Robert Ettinger: Scientist known as the father of the cryonics movement

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Robert Ettinger, who was widely regarded as the founding father of the cryonics movement, is now himself in cryonic suspension, anticipating the day when medical technology will bring him back to life. Adherents to the cryonics movement believe they can achieve immortality through quick-freezing their bodies at the point of death pending scientific resurrection thanks to future technology which will permit revival and the cure of aging and disease. Ettinger became the 106th patient to be frozen in liquid nitrogen to -196c and stored in the Cryonics Institute he founded in 1976, along with his mother, his two wives and more than 100 others.

Ettinger was a university teacher in the mid-1960s when he wrote the founding document of cryonics, The Prospect of Immortality, a manifesto that described the practical and moral aspects of deep-freezing the dead and which revealed him as an eternal optimist about mankind's technological future. Self-published in 1962, the book was published formally in 1964; it was translated into nine languages and ran through four editions. It struck an "instantaneous public nerve," according to Life magazine, and made Ettinger a celebrity. Introducing the "Freezer Era", Ettinger described a world in which people would become nobler and more responsible as they con-fronted the reality of living forever.

Ettinger's deep-freeze dogma was covered worldwide from the New York Times and Newsweek to Paris Match and Der Spiegel, and he appeared on talk shows with Johnny Carson and David Frost. Most scientists ridiculed his vision but his manifesto came as the world was adjusting to the atomic bomb, Sputnik and other futuristic technologies. To many, Ettinger's optimism seemed appropriate.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Robert Chester Wilson Ettinger was born in 1918 in Atlantic City. Shortly after, the family moved to Detroit. As a boy, he was fascinated by science fiction and his interest in immortality was ignited after reading The Jameson Satellite by Neil Jones, which tells of a dying professor who launches himself into space, where he is found millions of years later by aliens who bring him back to life by transplanting his brain into a mechanical body. The idea would become Ettinger's life's work.

The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted his university studies and Ettinger served as a second lieutenant in the 1st Infantry Division. In December 1944 he was seriously wounded by German mortar fire during the build-up to the Battle of the Bulge and spent several years in hospitals. The innovative bone graft surgery that spared his legs inspired his optimism about the future prospects of preserving life through technology.

After recuperating, Ettinger returned to Wayne State University and graduated with a BA and MA in physics and a second MA in mathematics. He went on to teach those subjects at Wayne State before moving to Highland Park Community College, Michigan. He wrote his cryonics manifesto after being inspired by a French scientist who found that frog sperm was viable after being frozen.

Following Ettinger's book, cryonics became a reality. In January 1967, Dr James Bedford, a retired psychology professor, became the first person to be placed in cryonic suspension. Ettinger's sequel, Man Into Superman, appeared the following year. "If civilisation endures, medical science should eventually be able to repair almost any damage to the human body," Ettinger wrote. "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."

The Cryonics Institute charges $28,000 to prepare a body and store it in a tank of liquid nitrogen. The first patient was Ettinger's own mother, Rhea, who died in 1977. His two wives, Elaine and Mae, are also frozen at the Institute.

Ettinger retired from teaching in 1972 and served as President of the Cryonics Institute until 2003, finally retiring as a Director in 2006. In later life, he took encouragement from advances in nanotechnology and the manipulation of computers at a microscopic level, which he thought would provide the machinery to repair and revive the dead. He believed his vision was inevitable, whether "it's 30, 50 or 100 years – time becomes meaningless in this context."

Martin Childs

Robert Chester Wilson Ettinger, academic, scientist and author: born Atlantic City, New Jersey, US 4 December 1918; married Elaine (died 1987; one son, one daughter), 1988 Mae Junod (died 2001); died Clinton Township, Detroit, Michigan 23 July 2011.