EXCLUSIVE: I froze the first man in liquid nitrogen 50 years ago – and he WILL be brought back to life. Cryogenics pioneer says he is sure freezing will work (and is planning his own second life too)
- Robert Nelson, 80, has revealed to DailyMail.com what it was like to preserve the first ‘patient’ of cryogenics in liquid nitrogen in 1967
- Nelson, the president of the Cryonics Society of California, he said he believes the man, James Bedford, will come back to life one day
- Nelson said he also wants to be frozen when he dies
- Cryogenics is the idea that death is a gradual process, and one that can be reversed if a dead body is frozen quickly enough
- Nelson revealed that when Bedford died, he was stored in the garage of his ‘pothead friends’ for two weeks while the cryonic capsule was still being built
- Bedford now lies suspended in liquid nitrogen in a vault in Scottsdale, Arizona
- Nelson’s life story and connection to the unbelievable science is also turning into a film, starring Paul Rudd
It was late evening on January 12, 1967 and three men were laboring over the body of psychology professor James Bedford, who had just died from kidney cancer at the age of 72.
But while the manner of Bedford’s death – in bed at a hospital in Glendale, California, was not unusual – what happened next certainly was.
Bedford was about to become the world’s first cryopreserved human being – and now lies suspended in liquid nitrogen in a vault in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Although the 72-year-old said before his death that he didn’t expect ever to be revived, scientist Robert Nelson, one of the trio who carried out the preservation process, says he is confident that Bedford will one day live again.
‘When we froze Bedford, man had never been on the moon, there had never been a heart transplant, there was no GPS, no cellphones,’ said Nelson, now 80, in an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com.
James Bedford (whose body is pictured on the white table) was the world’s first cryopreserved human being. Robert Nelson, now 80 (pictured giving Bedford an injection) was one of a team of three that helped preserve his corpse
Cryogenics is the idea that death is a gradual process, and one that can be reversed if a dead body is frozen quickly enough. Pictured, Bedford was eventually transferred from his original ‘cryocapsule’ to a more modern container
Robert Nelson (right) has given DailyMail.com the full story of his extraordinary life and of James Bedford’s (left) pioneering preservation
After being placed into the capsule, technicians covered Bedford’s feet with heat shielding and bolted the stretcher into place on the side rails
Bedford’s body was wrapped in a Dacron polyester sleeping bag and affixed to a stainless steel stretcher before being prepared for placement and put in a new capsule
‘Who knows what the next 50 years is going to bring? I think his hope is in nanotechnology but the means to bring him back will exist sooner or later.’
Now Nelson’s extraordinary story is set to be turned into a film starring Paul Rudd – and will follow his life from his early years as the stepson of a Boston gangster to his role in Bedford’s preservation.
But the movie, a comedy, will also have its darker moments – not least the 1979 court case that saw him sued for $400,000 by some of the families of those he treated after he ran out of money to service his California cryogenic vault and left their bodies to decompose.
Those who were lost included the first woman to be cryopreserved, Marie Phelps-Sweet, who was 74 when she died in a Santa Monica hotel, and Geneviève de la Poiterie, a Canadian girl who was eight when she lost her life to a childhood cancer.
In the aftermath, Nelson was pilloried by the scientific community and the media, an experience he says left him so scarred that he refused to have anything to do with cryonics for more than 25 years.
Now living in the Pacific town of Oceanside, California, with his second wife Mouerth, 57, Nelson has given DailyMail.com the full story of his extraordinary life and of Bedford’s pioneering preservation.
Bedford’s death was the first step towards modern cryonics – the science of preserving a dead body (or ‘patient’ as Nelson calls it) – until such time, it is claimed, that the technology exists to awaken them.
But unlike contemporary ‘patients’, who are slowly cooled over three days before being stored in a capsule filled with liquid nitrogen, Bedford’s journey began with an ice bath – followed by being stuffed into a Styrofoam box and temporarily stored in an LA garage.
Along with Nelson, a retired electrician who never finished high school, Italian biologist Dr Dante Brunol and chemist Robert Prehoda, of Santa Barbara, California, began work on the psychologist moments after he was pronounced dead.
Having cooled Bedford with ice, removed and replaced his blood with the ‘biological antifreeze’ dimethyl sulfoxide, and packed him into a box, the trio realized they had nowhere to put him because his cryonic capsule was still being built in Arizona.
As a result, Bedford spent his first two weeks in suspended animation stashed in a Topanga Canyon garage belonging to two ‘pothead friends’ of Nelson’s – and arrived there by pick-up truck.
‘I had friends who lived in Topanga Canyon which is the hippy capital [of Los Angeles],’ Nelson recalled to DailyMail.com.
‘At the time, everyone out there smoked pot and I had these two pothead friends of mine called Sandra Stanley and Shelby Dzilsky who I loved dearly.
‘So I called up and said, I have a problem and I need your help. Sandra said ‘What?’ I said, I have this frozen guy and no place to put him and it’s going to be two or three weeks.
‘She talked to Shelby and called me back, and said, ‘OK – what are friends for Bob? Bring him on up!’
‘And so, we were going through Topanga Canyon, along these incredible roads, with a frozen doctor in the back of my truck. It was crazy. I look back at it now, and I think, oh my God.
The idea of cryogenic preservation has been popularized in several science fiction movies, including Forever Young (1992) starring Mel Gibson
But unlike contemporary ‘patients’, who are slowly cooled over three days before being stored in a capsule filled with liquid nitrogen, Bedford’s journey began with an ice bath – followed by being stuffed into a Styrofoam box and temporarily stored in an LA garage
Nelson at his Oceanside, California home, holding a photo of another ‘patient’: Marie Sweet, the first women to be frozen
A 1979 court case, however, saw Nelson sued for $400,000 by some of the families of those he treated after he ran out of money to service his California cryogenic vault and left their bodies to decompose. Pictured, Nelson with photos of Mildred Harris at her memorial service two years after she died; her son later sued Nelson
‘But we did what we had to do – we kept him there for about two weeks, then we put him back in my truck, took him to Balboa Park [in Los Angeles] and a mortician put him in a hearse, took him to Arizona and put him in a capsule.’
Born to Elizabeth and Elvin Nelson in Boston in 1936, Nelson’s early years were tough. His father left before he was born and his mother remarried five years later.
His new stepfather, a 300lb mobster named John ‘Fats’ Buccelli, was later jailed for his role in the famous Brink’s Robbery – a heist which saw close to $3 million stolen from the Boston office of asset management company Brink’s Incorporated on January 17, 1950.
Buccelli, who is father to Nelson’s younger brother John, 75, was sentenced to two years in jail in 1956 for his crimes – and was murdered exactly a month after his release on May 19 1958.
‘He was in jail all the time,’ Nelson told DailyMail.com of his life with the gangster. ‘It was like I never really had a father at all.’
But while Buccelli was rarely around, he at least seemed to ‘genuinely care’ about the young Nelson, unlike his mother, an alcoholic who spent most of his childhood ‘drinking, smoking Lucky Strikes one after the other or passed out’.
Eventually, both boys were taken into state care, although Nelson says that Buccelli, who was also convicted of running a drug ring, would come to visit during the periods when he wasn’t in jail.
IF YOU CAN FREEZE AN EMBRYO, COULD YOU FREEZE A CORPSE?
Human and other animal tissues can, of course, be preserved.
The corpses of mammoths, preserved in the permafrost, have been shown to have viable fragments of DNA after thousands of years.
More to the point, human sperm and embryos can also be preserved for several years and still retain the capacity for life.
If this technique were to ever work, perhaps a condition of future resurrection should be an agreement not to reproduce during one’s current lifetime as a trade-off against a growing population.
If it could work, then cryogenics might be construed as a caring option particularly in the light of a dying child’s plea.
According to newspaper reports, several children, some as young as seven, have also signed up to be frozen after their deaths.
Accurate figures of how many people have been cryogenically preserved are difficult to obtain because there is no system of recording this information.
There are probably several hundred in the US and Russia where facilities are known to exist.
There are no laws which ban the practice outright but there may be legal difficulties for cryonics because most countries specify how a dead body must be disposed of – and exclude long-term storage of this kind.
Despite his difficult life at home, he found a measure of happiness at high school where he met his first wife Elaine Smith, now 80, during his studies. Nelson became a father in 1953, aged just 17, when the couple’s son John was born. Two daughters, Lori, now 52, and Susan, now 50, followed shortly after.
In 1958, the same year Buccelli was found dead in his Cadillac with two gunshot wounds to the head, Nelson and his family relocated to Scotch Plains, New Jersey, where they remained for seven years.
But it wasn’t until a year after his 1965 move to Los Angeles, California, that Nelson first encountered cryonics. Nelson’s introduction to the science came via a copy of Dr Robert Ettinger’s seminal 1962 tome, The Prospect of Immortality.
‘He proposed the possibility that suspended animation is a science but while not yet discovered, potentially doable,’ explained Nelson.
‘I liked the idea so I went and got his book and it just blew me away.’
Ettinger, who was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is considered the father of cryogenics and posited the idea that death is a gradual process – and one that can be reversed, provided the body is frozen quickly enough.
The physics professor, who died in 2011 aged 92 in Detroit, Michigan, and is cryopreserved himself, was responsible for introducing Nelson to Bedford – who had begun corresponding with him after reading his book.
By the end of 1966, Nelson had become the president of his local Life Extension Society and met his hero, Ettinger, after he was invited to Los Angeles to talk with members of the group.
‘He [Bedford] was writing to Dr Ettinger about his book and he had cancer,’ says Nelson. ‘He was considering suspension but no one had been suspended.
‘He didn’t want to be the first but he was close to dying so he made arrangements – he could afford it because he was a very wealthy man.’
Nelson says he was initially reluctant to go ahead but agreed after Ettinger convinced him Bedford’s preservation would help further the cause of cryogenics.
He added: ‘I got to meet Bedford once – two days before his death. I came into the hospital and expected him to be in a coma but he was lucid so I introduced myself.
‘He said, ‘Are you the man who’s going to carry out the procedure?’ So I said yes. He said, ‘Mr Nelson, I want you to know something – I don’t have any hope that I will ever be revived but I do this in the hope that this incredible science will benefit my children and my grandchildren someday.’
But while Bedford’s preservation was and remains a success, subsequent attempts at cryopreservation went less well – and led to Nelson being sued for $400,000 a decade later.
Among the nine ‘patients’ involved were the first woman to be cryopreserved, Marie Phelps-Sweet, 74, and the first child, Geneviève de la Poiterie, eight.
Other people started coming to Nelson to perform the procedure and freeze their body, including an eight-year-old girl
Bedford’s personal capsule is pictured here (bottom right) in the ‘patient care area’ of the Fullerton facility
Nelson said in hindsight, freezing the bodies of patients whose families were unable to pay for their upkeep was a mistake. When Nelson ran out of money to fund it, he was forced to let some of the bodies decompose
Phelps-Sweet, who was born in New York but spent most of her life in Santa Barbara, California, died unexpectedly in a Santa Monica hotel on August 26 1967.
An early cryonics enthusiast who ‘volunteered’ to be frozen, Nelson says the cooling process began several days late because the authorities who collected her corpse were unable to identify her.
Her body was cryopreserved nonetheless and she became the first occupant of a vault constructed at the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, a northern LA suburb, by Nelson.
The entrance to the vault, which eventually contained two liquid nitrogen capsules, has now been covered over with turf and the cemetery denies having any record of it – although Nelson insists that he still holds the title deeds to the plot it occupies.
Phelps-Sweet’s corpse remains in situ along with the bodies of Luis Nisco, Helen Kline, Steven Mandell, Pedro Ledesma, Russ Stanley, Mildred Harris and her husband Gaylord.
When the vault was finally closed and its occupants left to decompose in March 1979, two tiny bodies were missing – those of de la Poterie and Sam Porter, a six-year-old boy who died from leukemia in October 1974.
Nelson says he had resigned as custodian of the Chatsworth vault the preceding year, having been unable to keep up with the time and money required to maintain it.
Porter’s father John maintained the vault for another 12 months but eventually decided to give his son a Catholic burial in Orange County – and buried de la Poterie alongside him.
De la Poterie, who was eight when she died of a Wilms tumor, was the first child to be cryogenically preserved and was frozen at the request of her parents, Guy and Pierette.
According to Nelson, the couple, who had two other children, Eric and Marie-Claude, got in touch with him in January 1972 after being told that their daughter had just a month to live.
‘I got a phone call from a man with a heavy French accent in Canada and he says to me, ‘Mr Nelson, I am Guy de la Poitrier and my daughter is dying – please help’,’ Nelson recalled.
‘So we went to Canada to see if we could organize something up there.’
Nelson couldn’t and so, 10 days before her death, little Geneviève was flown to Los Angeles. ‘I made the mistake of going to the hospital and I just fell in love with her,’ says Nelson.
‘The second week she was there, Pierette said, “Mr Nelson, do you know where Disneyland is?” I said of course. But we can’t take her to Disneyland.
‘She had spoken to the doctor and he had said we could – and she loved Minnie Mouse. So we set it up to have Minnie and Mickey Mouse at a certain spot and we meandered over there – when we got there, this poor little girl was so excited and kept saying Minnie! Minnie!
‘Geneviève died about two weeks after that.’
The child was preserved and placed in a capsule with Phelps-Sweet, with the cost of the treatment and upkeep paid for by Nelson.
But, he says, with hindsight, the preservation of de la Poterie and others whose families were unable to pay for their upkeep was a mistake – and one that would eventually lead to court.
‘I don’t believe in immortality but I do believe in greatly extended life. Early man lived into his twenties. Today, living to 100 is not unusual. There’s no question that science is progressing,’ Nelson said
At the start of 1979, Nelson was contacted by an attorney named Michael Worthington who said he was suing him and his friend, mortician Joseph Klockgether, for fraud and breach of contract.
The lead plaintiffs were the Harrington brothers whose parents, Mildred and Gaylord Harris, were among the ‘patients’ left to decompose after the vault was closed down.
‘What happened is we ran out of money – we petitioned and we asked for help in our newsletters and meetings,’ says Nelson.
‘There were problems every step of the way. Once a week we’d have to come up there with a big sump pump and pump out the water so we could get down in there and replace the ice. The big problem was replacing the liquid nitrogen and the dry ice.
‘When I did put the lock in the vault, I was heartbroken. I went out into the desert and had a ceremony and said goodbye to these people. I did the best that I could.’
Despite his protests, the case ended with Nelson and Klockgether being found guilty and fined $400,000 each.
‘They [the prosecution] presented me as someone who was trying to start a new religion, someone trying to bring back the dead,’ says Nelson. ‘A brilliant attack. I couldn’t get over it.’
So upset was Nelson, he decided to wash his hands of cryonics and had nothing to do with the fledgling science for 25 years.
During that time, he divorced his first wife and met and married his second, Cambodian-born Mouerth with whom he has two daughters, Christine, 22, and Natalie, 21.
But when he retired, he had a change of heart and decided to re-immerse himself in cryonics – eventually publishing his memoirs called Freezing People Is (Not) Easy in 2014.
Now, he says he is delighted that a film is being made about his life – and says he too will be frozen one day.
Despite joking that the first thing he expects to do when brought back to life is ‘to ask where the men’s room is’, Nelson says it is merely a matter of time until science makes reanimation possible.
‘I don’t believe in immortality but I do believe in greatly extended life,’ he says. ‘Early man lived into his twenties. Today, living to 100 is not unusual. There’s no question that science is progressing.’
He adds: ‘The first thing I’m going to do is ask where the men’s room is [when he is reanimated]. I’ve always been so fascinated by what’s going on [in the world]. So for me, I just want to know what happens – I’m curious to find out what’s next.’