A Brief History of Alcor Research

Taken from the column For the Record, Cryonics, 4th Quarter 1994

by Michael Perry, Ph.D.

Alcor’s research was inaugurated Sept. 24, 1977, with the freezing of a dog. There was a brief notice in that month’s Alcor News, a predecessor of Cryonics, and a more ample report by then-president Laurence Gale in Long Life Magazine, the following year[1]. At this time Alcor did not have its own suspension team but suspension services were performed by the Trans Time team, headed by Jerry Leaf and a few Alcorians. They met at a facility provided by Benjamin Schloss, PhD, an antiaging proponent and cryonics dabbler (14 months later, at 65, he died of leukemia and was not frozen[2]). The anesthetized dog, a shepherd mix (as many later Alcor animals would be), was perfused with a solution formula used in the suspension, the previous year, of Alcor’s first patient, Fred Chamberlain Jr. (Mr. Chamberlain was the father of Alcor cofounder Fred III.) The objectives of the experiment were (1) to duplicate procedures used in the preceding suspension, (2) increase skills of the suspension and rescue team, and (3) establish a baseline for future work. Like Fred Jr.’s, the dog’s suspension was head-only. One of the notable results was to recover some functioning brain cells after cooling to liquid nitrogen temperature and thawing (with cell viability verified by dye uptake).

Light micrograph of dog brain
Alcor’s first dog experiment, 1977: Light micrograph at 1260x magnification shows live nerve cells in dog brain (cerebral cortex) which were previously at liquid nitrogen temperature.

This experiment was to be the “first of a series” but in fact several years would pass before any further substantial research was done at Alcor. The next mention I find of such work is in the Oct. 1981 Cryonics, which reports on a gathering of cryonicists at Lake Tahoe, Sept. 11-14 [3]. (This was hosted by Alcor’s cofounders, Fred and Linda Chamberlain, who would stage further similar gatherings, the now well-remembered Lake Tahoe Festivals, over the next several years.) At the conference, Alcorian Hugh Hixon gave a brief presentation of his findings on the problem of oxygen contamination in liquid nitrogen storage vessels. Oxygen content in such a vessel that had been in use for 3 years registered 2% by volume (oxygen being also liquid at LN2 temperature), enough to cause worry in view of the corrosive properties of this highly reactive element. About a fifth of the atmospheric mass is oxygen. It thus has ample opportunity, over time, to condense inside storage vessels which in turn must have outside ventilation to accommodate the boiloff of liquid nitrogen. Some oxidation, which could affect both organic matter and the steel vessels used to contain it, is still possible at low temperatures, though in view of a later study (again by Hugh) the problem does not appear serious, reaction rates being very greatly slowed. (For example, to get the amount of the fast est known biological reaction that happens in one second at body tempera ture, we would have to wait 25 million years at liquid nitrogen temperature![4])

Alcor’s First Golden Age of research began sometime in 1983 and extended into 1987. By this time Alcor had acquired the services of two of the best research talents cryonics has seen to date, Jerry Leaf and Mike Darwin. Jerry, an instructor in thoracic surgery at UCLA, had set up his own company, Cryovita, to provide cryonics-related services, such as suspensions. (During the’ 80s Cryovita would work so closely with Alcor the two would virtually become one organization.) Mike was a hemodialysis technician who had been involved in cryonics-related work since grade school. Assisting them was another person with substantial skills, biochemist Hugh Hixon, who also possessed an engineering talent. Together they were able to accomplish things worthy of much better-funded institutions enjoying the support of the scientific mainstream. There are some two dozen writeups on the dog work and other projects Alcor carried out at this time, occupying many pages of Cryonics, so my coverage here is highly abridged. I’ll report what I judge to be of greatest significance.

There’s a little bit of magic (black or white, depending on your orientation) in the idea of rendering an organism clinically dead — no heartbeat or respiration, cold as a winter’s day — then restoring it to life. It’s an important precursor of what we are trying to accomplish through cryonics and it is disturbing to many people. It suggests, for example, such irreverent thoughts as that death is a process, not an event; an organism is a machine that can be restarted after the “vital” processes have ceased; when you’re “dead” you may not really be dead; etc. It is especially inspiring, gratifying, and/or disturbing to bring back a large, warm-blooded creature from a state of lifeless cold. The latter feat was first accomplished by a cryonics organization-AlcorJuly 21, 1984. A shepherd dog, “Star,” was subjected to a total body washout (replacement of blood with a chemical solution) and an hour of bloodless perfusion at 4°C, then rewarmed, transfused with blood, and resuscitated [5]. The animal made a perfect recovery, and eventually became a much-valued pet. A crucial part of the recovery process was dialysis during rewarming, with an artificial kidney machine, which allowed for normalization of blood glucose and electrolyte levels.

Mike Darwin and Star
Star, Alcor’s first resuscitee, with Mike Darwin, 1984

Aside from its suggestiveness for the much more difficult feat that cryonic resuscitation is going to be, the work was important for the procedures used in the early stages of cryonic suspension. This is when the patient is cooled from body to near-ice temperature and the blood is replaced with base perfusate, a preliminary step for the later perfusion with cryoprotectant. The success with a dog did not happen on the first try, though it did happen sooner than expected. Some changes in previous procedures were necessary (notably, use of a new base perfusate [6]). It could then be seen that the initial stages of suspension were not injurious to life, and it strengthened the case for the ultimate revivability of cryonics patients.

The success with Star was followed, within two months, by resuscitation of an animal after 4 hours of bloodless perfusion at 4°C, with full recovery, including (as far as could be ascertained) full memory and personality [7]. After this, recovery of animals after 4 hours became routine. Improvements in procedures made recovery faster and easier on the staff consisting of Alcor members, several of whom put in long, volunteer hours each time to ensure success. Sometimes problems would appear. Manual ventilation of animals had to be used, for example, because of a freakish interaction between a new electrocautery tool and an electrically powered respirator that prevented recovery of several animals before it was detected [8]. Another time, an animal nearly died when, upon rewarming, it was transfused with blood that turned out to be contaminated-but the dog was saved with an artificial blood substitute [9]. In all, the experiments helped refine suspension protocols and provided invaluable training for a wide variety of emergency conditions.

Experiments with animals raise ethical issues: mainly, how it can be proper to subject innocent creatures to procedures that may cause them to suffer and die. These issues are addressed in an article that accompanies a recounting of one of the early experiments [10]. Nobody wants to see an intelligent, sensitive, friendly creature like a dog sacrificed or subjected to discomfort — that much is acknowledged. On the other hand, we are playing for very high stakes here: ultimately, nothing less than the elimination of death itself, and the hideous suffering and indignity that is often unavoidable in our journey through life. (People who think this suffering extraordinary should visit a nursing home and witness dying under the various forms of torture provided by the normal aging process.) People are worth more than animals. In trying to continue life and make it worthwhile, one is sometimes faced with choices that require a sacrifice of what “Fluosol-43 ” was a blood substitute used in the early dog experiments is less important. We don’t like to have to make those choices, but when the alternatives are worse, we justifiably make them. As has generally been the policy with animal work in cryonics, every reasonable effort was made to carry out experiments as humanely as possible, all surgical work, for example, being done under general anesthesia. Moreover, it was always an Alcor policy (and still is) never to use an animal more than once in a total body washout-if it survived and was not sacrificed (painlessly) as part of the experiment, it would then become a pet.

In addition to the dog work, there were other experiments that added knowledge or helped develop new technology. One unusual opportunity presented itself. Due to a shortage of funding, three whole-body suspension patients that had been stored at Trans Time were converted to neuropreservation; their bodies were then thawed and autopsied at Alcor [11]. In this way it was found that substantial cracking had occurred in the prior cooldown to liquid nitrogen temperature. Presumably this problem also existed with other suspensions; efforts then were made to minimize it, for example, use of slow, controlled cooling and higher concentrations of cryoprotectant.

Another project was a study of cat brains. These were perfused and frozen under a variety of conditions, in an effort to assess problems that would occur in human suspensions. Examinations were made at the macroscopic, histological (cellular) and ultrastructural levels [12]. Results showed that, while fine structure clearly was being preserved, the preservation was not perfect. Basic questions remained unanswered, such as whether identity-critical information would be adequately retained in frozen brain tissue. (These questions are still unanswered and await better understanding of how memories are stored.)

Some important innovations affecting suspensions resulted from Alcor’s research during this period. The change in perfusate was mentioned (not the last). Another achievement was the Mobile Advanced Life Support System (MALSS — now renamed Mobile Advanced Rescue Cart or MARL) — a specially equipped gurney for maintaining circulation and oxygenation while transporting a patient.” “Silcool,” a silicone oil, replaced isopropyl alcohol as a heat exchange medium for cooling patients to dry ice temperature. (Unlike silcool, the alcohol is volatile, flammable and damaging on contact with tissue [14].) Other innovations were made in patient storage’ for example, a fire protection system (for vaults used to store neuropatients) based on water-filled pipe sections [15], and an alarm system.

With the Dora Kent crisis that erupted at the end of 1987, and the subsequent legal battles and other problems, Alcor’s research effort was slowed, though not halted entirely. Some significant accomplishments over the next few years included a computer program for modeling perfusions [16], and more recently, an automated cooldown system [17]. Another serious blow to the research program, however, was the suspension of Jerry Leaf in 1991 followed by the departure of Mike Darwin from Alcor in 1992, to head his own research team. Early in 1993 Alcor’s animal work was finally halted by local regulatory restrictions. (For the last project, that January, there was an attempt to recover a hypothermic dog without subsequent hemodialysis; this objective was not achieved but there were tantalizing indications that it should be possible [18].) The move from California to Arizona in February 1994 removed the prohibitions on animal work, and with other favorable conditions, including some new talent, doors again were opened for a major research effort. This will take time to acquire full momentum, but there is optimism that major discoveries and developments are in the offing.

[More recent Alcor research has focused on (1) adapting vitrification procedures, which were developed for conventional organ preservation, to the human central nervous system, and (2) developing storage at temperatures somewhat above that of liquid nitrogen to prevent cracking (see Cryopreservation and Fracturing).]


1. Laurence Gale, Long Life Magazine, July-Aug 1978, page 59

2. Carl Carlyle, Long Life Magazine, Jan-Feb 1979, page 2

3. Mike Darwin, Cryonics, Oct 1981, page 5

4. Hugh Hixon, Cryonics, Jan 1985, page 19 (see also G. Feinberg, Physics and life prolongation, Physics Today, Nov 1966, page 45)

5. Cryonics, Sep 1984, page 13

6. Cryonics, Jul 1984, page 2

7. Cryonics, Nov 1984, page 3

8. Cryonics, Aug 1986, page 10

9. Cryonics, May 1985, page 11

10. Cryonics, Dec 1984, page 3

11. Mike Federowicz, Hugh Hixon, and Jerry Leaf, Cryonics, Sep 1984, page 16; Nov 1984, page 13

12. Cryonics, Jul 1985, page 1

13. Cryonics, Nov 1986, page 30

14. Cryonics, Oct 1985, page 8; Nov 1985, page 4

15. Cryonics, Oct 1984, page 1

16. Cryonics, Oct 1988, page 24

17. Cryonics, Jan 1993, page 6; 3rd Quarter 1994, page 33

18. Cryonics, Feb 1993, page 10

Much thanks to Hugh Hixon for consultations during the writing of this article.