July 9, 2002 -- It's the stuff of Hollywood movies — most notably the Austin Powers comedies — but now the story is real, or perhaps surreal.
Two days after baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams died in Florida, his daughter (by his first wife) began arguing with his son (by his third wife) about whether to freeze the body of the "Splendid Splinter."
Bobby-Jo Ferrell said her half brother, John Henry Williams, shipped their father's body to a laboratory in Arizona, and she has vowed to go to court to stop it. Ferrell said her father wanted his body cremated and his ashes spread over the Florida Keys, where he fished for years.
Ferrell said her half brother wants to sell the baseball legend's DNA. Neither John Henry Williams nor the Alcor Life Extension Foundation of Scottsdale, Ariz., has commented on Ferrell's allegations.
Legal arguments aside, the science is suspect. If Williams' son wanted to harvest his father's genes for the highest bidder, he could simply freeze a piece of his father's skin tissue — and save several thousand dollars in the process. Williams' DNA could then be replicated and placed in a host cell, a now-common process. But that is where the supposed plan reaches the boundaries of modern science and enters what is still science fiction.
How to Freeze a Body
If what Ferrell says is true, Ted Williams would join a rapidly growing group of Americans: the frozen. About 100 legally deceased people are suspended in tanks of liquid nitrogen in America, and thousands more have signed up to go under the ice.
Of the 41 people frozen at the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Mich., open since 1976, about half were frozen in the last five years. Institute officials credit the growth of the Internet and an increase of the scientific advances for cryonics' new popularity.
Some reports Monday said Williams' body had already been frozen, but the process of submerging a body in liquid nitrogen takes several weeks.
It it were being preserved through cryonics, Williams' body would be embalmed with a glycerin-based solution, cooled under dry ice until it reaches mnius-40 degrees Fahrenheit, then gradually lowered into a pool of liquid nitrogen until the body reaches minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, all movement of cells in the body has stopped.
Cryonics centers require members to register and pay in advance. Though it's unknown whether Williams was a member, Alcor also provides emergency services. Officials at the Cryonics Institute said it's common to wait in an emergency situation before freezing a patient, in order to ensure the decision isn't influenced by emotion and satisfies the rest of the family.
Cryonics is based on the hope that today's diseases will find their cures in the future. For example, when cancer is cured, cryonics members believe they will be saved retroactively.
An Imperfect Science
Like cloning, the technology isn't near completion, but the speed of progress in science and medicine has people excited enough to spend anywhere from $28,000 to $120,000 for the chance to live again.
"Death is just the point at current technology when the doctor gives up," said David Ettinger, whose father is credited with founding the cryonics movement. "It's a legal definition, not a medical one."
In 1964, Ettinger's father, Robert Ettinger, published the book The Prospect of Immortality, in which he detailed his plan for prolonging life through what would become cryonics. The ideas were first expressed in a science fiction story that the elder Ettinger had published a few years prior.
The first patient was frozen just three years later, in 1967. Twelve years after that, Robert Ettinger founded the Cryonics Institute and, soon after, froze his first patient. Since then, the institute has become home to more patients, as well as about a dozen cats and dogs.
Of course, cryonics has its critics, many of whom contend that the freezing process alone would do irreparable damage to a patient.
"There would be substantial hurdles," said Larry Thompson, a spokesman for the National Human Genome Research Institute.
"Ted is gone, and the first thing people have to do is accept that. These companies aren't selling science, they are selling hope," said Thompson describing cryonics as "really out there."
Among the technologies cryonics enthusiasts are hoping the future will provide is the ability to unfreeze them. No one has ever been unfrozen, and even the centers aren't sure how to do it.
Cryonics, said Thompson, "isn't based in the foundations of science."