Well, it was certainly the kind of headline you don’t see every day of the week – ‘Terminally ill teenager cryogenically frozen by court order’ – though it has been a staple of the fantasy narrative for decades. Reviving their wartime superhero Captain America in the early 60s, Marvel explained away the fact he hadn’t aged a day in twenty years by being frozen in suspended animation since 1945. The title character of the BBC’s flamboyant spy series of the mid-60s, ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’, was an Edwardian adventurer who had also been frozen in suspended animation, albeit even further back in time (1902); he was awoken from his unintended hibernation when the building in which he was hidden was being demolished over 60 years later. The dashing old-school gentleman (played by Gerald Harper) then had to adapt to life in Swinging London.
The suspended animation premise was frquently used in the numerous sequels to Universal’s original 1931 horror classic, ‘Frankenstein’, as a means of regularly reviving the Monster, who had usually been killed at the end of the preceding film. Woody Allen even employed it for his 1973 sci-fi spoof, ‘Sleeper’, in which his character enters a hospital for routine surgery and is unknowingly cryogenically frozen, revived 200 years later in a police state. It was also present in TV playwright Dennis Potter’s posthumous ‘Cold Lazarus’ in 1996, with Albert Finney’s head salvaged from the twentieth century.
It has remained in regular use as a storyline in futuristic fiction, including the 1975 ‘Doctor Who’ adventure, ‘The Ark in Space’; the plot concerns a spaceship containing thousands of humans subject to cryopreservation who have ‘overslept’ by a couple of millennia and are now being fed upon by an alien parasite. Rumours still abound that Walt Disney was subject to the process (cryopreservation, not being fed upon by an alien parasite) after his death in 1966, without the slightest thread of evidence to support this urban myth.
In the real world, a living human being who is frozen with the intention of being awoken at a later date in the far-flung future stands little chance of survival at this moment in scientific history. Induced hibernation experiments on mice over the last decade have been largely successful, though less so with sheep and pigs; officially, no human has ever served as such a guinea pig, though there are stories of individuals who survived after short periods of hibernation.
The longest such case on record is that of Anna Bagenholm, who suffered a skiing accident in 1999 in which she was trapped under a layer of ice in freezing water for 80 minutes. For half of that time she was able to keep breathing after finding an air pocket, but thereafter she surrendered to circulatory arrest and when eventually pulled from the ice and rushed to hospital, her body temperature was 56.7 °F, the lowest ever recorded in an adult with accidental hypothermia. She gradually made a full recovery and experienced no permanent brain damage.
The case of Anna Bagenholm is unique in the human experience, for even induced hypothermia, such as in open heart surgery, is a technique that can only slow down the body’s functions for a brief period before damage is done. Minute embryos and some insects can survive induced hibernation for several months or even years, though it would seem the larger the mammal the less the possibility of success when the process is induced. Annual seasonal hibernation in the animal kingdom is a different matter, a natural function of the life cycle rather than an artificial method of extending it indefinitely. Bears are the largest creatures to hibernate naturally, something that squirrels, hedgehogs and numerous rodents also do, though only one primate – the fat-tailed dwarf lemur of Madagascar – is known to do so. The nearest human comparison is probably that of a patient in a coma, many of whom have come out of the state months and, in some cases, several years later, even though – as was the case with the catatonic sufferers of encephalitis lethargica documented in the book (and later movie), ‘Awakenings’ – the ageing process has continued during sleep. Inducing suspended animation via cryogenics so that ageing (as with everything else) is frozen, remains the province of science fiction as opposed to science fact, however.
The process of cryopreservation can only be undertaken after legal death has occurred, albeit fairly quickly afterwards; and since Dr James Bedford was the first officially cryopreserved corpse in 1967, an estimated 250 subsequent cadavers have been frozen in this way, all in the US. There are three facilities for preserving bodies in liquid nitrogen at extremely low temperatures in America and another in Russia, with around 1500 on the waiting list for the process. If the technology to revive the first human being preserved in this way existed today, Dr James Bedford would now be aged 123.
A 14-year-old dying of a rare form of cancer is undoubtedly a sad story, and it would be unduly churlish to criticise Judge Peter Jackson’s decision to allow the girl’s body to be cryopreserved (against the wishes of her father) after he had met her in person shortly before her premature death. He was evidently moved enough by the experience to implement the ruling, which the girl’s mother wanted for her, and while it could be viewed by a cynic as a decision provoked by sentiment as opposed to logic, who knows if the girl will be revived at some future date? At least she went to the cryogenic storage facility believing it to be a possibility, so good luck to her.
© The Editor