Will Ted Williams Be the Comeback Kid?

Dispute over plans to cryogenically freeze slugger's body

By Adam Marcus HealthDay Reporter

Updated on June 15, 2022

MONDAY, July 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Whether cryonics is a pseudo-science or poses a genuine shot at immortality depends on your perspective and your faith in the boundaries of medical progress.

Bodies can undoubtedly be frozen. But so far, reviving them has proven elusive, which continues to fuel a heated debate over whether cryonics will ever succeed -- and if it does, whether the current method of freezing bodies will be obsolete by the time they can be brought back.

Cryonics, the freezing of a dead body in the hopes that it can be revived in some form in the future, is at the center of a frosty dispute among the heirs of baseball legend Ted Williams, who died July 5. One child wants him cryogenically frozen, while another wants him burned, saying that Williams wished to be cremated.

The Boston Globe reported yesterday that Williams's only son, John Henry Williams, 33, had his father's body flown to the Scottsdale, Ariz., facilities of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation the night of July 5 for deep freezing in a vat of liquid nitrogen.

Williams' daughter, Barbara Joyce Williams Ferrell, accused her brother of seeking to preserve the slugger's body so that he could ultimately sell his DNA. An attorney for the Williams estate told the newspaper that wasn't true.

However, the lawyer, Eric Abel, did not deny that Williams's body had been taken to Arizona for freezing. Nor did Abel say that the Red Sox Hall of Famer's final wishes were being violated. "He did not wish to have any funeral or funeral services," the paper quoted Abel as saying in a statement.

Mathew Sullivan, a spokesman for Alcor, would not confirm that Williams was now there. The nonprofit firm, which has been in operation since 1972, will freeze either whole bodies (for $120,000) or heads (for $50,000). Sullivan said that of the roughly 50 "patients" in frozen suspension at Alcor, some three quarters have only their heads frozen. Like the whole bodies, these heads are kept in canisters of liquid nitrogen at 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

No mammal has been frozen and brought back to life, Sullivan said. But Alcor's 580 "members" -- people who've signed up ahead of time -- wager small annual dues and the lump sum upon their death that future scientists will be able to not only thaw them out but restore them to clean health in the process.

At the heart of this dream is molecular nanotechnology, a fledgling field of research which cryonics advocates hope will one day be able to reconstruct not only damaged cells and genes but human memories.

"The odds may be good or they may not be good" that this will happen, said Sullivan, who is financing his own eventual freezing through a life insurance policy that names Alcor as the beneficiary.

But even if a frozen head can be returned to thinking life, it must have a body on which to rest.

That's the easy part, said Ralph Merkle, a California nanotechnology expert and an Alcor member since the late 1980s. After all, if the medical technology of the future is advanced enough to restore a whole body to health, it will be able to rebuild a new one from the neck down, he said.

"The technology which is required to reverse freezing injury is able to replace any missing tissue or damaged tissue, and could replace any tissue except the brain," added Merkle, who has a doctorate degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

"The reason you have to preserve the human brain is that's who we are. If you lose a finger and replace that finger, you're still who you are. If you replace your brain, you're not the same person," he said.

Researchers have already overcome one problem, the formation of ice crystals during the deep freeze that harmed cells. Yet despite the new process of ice-free cooling, called vitrification, other damage, like fractures, continues to occur.

Merkle said he's optimistic medical technology will one day be able to correct cell damage at the molecular level -- the key to the success of cryonics. But at the moment, it's impossible to say if deep freezing will work out. "Come back in a century and we'll give you an answer," he added.

Jens Karlsson, an engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology who specializes in the cryopreservation of tissues, said you don't have to wait that long. And he has bad news for those already frozen at Alcor and companies like it.

"I can definitely tell you that people who have had their bodies or heads frozen with today's technology are never coming back," Karlsson said. "I can't say for sure there won't be some revolution in cryopreservation in the future that would make the preservation of whole human bodies possible, but I would highly doubt it."

Individual cells and even certain tissues can be frozen and thawed successfully. But the complexity of an entire human being becomes insurmountable. Different cell types require different freezing procedures, Karlsson said, and the difficulty of the process grows with the area of tissues being chilled. A millimeter patch of skin is one thing, but a body comprising meters is quite another.

Still, Karlsson, secretary of the Society for Cryobiology, does see a cool future for the science.

Blood storage, for example, is one area that could be greatly aided by a way to keep cells on ice. So, too, is tissue engineering.

"You have people who are creating artificial tissue, but if you can't preserve them you can't mass-produce them or distribute them," he said.

Gregory Benford, a physicist at the University of California, Irvine, and a science fiction author who has written about cryonics, called human storage and retrieval "a long shot." Benford once calculated the odds of a successful thawing at about 1 percent or so. That might seem low, he said, "but what's the alternative?"

Many people find freezing bodies for later revival "creepy," he added, "but they're probably not deeply familiar with what happens to you otherwise."

What To Do

To find out more about cryonics, try Ralph Merkle's Web site or Alcor.

For more on cryobiology, try the Society for Cryobiology.

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