Readings — From the December 2009 issue

The Splendid Splintered

From an October 7 press release by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Scottsdale, Arizona, that cryonically preserves members’ heads or bodies “with the intent of restoring good health when technology becomes available to do so.” On October 6, ABC’s Nightline investigated claims by former Alcor employee Larry Johnson about the company’s mishandling of the remains of baseball player Ted Williams. The claims appeared in Johnson’s book Frozen: My Journey into Cryonics, Deception and Death, which was published that month.

Mr. Johnson claims he witnessed Alcaor staff striking Ted Williams’s head with a wrench. Multiple documented witnesses state without hesitation that Mr. Johnson’s claims are pure fabrication.

Johnson’s statements about tissue debris, tuna, and cats are fictionalized accounts crafted for maximum tabloid shock value, as is nearly the entirety of his book.

Johnson alleged that Williams’s head was stored in an unsafe, malfunctioning freezer. In some instances, Alcor neuropatients have been stored for as long as one year in a Cryostar freezer at temperatures near –130° C. This is done for purposes of relaxing thermal stress prior to final descent to –196° C. The process is very expensive, so it has been done only in cases where patients requested and paid for it or on the recommendation of scientific advisers. Any statements that the Cryostar was unsafe are either misinformed or assume the freezer was not equipped with thermal-buffering or backup systems.

As to references to “cracking,” Johnson knows full well that fracturing is expected in every cryopreservation and is an unavoidable result of cooling large volumes of tissue toward liquid-nitrogen temperature. Mr. Johnson’s representations of fracturing as the result of mishandling is deliberately misleading.

The sensationalized reference to the use of a “hammer and chisel” in a cryopreservation demonstrates either Mr. Johnson’s ignorance or an effort to hoodwink the public. In a surgical context, those instruments are called a “mallet and osteotome” and are commonly used by orthopedists.

Nightline asked in the lead-in to the segment, “Is this self-styled whistle-blower just out to make money?” The answer is a resounding yes.

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