people fulfill their desires to be cryopreserved, but foolishly failed to adequately plan, prepare, or ensure monetary provision for the task.

It’s often said that one should start a story at the beginning. The question is: what is the beginning of the story one is telling? The first chapter describes Mr. Nelson’s difficult childhood and very early marriage under challenging circumstances. I found this chapter boring and extraneous. Even after finishing the whole book, I’m not sure what the purpose of including this material was. Perhaps it was to show why he cared about others so much that he fell into his later mistakes? If so, it did a poor job of that besides one anecdote of him helping a severely injured teenager when he was himself a teenage runaway. More likely it was in the hope that the reader might take pity on him, viewing him as a tragic hero.

Nelson first learned of cryonics in 19652 when an acquaintance pointed out a newspaper article discussing the recently published book The Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger.3 He was immediately consumed by the idea of cryonics: that a person’s death could be postponed until technology advanced to the point where they could be healed. Searching local bookstores for a copy, he finally located a store that had them. Upon arrival, he found they hadn’t even removed the books from the shipping box because they had received them so recently. Reading through Mr. Ettinger’s book his excitement grew. Nelson loved astronomy and space travel, and was immediately thrilled by the potential of using cryonics technology to place astronauts in suspended animation for long-term spaceflight. He envisioned a new race, in the vein of the space race, to be the first country to revive an individual from cryopreservation. As soon as he became convinced of the scientific validity of the possibility of cryonics by consulting with several friends and the recognition of natural examples of suspended animation, he was a true convert. The strength of his faith in the advancement of technology to achieve near-miraculous results is evident.

I find it fascinating that a small number of individuals take immediately to the idea of cryonics upon learning of it while the vast majority dismiss it or are repulsed. What is it that sets these people apart? Nelson himself wonders about this in the book but offers no insights. Understanding this would seem to be a crucial first step to anyone seeking to encourage others to sign up for cryonics. This information is even more important for a cryonics organization whose success depends on it.

Nelson’s excitement led him to attend the first meeting of the Life Extension Society in California on May 13, 19664. He found the attendees’ scientific credentials and financial resources underwhelming. So, it should not have been so surprising to him when, at the second meeting, he was elected president despite being a TV repairman. He then established the nonprofit Cryonics Society of California (CSC) whose initial plan was to promote research into cryonics. A scientific advisory council was organized, and the CSC was to provide funding. The council informed them that if the CSC cryopreserved someone then the council would walk away and have nothing to do with them. The book is unclear on this point, but it appears the council, being composed of researchers in existing fields like cryobiology, thought that more direct involvement of the CSC with cryopreservation would hurt their reputations. This restriction was not concerning to Nelson as he felt more research was needed and didn’t plan to cryopreserve anyone. He was giddy from the success of forming the council and receiving the validation of scientists. Indeed, his excitement at this stage seems incredible. He states that “in December 1966, cryonics was a bright golden vista with limitless possibilities on the horizon.”5

I would have liked to hear more about the CSC’s structure and plans. Later we learn that they had membership dues, yet it is never stated how much the dues were or approximately how many members they had. The funding for the scientific advisory council was to come from CSC funds, and the researchers would apply for external grants as well. Details of how Nelson expected this to develop would have been helpful.

Early in 1967, Nelson was unexpectedly approached by the son of Dr. James Bedford, a psychology professor at the University of California, with a request to cryopreserve his father upon legal death. Despite having agreed with the advisory council not to cryopreserve anyone and being entirely unprepared, they decided to proceed with the cryopreservation of Dr. Bedford. The CSC scrambled to acquire the necessary equipment. Bedford’s son stated that there was “three hundred thousand dollars in a foundation for cryobiological research, and [he was] director of that foundation.”6 However, Bedford died before they had collected any money and almost before they had the necessary chemicals. They performed the cryopreservation regardless and promptly turned his body over to his son. The CSC never received a dime for their efforts.

Much later Nelson learned that the money from the estate had been spent on legal fees as Bedford’s wife and son defended his will and cryopreservation from lawsuits brought by other relatives. Bedford is widely considered to be the first genuine cryonics patient because his body was preserved immediately after his death and cryoprotection measures were taken. Over the years, Bedford’s son diligently maintained his father’s cryopreservation. Long-term support from relatives like this was rare, and Bedford is the only patient prior to 1974 that remains cryopreserved.7 His body is now in the care and custody of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. While the cryopreservation of Dr. Bedford generated copious publicity for the CSC and cryonics, it also immediately led to the scientific advisory council withdrawing, just as they’d warned.

This began a series of further cryopreservations by Nelson and his associates. Three people were cryopreserved and their bodies held at a mortuary while arrangements were made to keep them at a cemetery. (The patients were legally regarded as dead and as such their bodies were required to be stored at a mortuary or cemetery.) In each case, they collected no money up front, and the CSC received only $10,300 in donations after the procedures. By treating all fees as donations and handling the transfer of the body under the Anatomical Gift Act, the CSC avoided creating any contractual obligation to care for the patients and hoped to shelter themselves from any legal problems. However, this did not prevent patients’ relatives from later suing. In all these cases, the plan was that relatives would pay for care after cryopreservation. This approach was predictably an egregious mistake, yet the reason for adopting it is never stated. These patients needed potentially indefinite care that relatives might lack the resolve or means to provide. What if relatives passed away before the patient was revived? I wish there had been some discussion of why this approach was chosen and considered viable. Nevertheless, it appears to have been the assumed practice at the time as all three organizations that performed cryopreservations followed it.7 In taking on these patients it seems Nelson was acting out of what he felt was a duty to care for these people. Yet, as any hospital will attest, one can’t give away unlimited free care. Doing so means an end to one’s ability to care for anyone. In addition to the three patients CSC cryopreserved, they took over care of a fourth, who had been frozen by Cryo-Care Equipment Corporation. At the time, this business was one of only three organizations performing cryonics, but it made no attempt at cryoprotection, advertising its services for cosmetic purposes rather than eventual revival.7 Nelson was given charge of this patient because he offered the family a lower rate for ongoing care. He made this offer partially because he wanted the cryonics capsule the body was in as he had not been able to acquire a usable one himself. Despite promising to pay$150 per month for storage, the family never paid any money and instead explicitly left his fate to the CSC.

Nelson’s “predicted boom in cryonics patients never materialized.”8 Without more paying patients, his failure to collect adequate fees or establish a revenue stream to pay for the patients’ ongoing care left the CSC in dire financial straights. He found himself paying out of pocket for the ongoing patient care. In 1970, Nelson was unable to continue the care of these patients and was left no other option than to allow them to thaw.9 According to Nelson, this was a very emotional moment for him, and he went out into the desert to decide if it was the right course of action. This is how he lost all four patients in his care at the time.

Despite this failure to care for the patients in his charge, Nelson took on the cryopreservation of two additional patients at a price of $10,000 for cryopreservation and a suggested donation of$100–$300 per month for storage costs. The$10,000 donation did not cover the costs of a cryonics capsule and was not collected from most patients. As he had done previously, he also took charge of another patient who was cryopreserved by a separate organization, the Cryonics Society of New York (CSNY). Nelson repeated all his mistakes. He failed to collect money in advance and had no better plan for ongoing care when, again, relatives failed to pay. He continued to pay for patient care out of pocket and using the CSC membership dues. Eventually, when he was out of town for a week, having left the patients under the watch of the cemetery’s groundskeeper, disaster struck. While Nelson was away, there was a failure of the vacuum pump that was maintaining the insulation of the poorly constructed capsule. The groundskeeper, speaking in heavily-accented, broken English, was unable to communicate the problem to the liquid nitrogen supplier, who had contracted to maintain the temperature of the capsule. Nelson returned to find that the bodies had completely thawed.

After some time spent in despair, Nelson refroze them. He did this despite knowing that they were almost certainly no longer viable for revival since he estimated they may have been without liquid nitrogen for five days. To his surprise, when he contacted the families they expressed the belief that there was nothing to be done but to keep them frozen and hope for the best. He had clearly explained to them when they initially signed up the consequences of a cryopreservation failure. Still, the families’ reactions are understandable given their emotional involvement. On the other hand, Nelson’s decision is inexplicable, especially since some of the families were not paying for ongoing care.

While all this was going on, Nelson also assisted a man named Nicholas DeBlasio in setting up a storage location on the grounds of a cemetery in New York for his wife Ann who had been cryopreserved by the CSNY. Mr. DeBlasio was unhappy with his dealings with the CSNY and wanted to handle everything himself. He did in fact successfully maintain his wife’s cryopreservation for some years, and even took charge of another patient, storing them in the same capsule. However, infrequent checking of and issues with the capsule eventually led to a partial thaw and the subsequent decision to terminate the patients. This case highlights that long-term cryopreservation necessitates a dedicated professional team.

Nelson’s wife had divorced him. Exhausted and disillusioned by his efforts and failures to maintain the patients, he eventually decided to leave the field of cryonics. Without funding to continue patient care he contacted the families of the patients and with their consent removed the patients from cryopreservation. However, Nelson’s story was not over, as several family members sued him and the cemetery he had worked with to store the bodies. Even though Nelson was broke, they sought damages from the cemetery’s liability insurance and needed him as part of their case to improve their chances of winning. At the time, there was also a lot of bad publicity as news organizations picked up the story of the thawing and trial. The, at times farcical, trial is described at some length. It did make for a good climax to the story but was ultimately not very enlightening.

The book concludes by describing Nelson’s life since that time and how he came to the decision to write his story. As with the first chapter describing his life before his involvement with cryonics, this felt extraneous to the story. It was made somewhat more palatable by having come to see him as a pitiable figure so that it was nice to hear he was able to move on with his life.

The image sometimes painted of Nelson is that of a fraud and swindler. That was how the attorneys of the families suing him attempted to portray him. In this book, he comes off as a sincere man trying to do his best to help others but ultimately failing. By not acting as a professional he repeatedly set himself up to fail. No one can provide a service without taking adequate payment. Indefinitely maintaining care of cryonics patients is a tremendous undertaking and not to be taken on without significant planning. Organizations with long-term financial obligations such as cemeteries and insurances companies have been known to fail. With cryonics one hopes that no room for failure would be left open. Despite this, Nelson and all the cryonics organizations operating at the time foolishly relied on family members for ongoing patient care funding. To me, this is simply another example of human irrationality. Modern cryonics organizations are, by comparison, much better managed. Still, it is not clear to me if they have adequately planned for the rigors of perpetual care.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read for someone interested in cryonics. I think it serves as valuable documentation of the history of cryonics. However, it would have served that purpose much better had it detailed more the financial, organizational, and legal structure of the CSC; and explained the thinking behind having relatives fund patient care and not demanding payment up front for cryopreservation and the cryonics capsule. While I think it is good this book was written, I do worry that it will hurt the cryonics movement by dredging up the early failures. Readers may not make the distinction between the CSC and contemporary cryonics organizations.

1. Nelson, Robert F. Freezing People Is (Not) Easy: My Adventures in Cryonics. Guilford: Lyons Press, 2014. Print.

2. Freezing People Is (Not) Easy, p. 21.

3. Ettinger, Robert C.W. The Prospect of Immortality. New York: Doubleday & Co, 1964. Print.

4. Freezing People Is (Not) Easy, p. 30

5. Freezing People Is (Not) Easy, p. 41

6. Freezing People Is (Not) Easy, p. 45

7. Freezing People Is (Not) Easy, p. 82

8. Freezing People Is (Not) Easy, p. 84

Published: March 29, 2017
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