Robert Ettinger, who died on July 23 aged 92, was the intellectual father of the cryonics movement, whose members have themselves frozen at death pending scientific resurrection.
Ettinger preferred to style himself an "immortalist", since he argued that whole body or head-only freezing ("neurological suspension") was only one means of achieving indefinite life. His rationale for pursuing this goal was contained in his book The Prospect Of Immortality (1964), which revealed him as an unquenchable optimist about mankind’s technological future.
He drew on his experience as a physics teacher and his interest in science fiction to predict the evolution of machines which would manufacture from raw atoms all that man needed. He foresaw intergalactic settlement, and argued that science would produce medical machines which would cure all diseases.
What now seemed to be a fatal illness would be no more than a twinge by 2050. From this it followed that the dead might be "cured" by the doctors of the future.
Ettinger proposed that governments immediately initiate a mass-freezing programme. He suggested that this might have huge social benefits. To pay the premiums on their frozen families, people would need steady work and would be compelled to live responsible lives. He predicted that when immortality was achieved, crime would become extinct, since criminals would be afraid of justice pursuing them beyond the grave. Immortality would secure for man a higher, nobler nature.
The authorities remained unmoved. But his book proved popular and did inspire a number of cryonics organisations. In 1967 the first man was drained of blood and permeated with cryoprotectant (a sort of human antifreeze) and placed in a vat of liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees.
Despite Ettinger’s lofty aims, there were also opportunists, who imagined that cryonics would become big business, and outright ghouls. In the 1970s one Californian cryonics society went bust without informing the relatives of its dozen "patients", who found their loved ones decomposing in wooden packing cases in a suburban crypt. The head of that particular business had found alternative work repairing television sets.
The movement is hated by orthodox scientists, who hold that resurrecting a frozen body would be like "trying to turn a hamburger back into a cow". But by the mid-1990s there were some 65 or so people in suspension and half-a-dozen organisations dedicated to the philosophy of the deep-freeze, and catering to a growing band of immortalists.
Perhaps 1,000 people have taken out insurance policies to cover the cost of storage, which ranges between $28,0000 and $150,000. There are cryonics representatives in Britain and at least one family undertaker has added cryoprotectant perfusion to its more traditional services.
Ettinger retired from teaching in 1972, but to the end remained convinced that cryonics would catch on.
"Someday there will be some sort of psychological trigger that will move all these people to take the practical steps they have not yet taken. When people realise that their children and grandchildren will enjoy indefinite life," he said, "that they may well be the last generation to die."
Ettinger took particular encouragement from advances in nano-technology, the manipulation of computers at a microscopic level, which he thought would provide the machinery to successfully repair frozen corpses.
Robert Ettinger will be shipped back to Michigan to join his two wives and his mother in cold storage. He is survived by a son and a daughter from his first marriage, both of whom are active immortalists.
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