Forty-seven years ago today, on January 12, 1967. a psychology professor named James Bedford died of kidney cancer. He was 73 years old. Chances are nobody would have heard of Dr. Bedford–unless they happen to be interested in occupational counseling, which he wrote several books about–except for the fact that he was the first person in human history to be cryogenically preserved in the hopes that he can be revived at some time in the future.
If this sounds like the plot of a Star Trek episode, it should. Not only was this sort of thing the basis of a 1988 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the Enterprise finds three people frozen in an orbital cryo-pod from the late 20th century, but suspended animation (though not necessarily by cryonics) was the plot of the famous original Star Trek episode “Space Seed,” broadcast only six weeks after Bedford’s death. That episode, of course, became the basis of the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with evil ruler Khan (played by Ricardo Montalban) trying to take over the universe after being unfortunately revived by Captain Kirk. So yes, resurrection-by-cryogenics clearly is a staple of science fiction, but Dr. Bedford’s experience proves there is science behind it.
Bedford was preserved by a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert Prehoda. A group called the Life Extension Society offered, in 1965, to freeze someone free of charge as a pilot project to test whether the concept was viable. Dr. Bedford, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, applied and was eventually chosen. The process of freezing him began a few hours after his death on January 12 in a Glendale, California nursing home. His body was soaked in a sort of primitive anti-freeze to protect organs from tissue damage as part of the freezing process, and his brain was injected with a chemical called DMSO, which would later prove controversial. Eventually Dr. Bedford’s remains wound up suspended in a tank of liquid nitrogen, first in Phoenix, Arizona and eventually in a warehouse of cryo-pods in Scottsdale run by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Dr. Bedford’s frozen body is still there as of today, and he’s among good company: 117 other “patients” also reside there, in a scene that must literally look like something out of Star Trek.
Could Dr. Bedford be revived at some time in the future, when (presumably) medical science has found a cure for cancer? Although it seems straightforward on Star Trek, it’s a very big question. To date no one has ever been “revived” from cryonic suspension. (And no, Walt Disney was not cryo-preserved, as is commonly believed; he was buried in an ordinary cemetery). In Dr. Bedford’s case, the injection of his brain with DMSO arguably destroyed it. Even if life could be somehow pumped back into his thawed body, the notion that he would have all his memories and brain functions intact is total fantasy. Nevertheless, cryonics foundations continue to freeze “patients” today in the hopes that they can, perhaps hundreds of years in the future, be miraculously resurrected.
Of course, if it were to happen, there would be only one thing to say: