Interview – Thomas Donaldson

From Cryonics August 1982

by Mike Darwin

Dr. Thomas Donaldson holds a unique and unprecedented position within the cryonics community; he is universally admired and respected. In any community of strong willed, opinionated people that is an incredible accomplishment.

In January of 1982 I had the privilege of meeting with Thomas for the first time during his visit to the United States from Australia. I found him no less original in person than he is in print. The most startling and delightful things about Thomas are his insightful and original views on almost any subject you care to discuss, and his persistent, realistic optimism. I think it is this last quality that I am most in awe of, and to some extent it shows up well in a piece he authored for this issue entitled “What Can You Do.” Thomas is the type of man who could sit there and calmly tell you: “Well, I was trapped in the jungles of Malaysia surrounded by unscalable mountains on all sides, pretty much cut off from any hope of rescue. So, the first thing I had to do was teach the natives mining techniques. Then, you see it was just a matter of setting up forges and within twenty years we had light industry going. At any rate, to make a long story short I eventually was able to put together a single engine airplane and fly out of there.” I might add that all of this would be related in the most modest and matter of fact way. And what’s more, there wouldn’t be a shred of doubt in your mind that Thomas was telling anything less than the truth.

Thomas is an incredible man. He holds a doctorate in mathematics and a professorship at the Australian National University in Canberra. He has traveled extensively; Mexico, Europe, Japan, and Indonesia. Originally from Kentucky, Thomas relocated to Australia about eight years ago and has carved out an impressive reputation for himself in pure mathematics. I stand in awe of his flexibility and openness to change. In fact, I paid him the highest compliment I’ve ever paid anyone. I told him that when he is revived after 100 or 200 years the one thing I could be sure of is that he wouldn’t miss a step. Here then is Dr. Thomas Donaldson in an interview conducted at Cryovita Laboratories on January 27, 1982.

MD: What are the most important issues confronting cryonics today?

TD: Improving the scientific and cost sides of the operation.

MD: In what ways?

TD: Take insurance, for example — a lot of it is profit that should be going to cryonics societies. That’s the problem — it impacts on our ability to recruit people. With remote standby, for instance, rates should be assessed on the basis of age and possibility of deanimation. But they aren’t, which means basically that younger people are being asked to pay more than they really should on a strictly financial basis. These are problems that are not easy to solve. I don’t have any magic answers. A lot of the present cost of cryonics comes from the fact that so few people are being suspended. Those who are suspended thus have to pay quite a large sum.

If we want to keep going for a long time we have to pay attention to issues like this. How can we reduce our costs? How can we best use our own suspension funds and other economic strengths?

MD: What do you think are the critical scientific areas that we should be investigating as cryonicists?

TD: Brain freezing. All kinds of brain freezing under all kinds of conditions. Everything you can do: freeze brains that have been mistreated in a lot of ways; freeze brains that have been perfectly prepared; examine these preparations with light and electron microscopy and histochemistry.

MD: What do you feel we should be doing to improve our scientific credibility and standing?

TD: I’ve stopped worrying about that. If the cryobiologists want to become cryonicists they are more than welcome, but I don’t see the need for their approval. As long as cryonics conducts its science honestly, accurately, and with a high standard, I really don’t see how it means anything what cryobiologists have to say.

MD: What about public credibility?

TD: One of the problems is that public credibility is so poor that if the entire Society for Cryobiology decided to take on cryonics, the net result would be that they would waste a lot of money and dissipate a lot of effort and maybe go out of existence much faster than otherwise. I can’t see any other effect it would have. It might be a good thing because it would probably accelerate the demise of the Society for Cryobiology. That would be lovely. I don’t think it could hurt cryonicists.

MD: I take it you do not see any great social benefit to society as a whole or any personal benefit to cryonicists in the continued existence of the Society for Cryobiology?

TD: I think blood freezing is a good thing. I’m not against people who work on it. My attitude toward blood freezing is similar to that of an astronomical engineer toward someone who’s busily trying to improve airplanes: it’s probably a good thing, but it has nothing whatever to do with my interests.

MD: Aren’t you equating the Society with blood freezers when in fact they are a very diverse group of people — insect physiologists, organ preservationists, and so on?

TD: That’s probably true. You asked me, “Have they done good things?” Blood freezing is one of the good things they have done. But just because an organization has done good things, that’s not sufficient for them to get my support. There are so many organizations that have done good things that you have to choose. True, there are people involved with organ freezing which is a good thing; but they are NOT working with brains and that is what is of supreme importance.

I can remember in the past much debate in cryonics about how to freeze brains. Of course this debate was not going to be resolved empirically, it was going to be resolved by debating about the best way to freeze kidneys based on reports in the literature about attempts to cryopreserve these organs. That is not the way to learn how to freeze brains. The way to find out how to freeze brains is to actually freeze them.

MD: Where does your organization in Australia stand now?

TD: There is a viable cryonics enterprise in Australia now. It may not be impressive or large, but it is viable. There are cryonicists and they have some degree of organization. I think it may take as long as five years before we are ready in terms of equipment to freeze someone. It may take as long as ten years before we actually freeze someone. It is important to remember that the population is much lower in Australia. So, even if people were as interested in cryonics as they are in the States, the raw numbers would have to be much lower. Even with help, it is going to take a long time before we have enough money and expertise to do a freezing in Australia.

MD: How many of you are there?

TD: There are six people signed up with all arrangements complete. There are two people who are very interested. But your guess is as good as mine as to when they will join. When I go back I plan to do some additional promotion and hopefully get other interested individuals. The media still goes crazy over there about cryonics, and all that is necessary to get interviews is to send out a few postcards.

MD: What about California cryonics? Any comments or suggestions?

TD: They could use more legal help. Lawyers are not cheap. I am sorry to say this, but I think that some of the lawyers in California could probably be of a great deal more help to cryonics if they would be prepared to work at reduced rates. After all, their interests are at stake, too. The Detroit people seem to have a lot of good legal advice. I thought that CI was in a very good position legally.

MD: Where do you see the big legal deficiencies in the California program?

TD: It isn’t so much a deficiency of the program as much as it is an inability to handle the legal problems that come up. The problem with the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act is a good example. Further difficulties will arise and they will have to be worked out. I can guarantee it without specifying what they are. And what have you got? You’ve lawyers wanting to be paid for their time — even though they are signed up and have suspension arrangements. I understand that everybody has to put brad on the table, but that attitude is very unfortunate. Michigan has a couple of lawyers who are prepared to work for free. This is important, not so much with existing programs, but with respect to threats which arise which something has to be done about. You get a hemorrhage in finances when you have to pay a lawyer to do these things. After all, we’re not asking them to do anything more than the rest of us are doing. Look at Jerry Leaf and yourself for instance.

MD: What about your visit to the Florida group?

TD: They have plenty of money. They seem to be very low on manpower. Particularly on committed manpower that will spend a significant amount of time on anything. Of course, the manpower can be bought, but the price of manpower is likely to be astronomical even compared to the price of a heart-lung machine. They have a completely different set of problems. I suppose if they were prepared to spend a great deal of money they could go a long way toward buying their way out of these problems. I mean a heart-lung machine is a piece of capital equipment and you buy it, and if you don’t use it maybe you can throw a tarpauline over it and it just sits there. But if you are going to have somebody do something for you on a regular basis and you want them to be good, you are asking them to devote a large slice of their life to your concerns and that does not come cheap.

MD: Why do you think the Florida people have been unwilling to make the commitments of time and energy that have been made elsewhere?

TD: Well, there are a lot of issues in organizing a cryonics capability which can only be solved by the application of a great deal of personal attention. If someone is not willing to devote that attention it is going to be hard for them to buy it. There are some things that they can’t really delegate. Some very sensitive decisions have to be made. On the other hand I don’t feel any of these groups are near collapsing. It is not a matter of survival.

MD: How do you feel about aging research? Any breakthroughs lately?

TD: I don’t foresee any in the near future. The problem is that by the time any drug is clearly and definitely established as a good workable life- extending drug to take, you will probably be over 75 and it will not matter in the least to you personally. The difficulty with these gerontological treatments is that it really would take a long time to find out if they work. I mean, even if you have something that would make someone look a lot young, you still have the problem of what it is going to do to them over a period of 20 years. It could be dealt with on a long-term basis by finding good ways of assessing physiological age; but then it is going to take just as long to find an accurate, calibrated way of assessing physiological age as it is to discover an anti-aging drug and prove that it works.

MD: So I gather you don’t feel gerontology offers much hope for those of us who are now middle-aged or older.

TD: No, I don’t think it even offers much hope for somebody who is in their 20’s. I am very in favor of work on gerontology, but I just don’t think it can be responsibly sold as some way to prevent us all from growing old and dying — even those of us who are very young.

MD: Are there any gerontological therapies which you feel particularly ripe for immediate human application?

TD: I am taking Deaner (trade name of dimethylaminoethanol, also know as deanol) and I’m also taking calcium pantothenate. I really don’t think that my word means much of anything. Anyone contemplating doing this kind of thing is going to have to look at the literature and decide for themselves. I take GH3 very seriously. I am not taking it myself, but I think it deserves a great deal of further investigation. I think L-Dopa is another serious possibility, but there are a lot of troubles and serious side effects which need to be better quantified. I am looking at this drug very hard right now.

MD: What about Donner Denckla’s work with removing the pituitary glands from rats in order to find the “death hormone”?

TD: I have problems with Denckla mainly because there is this fellow named Everett in Australia who has been working with hypophysectomized rats for many years. He can get apparent rejuvenation of the animals without lifespan extension. So, I think that what Denckla has done ought to be perused, but I don’t think it is at all clear that it is going to rejuvenate anybody.

MD: Are there any other areas of gerontological research which especially interest you?

TD: I’ve seen lots of lip service to the idea of circadian rhythms (biological clocks) being related to aging, but precious little research. Everybody talks about the “clock of aging,” but the amount of work that has actually been done to establish any relationship between known circadian clocks and aging rates is negligible. This ought to be taken more seriously.

MD: What do you feel are the prospects for raising enough money to allow for some significant “in house” cryonic research?

TD: Significant to whom? Significant to us? If you mean significant to the world at large, well, I don’t think the world in general is going to consider cryonics significant for quite a long time.

MD: Many people within the cryonics community are very anxious to see cryonicists do research which results in publishable papers of interest to the general scientific community. How do you feel about this?

TD: As someone who has actually published papers as a working mathematician, I must draw a distinction. There is publishable research that is good research and, while it may be sad, it is quite possible for research to be good and not publishable. You’ve seen the sort of problems we’ve had with the Society for Cryobiology. I don’t think the Society for Cryobiology is going to publish a paper that is openly cryonicist. I’m sure they would publish papers that were not openly cryonicist. But that’s a problem, because Cryovita and IABS, for instance, are likely to be considered tainted and therefore unsuitable for publication.

We do want to do good research. But we can’t count on seeing even good research in print in a major journal such as Cryobiology. We like to think of scientists as being people with open minds, but very often that is not the case. Over a period of 100 years or so this will probably work itself out, because I think that good research does win out in the end. In the meantime I really don’t think we should let our judgement about the things that really need to be done be influenced by the possibility of publication Science or Cryobiology.

MD: What kind of chance do you feel people making cryonic suspension arrangements today have?

TD: Providing they are quality arrangements, I would guess that it’s really good. Particularly assuming that funding is well provided for — well over the minimums. I’m talking about the possibility of being frozen for four hundred years. In four hundred years you’ve got a lot of time.

MD: You don’t feel that biological problems such as cracking, failure to preserve ultrastructural information, or other problems which might result from the introduction of cryoprotective agents will present any insurmountable problems?

TD: I feel those things will be very significant in that they may well determine how long it is before someone is brought out. I can’t prove this, in fact there is no way to prove this, but my own gut feeling is that — in terms of preservation of information — in a high quality suspension it is there. Now there are fantastic problems in recovering that information and incorporating it into a workable human being. But I feel that the information is there. Once you have that, then the chief problem you have is time. The chief problem with time is money — failure of continued suspension.

MD: There is a question which is related to this which has been raised by several people, namely the issues of low cost, lower technology freezings, such as minimal or no perfusion, and extended storage on dry ice. What is you opinion of these alternatives.

TD: All of these things are very different. If I wanted to cut costs, the first thing I would do would be to have my head frozen. The last thing I would do would be to have my head frozen. The last thing I would do would be to give way on the matter of storage temperature. Dry ice storage is definitely something I would be very uncomfortable with. I would feel very insecure about depending on the notion that a small number of reactions are likely to proceed to completion at this temperature and then there would be no change. I would expect that there is going to be continued change and reactions at that temperature. Based on the Arhennius equation alone, there are tremendous grounds for concern.

On a percentage basis of the actual funds that need to be available for freezing and storage, the $20,000 currently being charged for perfusion is negligible. I think it’s silly to argue about this. I think people take these “minimum” amounts for suspension all too seriously. All these minimums represent is the absolute, rock bottom price that the procedure can be done for — regardless if it is CI’s minimums or Trans Time’s minimums. The question you have to ask is, “how will I be cared for if there is a ware or a depression?” You want to have a lot more money available to the organization which is caring for you. If they have enough money then they can move you overseas, or they can buy a nitrogen liquefier to deal with shortages of nitrogen. They are more flexible and that is definitely the key to long-term survival. Whereas, if you just have the minimum you’ll probably be frozen; but if there is any significant amount of trouble it is likely that you’ll go under.

For those who want to go with CI’s $28,000 minimum, I think they should think very seriously about neuropreservation. Even those who have much larger amounts of money should open the possibility legally that they can be converted to neuropreservation if economic necessity calls for it.

MD: Any thoughts on strategy and tactics for us here in the states?

TD: No. The problems you face are obviously difficult ones. I could suggest lots of things if large amounts of money were available, but we all know that large amounts of money are not available.

MD: So you don’t see some radical new approach as being necessary? I gather you feel we should just continue to proceed as we have.

TD: I don’t believe in dealing with problems as they arise. What I meant is that all the problems are difficult ones and I don’t have any magic answers. The trouble with dealing with problems before they arise is that it takes a lot of time and trouble and money — when it may not seem absolutely necessary. The trouble with dealing with problems when they arise is that you are not as likely to be as thoughtful or as thorough in solving them.

MD: Do you feel that provisions should be made for cryonicists to relocate, both the animate and deanimate ones?

TD: Well, you’re talking about forward planning. I can think of lots of things that would be good to do if somebody would like to do them. The thing is everybody is swamped already. It would be nice to have some contingency plans worked out if the legal situation gets much worse.

MD: What would be the prospects for an emergency relocation to Australia? Could it be done? Would we have problems in moving patients to Australia?

TD: No, I don’t think you would have problems. I think you would want to have lead time. I actually checked into the legality of bringing bodies into Australia, and if it is done properly and according to procedure it can be done. The one problem I could foresee is inadequate lead time. I really don’t think you could undertake such a move with 24 hours notice. But if the lead time is there I foresee no insurmountable problems.

MD: Are we talking about whole body or just neuro patients?

TD: Legally, even moving whole body patients would be entirely tenable; but obviously if it ever came to that, the practical difficulties in whole body transport are staggering. I would actually recommend that you only take neuros. In other words, convert everyone to neuro.

MD: Would there be individuals in Australia who would be willing and able to act in securing facilities for us and handling legal negotiations on the Australian side?

TD: Certainly, certainly. There would be people here. One of the advantages we’ve got is that our proportion of people who actually are prepared to do something is much higher than it is in groups in the States. Indeed, with enough forward planning you could even take a significant amount of equipment of equipment with you as well.

MD: What about costs? Any ideas?

TD: A fair bit. For a whole body patient on ice it would cost in the vicinity of $10,000. Obviously, if you’re talking about neuropatients you might be able to transport as many as 10 or 20 in the same volume and weight limits and not spend any more money. You would probably have to arrange a special container, especially if you wanted to keep them on LN2 during transport as opposed to dry ice. If you had enough patients it would probably make sense to charter an airplane, which could probably be done for $50,000 or so. Of course, if you are only going to move neuropatients then this would not likely be necessary. Of course, this is all off the top of my head. Careful planning might quite possibly reveal other, safer and more efficient ways of going about this.

MD: You have spoken out in the past, at least privately, against rescuing suspension patients who have exhausted trust funds or have no funding for other reasons. Could you elaborate on your reasons for this position?

TD: That’s complicated. I’m not against rescuing people in general so much as I am against this particular situation to which I think you are referring. This situation with BACS patients leaves me with a bad taste. The people who are being rescued had not joined a cryonics organization. Their son had, but he had never completed his suspension arrangements. Really, these people were rather marginal. At some point you just have to put your foot down as to how far you will go for people who have done nothing for themselves.

MD: What about the benefit to BACS and TT which came as a result of freezing these patients? What about the benefits that might come in using their plight as a test case for the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act?

TD: This is a major conflict in my own mind. One of the great advantages that the California groups have that none of the other groups do — which is very important in a way that you only find out when you do it — is that they have actually frozen people. So they have had all the problems and all the learning that goes with that. They have some real bodies there. There’s a lot of things that you can sit there in the corner of your desk and calculate how much it ought to cost until the sun burns out; but the only way to really find out is to try it and see what happens. That’s important. I wouldn’t want to give that up. It is also true that most of the people who are frozen in California have made no preparations. It is quite possible that many of these people will be thawed out eventually due to failure of their finances.

I think that an organization can go into it quite openly and state, “This is what it will cost to perform a suspension operation. You know that a suspension operation is useless unless storage takes place indefinitely. We are not altruists and we do not intend to carry out the storage without payment.” But ultimately, of course, in order to have these test cases, these people have to show up and they have to be given some kind of service. We have that problem in Australia in that I would really like for there to be a test case on remote standby. But someone who has never signed up and never made arrangements — in other words, not someone I know!

I guess what I’m saying is that I think our altruism should be limited in that respect. But then it could also be said that we could limit it too much and all of the “experimental” subjects we get are going to disappear. If this case had happened differently I would feel much differently about it. If both of these people had been suspension members I would feel much more reluctant about letting them go. Certainly if someone wants to contribute money to this I am not going to speak against it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want my BACS dues to go for this. About the best I can say is that I feel uncomfortable about it.

MD: Any last profound piece of wisdom to offer to other cryonicists out there?

TD: I’m sure that any profound piece of wisdom I might have would seem really rather stupid in 300 years. So I think it would be better for me to say nothing, so I don’t feel ashamed of myself in 300 years.