Published: December 28, 2011
To say Robert Ettinger is dead is not entirely accurate, at least not in his mind and those of his followers. Legally dead, maybe, and certainly dead to the current world, but not, necessarily, dead-dead, as in permanently.
Ettinger, whose life went on extended pause on July 23, was the father of the cryogenics movement—the freezing of humans and other mammals upon declaration of clinical death with the idea that at some point in the future sufficiently advanced technology will exist to warm them back up and allow them to continue healthy lives. Ettinger passed after a brief illness at the age of 92, surrounded by a cadre of nurses, EMTs, and family members with coolers of ice carefully arranged ahead of time in order to ensure his body be frozen as quickly as possible.
Born in 1918, in Atlantic City, N.J., Ettinger was an early lover of science fiction. In the ’30s he read Neil R. Jones’ “The Jameson Satellite,” a short story depicting a professor who jettisons himself into the cold vastness of space before he dies, to be awoken millions of years later and revived by a race of technologically advanced aliens with organic brains and robotic bodies. Ettinger cites “The Jameson Satellite” as the catalyst for pursuing his own ideas of cryogenics, which stemmed from his childhood belief that human immortality would eventually be achieved—and why wait for aliens when we could learn ourselves? When he realized, as he grew older, that no one was actively working toward this goal, he wrote his own short story, “The Penultimate Trump” (so named in reference to the angel Gabriel’s final trumpet), published in March 1948 in pulp science fiction magazine Startling Stories.
At the time Ettinger first began seriously pursuing what would eventually be called cryogenics in the early ’60s, the country was beginning to realize concepts that had previously been the stuff of science fiction, most notably the rise of space programs in the United States and Russia. The culmination of Ettinger’s early ideas came in the form of his groundbreaking 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality, which garnered Ettinger, previously a college physics professor, attention and fame from national publications. His growing fame spawned organizations like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the American Cryonics Society, and eventually the Cryonics Institute, which today hosts 107 human “patients,” including Ettinger and his mother and two wives. CI materials include references to scientific accomplishments that make resurrecting cryogenics patients seem not so implausible, including that fertilized eggs can be frozen and later revived to create healthy children.
In a 1987 edition of Immortality, Ettinger details his motivations in a foreward, discussing why cryogenics is a possibility, and how much of the lack of advancement is due to skepticism. “Since 1962, most of you have done nothing,” he writes. “That’s mostly not your fault; many of you had the good sense not to be born until later dates; and most of you had few clues to the real scientific promise of immortalism, or the existence of organized groups of immortalists. Now is your chance to come in out of the dark and secure your unbounded future. . . . Partake, therefore, of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
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