Dr. Bedford Gets a New Suit

From Cryonics August 1991

by Ralph Whelan

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James Bedford was the first man to be frozen. A dubious honor at best in 1967, when the word “cryonics” was only two years old, and Eric Drexler had notions other than molecular assemblers on his teen-age mind. Now, though, nearly twenty-five years cold, Dr. Bedford and his motivations are a bit better understood, at least by those who care to understand such dramatic undertakings. Cryonicists now have a wing and a prayer and some promising research data to go on, speculations on reanimation techniques are sprouting mathematical symbols, and the world in general is somewhat of a better place for the “metabolically challenged” (i.e., frozen).

These were the thoughts occupying my mind, as thirteen of us gathered one Saturday morning late in May, 1991. Why, just think of what we’d rallied to do. We were moving the first man ever frozen from his aged storage unit — Twenty-one years worn — and putting him into a new, efficient, four-person, state-of-the-art dewar. He would get an additional sleeping bag for thermal protection. He would rest in an individual aluminum pod for mechanical and further thermal protection. He would nest efficiently, sharing liquid nitrogen with three others, and sharing a Patient Care Bay with thirteen more, with a full-time on-site caretaker, temperature alarms….

His care was improving. After twenty-four years in storage, more years than I’ve been alive, rather than declining into sporadic attempts to avoid what once must have seemed inevitable, his care was getting better. What an encouraging and heartening sign for someone who as likely as not will end up in a similar state someday.

This was the stew-pot on one “back burner” of my mind, as I drank coffee and listened to Hugh Hixon explain the elaborate dance routine that would get Dr. Bedford out of his horizontal home of twenty-one years and into his new suit. The other mental burner, a much bigger burner, was devoted to the same anxiety that must of have been niggling at twelve other forebrains at the very same moment: When the lid dropped, when the bag lifted, when the vapor cleared, what were we going to find? How relentless were Dr. Bedford’s caretakers during the sixteen years before he came under Alcor’s care? Could anyone not building a business and a career around such persistent care possibly have stamina and fortitude enough to never screw up? Was James Hiram Bedford not just legally dead, not just medically dead, but now also dead dead (i.e., were the brain structures essential to his memories and identity eradicated)?

We didn’t know. And the name “James Bedford,” after twenty-four years of capital-P Pioneerness, has accumulated a lot of emotional and intellectual baggage for a lot of people. Although far from conventional icon status, he represents a level of achievement and commitment to principle in the cryonics community that — still reeling from the Chatsworth incident — would sag horribly if it turned out that the First Man had fallen. (I wish I were overstating the point.)

With this heightened level of anticipation — that feeling of being present for some Special Moment in history — we fidgeted through the nine a.m. briefing. This gradually devolved into into the assignment of preparatory parts-assembly and clutter-clearing tasks, which took the better part of an hour. Final preparations consisted of dressing for our parts. Those who would be physically transferring Bedford (Mike Darwin, Hugh Hixon, Jerry Leaf, Allen Lopp, Max More, Ralph Whelan, Russell Whitaker) donned cover-all rain suits to protect against liquid nitrogen splashes.

The morning briefing. Hugh Hixon describes the various steps and a rough timeline. L to R: Tanya Jones, Russell Whitaker (sitting), Carlos Mondragon, Hugh Hixon, Ralph Whelan, Jerry Leaf, Allen Lopp, Michael Perry (mostly obscured by Al Lopp), Max More, Bill Seidel. Photo by Steve Harris.

Donning the protective gear. Liquid nitrogen splashes are unavoidable in transfers and encapsulations. Photo by Tanya Jones.

This done, we deferred to experience. Jim Amato, owner/operator of CryoTech (the cryogenic repair company that gets our business) and expert handler of abrasive cutting wheels, hunkered down to the tricky task of cutting through the weld on Bedford’s dewar. Brief Dewar Lecture: the old-time storage dewars were welded (or bolted) shut to preserve a vacuum between the inner and outer steel shells. Reflective foil situated within this vacuum provides additional insulation.

Cutting through the outer shell would expose nothing but the reflective foil, but was tricky still in that Jim (and we) wanted to make as much cutting progress as we could without breaking the seal, since losing the vacuum would greatly compromise our thermal protection and increase the rate of liquid nitrogen boil-off. We weren’t chained to the clock yet, but we were thinking about it.

Opening the outer head of the dewar: an abrasive cutting wheel was used to score the weld before cutting completely through the outer can and breaking the vacuum. Photo by Steve Harris.

Jim spent about twenty-five minutes cutting evenly around the outer shell, while antsy cryonicists approached and receded. Scant minutes after the first hiss of inrushing air, the lid of the outer shell dropped away. We were rewarded with mounds of Dimplar foil — a dimpled insulator produced by a now-defunct company — and, with a little digging, the bare, cold surface of the inner shell.

The inner shell quickly began to frost over, revealing the “water line,” so to speak, of the liquid level inside. Jim set to work on the inner weld, while behind him the procession of anxious cryonicists stepped up in tempo. Minutes later, when he broke through the inner shell, a plume of nitrogen vapor marked the occasion dramatically. Later still, as he widened the breach around the perimeter of the lid, the nitrogen began escaping in liquid form, and quickly, and we could see by the frost line on the inner shell that Dr. Bedford’s biological clock would soon be ticking again. It was the “feet” end of the dewar that was raised, so the brain was surely still immersed, but no warming is good warming.

(Here follows a brief interval of finger-flexing and foot-stomping for twelve ischemia-hating Alcorians, their anxiety squared and cubed by the unfairness of still not knowing if there was even anything to be nervous about anymore. Jim, would you get that damned thing open!)

The inner shell is a bit more tricky, with vapors obscuring vision and liquid nitrogen spraying out. Further, as the nitrogen level drops near Dr. Bedford’s feet, his biological clock starts ticking once again, though he is still very cold. Photo by Steve Harris.

He did get it open, and expertly so. And here we got our first surprise: the stretcher, or more precisely the metal frame holding Dr. Bedford, was bolted to the slide! After a quick scramble for a couple of wrenches, the bolts were loosened. As whe stepped aside, Jim and Hugh began working to loosen the bolts holding the racking system that supported Bedford. Once Jim and Hugh loosened these, we were able to slide the rack almost entirely out, revealing a pale blue sleeping bag secured to the rack with Nylon rope. Then we got our second surprise: another set of bolts anchoring the rack to the slide on the the other end! A quick decision was made to simply cut Bedford free from the rack and lift him in the sleeping bag. As Mike had a pair of Super-scissors in his pocket, this went rapidly. So rapidly in fact that the sleeping bag was still soaked with liquid nitrogen when we picked it up. This was the first installment in a collection of minor liquid nitrogen burns for most of the transfer participants.

Now we work fast. Restraining bolts are removed and Dr. Bedford is quickly transferred into a waiting liquid nitrogen bath. Dr. Perry, in the background, records exposure time and assorted historical moments. Photo by Tanya Jones.

Here the antiquated but adequate racking system is exposed. The ropes had secured Dr. Bedford to the tray; what appear as paper scraps were actually “Dimplar” foil, an insulation material. Photo by Steve Harris.

Since we knew well ahead of time that we would want to evaluate Bedford’s condition, and that we could not risk him warming while we did so, Hugh had engineered a heavily insulated bathtub, of sorts, to facilitate this. What we had, in effect, was a galvanized steel tank filled with liquid nitrogen and surrounded by about a foot of expanded polystyrene foam. This created a bath that would allow us to a) assess Bedford’s condition and determine whether or not he had ever been allowed to warm significantly, while keeping him submerged and cool, and b) perform the various mechanical manipulations that would allow us to get a second sleeping bag around him for thermal protection and an aluminum pod around him for mechanical protection, while again keeping him submerged for most of the operation.

So we had the liquid nitrogen bath waiting nearby. We rushed Bedford over to the bath and immediately submerged him. After taking a breather and relaxing a bit, we began unzipping the pale-blue bag that covered him. With a minimum of lifting and thermal exposure (some is necessary to access the zipper), we worked it open. With the billowing clouds of water vapor condensing from the air as a result of peeling back the sleeping bag, it was difficult at first to see him clearly, but eventually the air cleared enough that we were able to see. As you might be able to tell from the accompanying pictures, there was quite an expectant and eager gathering.

This is a crew of relieved cryonicists. Dr. Bedford, once again submerged in liquid nitrogen, looks as good as we could’ve hoped. Photo by Steve Harris.

After (for some) years to decades of wondering and hoping, we were at last able to satisfy ourselves that the news was nothing but good. Dr. Bedford, it would seem, had been attended to diligently over the preceding decades. Looking at him, we could say with certainty (and the ultimate in satisfaction) that his temperature in degrees Celsius had remained negative — had not risen above zero — during the past twenty-four years. (For a technical description of Dr. Bedford’s condition, see the following piece by Mike Darwin: Evaluation of the Condition of Dr. James H. Bedford After 24 Years of Cryonic Suspension.)

Once the tension was sufficiently eased and we were prepared to finish the job, Hugh rolled a modified engine hoist — sort of an overhead jack assembly — to a central position over the bath. Along with a special strongback mount Hugh designed to lift the entire length of the patient evenly, this would allow us to hoist Bedford out of the nitrogen long enough to run a second sleeping bag beneath him. Despite protective gloves, liquid nitrogen still manages to get through the seams; everyone got their second set of liquid nitrogen burns at this juncture. During all of the time that Bedford was out of the bath, his original sleeping bag provided thermal protection, while Russell and Max doused him continually with buckets of liquid nitrogen. We returned him to the bath.

This rigging system and bath, engineered by Hugh Hixon, allows us to transfer patients into sleeping bags and aluminum pods with only brief removal from liquid nitrogen. Photo by Carlos Mondragon.

Prior to the whole operation, Hugh had placed straps across the bottom of the bath and up over the edges. These were now used to snug the second sleeping bag. We were then able to use them as lifting straps as we hoisted Bedford once again, this time to slide first some straps and then half of an aluminum pod beneath him, while Russell and Max continued to bail nitrogen from the bath onto Bedford. Again we lowered him.

When the patients are out of the nitrogen, the sleeping bags keep the air away and the liquid around the patient, while dedicated cryonicists like Max More continuously saturate the bag. Photo by Carlos Mondragon

We loosened the hoist from the sleeping bag and affixed it to the straps running beneath the pod bottom. Lifting only slightly, we were able to expose enough of the pod rim to slide the pod top into place and bolt it down. I’m making this sound a bit smoother than it actually was; as one would expect there was every manner of minor hang-up and contingency, but the gist of each maneuver we accomplished.

Having run the thermocouple lines out a special port in the pod and having secured the top half of the pod “clamshell,” we prepared to hoist the pod into a vertical position, with Bedford securely strapped within the pod head-down. This is the trickiest part of the operation, since the patient will not be submerged and hence we must move quickly, while at the same time we’re moving quite a weighty package, which is quite cold to boot. The sleeping bags and pod provide tremendous thermal protection of the patient during such moves, but time is still of the essence.

We maneuvered one of the “Bigfoot” dewars into position next to the bath. (This dewar then held only one other patient, our most recent suspension, already in a protective pod.) After hooking a lift bar to the pod and hooking it to an overhead electric winch, we began carefully hoisting the pod, while Max and Russell used a guide bar to prevent dragging as we worked it upright. We then managed, relatively quickly and efficiently, to raise the pod and then lower it into the Bigfoot.

Mike (standing center) runs the crane while Hugh guides the top of the pod (where the patient’s feet are) and Max and Russell guide the bottom. Ralph looks on approvingly. Photo by Steve Harris.

Pod Jockeys Ralph and Mike guide the tricky descent into the dewar. The pod system makes for a tight fit, for stability. The wires visible at the top of the pod are thermocouple (temperature) probes. Photo by Carlos Mondragon.

The pods nest together very well, as this picture illustrates. The square centerpiece is a racking system with shelves for neuropatients or pets. All pieces are aluminum, with liquid nitrogen vents, straps for stability, and lift mounts on the “top.” (Remember that the patients are secured head-down.) Photo by Hugh Hixon.

And that was it. The historical First Man had his new suit, as well as a team of very happy tailors.