Cryonics — the practice of freezing bodies to revive them in the future — commonly appears in science fiction stories. But while most people have heard about Captain America’s return to life after being frozen for about 70 years, some people believe this could become a reality. They claim that if their bodies stay preserved, future technology will know how to revive them and essentially bring people back to life. However, this resurrection technology is far away from becoming a reality, and cryonically preserved humans — also called “cryonauts” — may be waiting for much longer than 70 years. That is if the bodies can survive that long.
The First Cryonically Frozen Human
Cryonics has advanced since its beginning in the late 1960s, and the methods of preservation have much improved. However, some of the first frozen bodies suffered from mistreatment and poor handling, with gruesome results. Although cryonics is widely regarded as a pseudoscience, it’s based on the legitimate study of cryopreservation. Cryopreservation is the technique of preserving cells, organs, and the like through chilled temperatures. For instance, doctors use it to temporarily store organs for transplants. Creatures like Canadian wood frogs use natural cryopreservation to survive freezing temperatures. But from all of the hundreds of people who became cryonauts in the late 60s, Dr. James Hiram Bedford is the only one still preserved.
Bedford was a University of California-Berkeley psychology professor who died from renal cancer on January 12, 1967. His body has remained at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, USA, since 1991. When he was first preserved, patients were systematically frozen. But today, they are vitrified, a process that involves freezing the body with ice-resistant chemicals so the body could harden without forming ice.
Unfortunately, vitrification came after trial and error. Bedford’s preservation, along with the other cryonically preserved humans at his time, was crude. The process involved solvent dimethyl sulfoxide injections hours after he had already died, going into a styrofoam box with dry ice, before going into a chamber filled with liquid nitrogen. Bedford’s wife and son took it upon themselves to protect and maintain this unit, but other cryonauts at the time were much less fortunate.
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The Horrific History of Cryonically Preserved Humans
One cryonic operation in California, USA, ran under a man named Robert Nelson. His first four clients were not placed in liquid nitrogen containers; rather, they lay on dry ice in the mortuary. A son of one of these clients decided to take back his mother’s corpse. Her body remained on dry ice in his truck for an undisclosed amount of time before he buried her.
The mortician and Nelson finally decided to place the remaining three bodies into a liquid nitrogen capsule — but another body already occupied it. So the two men spent a whole night trying to fit four bodies, which may have endured thaw damage, into the capsule. Nelson refilled the liquid nitrogen sporadically for a year before he stopped receiving payments from the families. Then he took the bodies out of the capsule and let them thaw and rot in a vault under the cemetery.
Nelson had another group of cryonically preserved humans in a second capsule, but it malfunctioned without anyone noticing. The bodies had thawed for some time, but they were likely refrozen for another few years. One well-maintained capsule held the body of a six-year-old boy, but the corpse had suffered severe cracking from freezing too quickly. So the father took the body back to bury his son. Another corpse took over the boy’s capsule, but the man had died ten months earlier. As expected, his body had already decomposed and later thawed again. Overall, Nelson’s patients did not stay preserved. He later admitted to going broke, making bad decisions, and failing in his endeavor.
But Nelson’s clients fared better than those in a similar underground vault in a cemetery in New Jersey. The capsules were badly designed with uninsulated pipes. So the bodies inside would thaw, move, then refreeze. This caused the skin to stick to the sides of the container. The only way to unstick them was to completely thaw the bodies before freezing them again. But when the machines malfunctioned again, the bodies rotted into “a plug of fluids”. The caretakers buried these remains.
Bedford was spared all of this horror because his body remained under his family’s custody. They cared for it at their own expense, transferring it from one professional cryonic operation to another. It occupied different kinds of frozen tanks before ending up at Alcor, whose cryonic preparations are much more refined today. Their goal is not just to preserve the body but to maintain its quality. 
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Can You Actually Preserve a Body in Ice?
Proper preservation is another major obstacle in cryonics. You can store food as perfectly as possible, but it won’t last for years upon years in the freezer. Cold temperatures can slow decomposition, but it can’t stop it entirely. Additionally, the freezing process introduces the risk of ice damage. So future scientists will not only need the technology to revive cryonically preserved humans; they will also need to know how to fix the damage that occurred throughout this process.
“There is absolutely no current way, no proven scientific way, to actually freeze a whole human down to that temperature without completely destroying — and I mean obliterating — the tissue,” says Shannon Tessier, a cryobiologist with Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. She mentions when scientists attempt to freeze a sample of living human tissue, “the tissue is completely obliterated, the cell membrane is completely destroyed. So there’s actually no proof that you’re preserving anything, and that’s because the science is just not there yet.” 
In 1983, Alcor removed the heads from three cryonauts (Some cryonauts believe only the heads need preservation since future doctors can provide a new body for them.). Since they beheaded the frozen corpses, researchers were able to study the state of the thawing bodies. The results were not positive.
Two of the warming bodies began cracking through layers of skin and fat. Blood vessels ruptured. But the insides looked even worse. Almost every organ system had fractures, including great damage to all major blood vessels around the heart, the intestines, lungs, and spleen. The third body thawed more slowly, so it looked better on the surface, but inside was even worse. The heart had fractured, the organs had severed, and the spinal cord had snapped in three places.
Time Will Tell
The Alcor researchers concluded that this amount of deterioration would require extremely advanced medical technology to treat. Plus, it may not even be treatable; future medical science might involve rebuilding the body, instead of fixing it, but this possibility is just as far away from reality. Nevertheless, the study of cryonics is fascinating, especially for those who love science fiction, are optimistic about the future, and would choose any chance to continue enjoying life, no matter the odds.
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- “Horror stories of cryonics: The gruesome fates of futurists hoping for immortality.” Big Think. Tom Hartsfield. August 3, 2022
- “Fifty years frozen: The world’s first cryonically preserved human’s disturbing journey to immortality.” Quartz. Corinne Purtill. January 12, 2017
- “Life After Death? Cryonicists Try To Defy Mortality By Freezing Bodies.” Science that Matters. KateGolembiewlski. October 14, 2022