Sports Illustrated Allegations

March 4, 2004

This article discusses the misleading allegations made against Alcor by Sports Illustrated magazine in August 2003. See also the critique of the Sports Illustrated article by the editor of Minor League News.

Allegations of Wrongdoing

During the month of August, 2003, a Sports Illustrated article alleging wrongdoing by Alcor appeared on newsstands. The article alleged that a head had been separated from a body, “shaved, drilled with holes, accidentally cracked as many as 10 times….” In the article, and especially in the media coverage that followed, these allegations were presented as shocking news of mishandling and negligence at Alcor.

The Facts

Alcor has been performing neuropreservation (preservation of the brain within the head) as a cryonics procedure for decades. Most Alcor members prefer neuropreservation, in part because it results in less brain injury than whole body freezing. Cryonicists believe that preservation of the brain is the most important part of cryonics. Most “patients” now in storage at Alcor are in fact neuropreservation cases. That Alcor preserves brains within heads is almost common knowledge. The only thing new in recent media reports about neuropreservation at Alcor is the sensationalization of the procedure.

What about “drilled with holes?” To monitor the state of the brain during its procedures, Alcor makes two small (1/4″) holes in the skull using a standard neurosurgical tool called a perforator. That’s it. Any brain surgery patient in any hospital will have these same holes made using the same tool to begin a procedure called craniotomy to access the brain. One can only imagine why Sports Illustrated chose to draw attention to such a minor procedure, and describe it with the words it did.

What about cracking? In September, 1984, Alcor published in Cryonics magazine the first paper that documented fracturing as a problem in large organs cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Mainstream scientific journals (Cryobiology) have since published research suggesting that fracturing (not breaking) is to be expected in all large organs preserved by vitrification during cooling below -150°C. Ironically, the same week that the Sports Illustrated story came out, Carnegie Mellon University announced a $1.3 million grant from the federal government specifically to solve the problem of fracturing during cryopreservation. None of this research would be going on if the cause of fracturing were careless handling, as implied by media coverage.

Virtues Portrayed as Vices

Perhaps the most unfair aspect of the allegations against Alcor is that conscientious and well-justified procedures were perceived as wrongdoing.

  • Why does Alcor remove heads? Because, according to Alcor, that allows the best possible preservation of the brain. The brain is the primary target of preservation in cryonics.
  • Why doesn’t Alcor just remove the brain? Because the brain would be injured in the process.
  • Why does Alcor make two small holes in the skull? To properly monitor the brain.
  • Why does Alcor get “cracks”? All large organs treated with chemicals to suppress ice formation develop invisible fractures during deep cooling. Alcor was the first institution anywhere to discover and monitor fracturing with a unique acoustic (sound detection) technology. Nobody would even know about this problem were it not for Alcor’s extraordinary efforts to measure and document it during cryonics cases.

Sensational Journalism

Other articles following the Sports Illustrated story were even more extreme. The same source cited in the Sports Illustrated story was quoted delivering a rich variety of inflammatory invectives, including “unethical”, “sickening”, “ghastly”, “horrific”, “desecrated”, “destroyed.” Surgical instruments became woodworking tools. Cryogenic dewars, named after their inventor, James Dewar, became “gods” named after a brand of whiskey (Florida Today, 14 Aug 2003).

Journalists continued the escalation. A former COO became a former CEO (Associated Press, 15 Aug 2003). Two small holes became “drilled with holes” (Sports Illustrated, 18 Aug 2003). “Drilled with holes” became “cracked when holes were drilled in it” (Arizona Capitol Times, 17 Feb 2004). Local TV stations produced graphic animations showing a skull cracking and splitting open. (There has never been a reported case in published scientific literature, or Alcor technical reports, of bone ever fracturing during cryopreservation.)

Consider if a journalist did this expose of the funeral industry: “Funeral Home Scandal: Bodies injected with poison, organs mutilated, remains stuffed into wood boxes and covered with dirt!” It’s all true, right? Of course, if a disgruntled apprentice embalmer went to a sports magazine describing in graphic detail the use of a trocar during embalming of a sports celebrity, or the physical effects of cremation, he would be escorted out of the building by security.

The best proof that Alcor handles cases responsibly is that in 32 years of Alcor history and detailed case reports, no reports can be found of anyone choosing cryonics with Alcor ever going to reporters or authorities to complain that they were misled by Alcor, or regretted their choice of Alcor. Even the family members reported by media to have arranged the cryopreservation alleged by Sports Illustrated (the two youngest children) have expressed no dissatisfaction. Only the eldest daughter, who never wanted cryonics, has complained. Similarly, the disgruntled ex-employee who alleged wrongdoing at Alcor has apparently disclaimed interest in cryonics for himself (New York Times, 14 Aug 2003).