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Robert Ettinger

Robert Chester Wilson Ettinger (born December 4, 1918) is known as "the father of cryonics" due to the impact of his 1962 book The Prospect of Immortality. He is considered by some a pioneer transhumanist on the basis of his 1972 book Man into Superman.

Robert Ettinger founded the Cryonics Institute and the related Immortalist Society and until 2003 served as their President. His first and second wives have both been cryopreserved as well as his mother.


Personal background

Robert Ettinger served as a second lieutenant infantryman in the United States Army during World War II. Severely wounded in battle in Germany, he received the Purple Heart. He earned two Master's degrees from Wayne State University (one in physics, one in mathematics) and spent his working career teaching physics and mathematics at both Wayne State University and Highland Park Community College in Michigan.

Ettinger had two children with his first wife, Elaine, David (1951) and Shelley (1954). David gave his first cryonics interview to journalists at the age of twelve and has been active in cryonics ever since. David Ettinger is an attorney, and he currently serves as legal counsel to the Cryonics Institute and the Immortalist Society. Robert Ettinger's daughter has had no interest in cryonics.

Robert Ettinger met his second wife, Mae Junod, in 1962 when she attended one of his adult education courses in basic physics. Junod typed and assisted with editing the manuscripts for both The Prospect of Immortality and Man into Superman. She became active in the Cryonics Society of Michigan (CSM) and edited and was production manager for the CSM monthly newsletter, The Outlook. In the 1970s The Outlook was renamed The Immortalist and Junod continued editorship until the mid-1990s. The Outlook is the longest continuously published cryonics magazine. Junod was an author, feminist, and marriage counselor.

Ettinger married Junod in 1988 after the death of his first wife. Ettinger described his time with Junod as one of the most satisfying and tranquil times in his life. The couple moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1995 and enjoyed a period of domestic life during which time the couple began to ease into retirement from over 30 years of cryonics activism and the attendant burdens of work and controversy. Mae Ettinger suffered a debilitating stroke in 1998 from which she never fully recovered followed by a lethal stroke in 2000 which resulted in her cryopreservation.

Roots of cryonics in science fiction

Robert Ettinger grew up reading Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories and assumed that one day -- long before he grew old -- biologists would learn the secret of eternal youth. As he grew out of boyhood in the 1930s, he began to suspect it might take a little longer.

Ettinger read a Neil R. Jones story, The Jameson Satellite, which appeared in the July 1931 issue of Amazing Stories, in which one Professor Jameson had his corpse sent into earth orbit where (as the author mistakenly thought) it would remain preserved indefinitely at near absolute zero. And so it did, in the story, until millions of years later, when, with humanity extinct, a race of mechanical men with organic brains chanced upon it. They revived and repaired Jameson's brain, installed it in a mechanical body, and he became one of their company.

It was obvious to Ettinger that the author had missed the main point of his own story. If immortality is achievable through the ministrations of technologically advanced aliens repairing a frozen human corpse, then why shouldn't everyone be cryopreserved to await later rescue by our own medically more sophisticated descendants?

In 1947 Ettinger wrote a short story elucidating the concept of human cryopreservation as a pathway to more sophisticated future medical technology: in effect, a form of one-way medical time travel. The story, The Penultimate Trump was published in the March, 1948 issue of Startling Stories and definitively establishes Ettinger's priority as the first person to have promulgated the cryonics paradigm, principally that contemporary medical/legal definitions of death are relative, not absolute, and are critically dependent upon the sophistication of available medical technology. Thus, a person apparently dead of a heart attack in a tribal village in the Amazon will soon become unequivocally so, whereas the same person with the same condition in the emergency department of large, industrialized city's hospital, might well be resuscitated and continue a long and healthy life. Ettinger's genius lay in realizing that criteria for death will vary not just from place to place, but from time to time. Today's corpse will very likely be tomorrow's patient.

Launching the cryonics movement

Robert Ettinger waited expectantly for prominent scientists or physicians to come to the same conclusion he had, and to take a position of public advocacy. By 1960, Ettinger realized that no one else seem to have grasped an idea which, to him, had seemed obvious. Ettinger was 42 years old and undoubtedly increasingly aware of his own mortality. In what may be characterized as an historically important mid-life crisis, Ettinger reflected on his life and achievements, and decided it was time to take action. He summarized the idea of cryonics in a few pages, with the emphasis on life insurance, and sent this to approximately 200 people whom he selected from Who's Who in America. The response was very small, and it was clear that a much longer exposition was needed -- mostly to counter cultural bias. Ettinger correctly saw that people, even the intellectually, financially and socially distinguished, would have to be educated into understanding his belief that dying is (usually) a gradual and reversible process, and that freezing damage is so limited (even though fatal by present criteria) that its reversibility demands relatively little in future progress. Ettinger soon made an even more troubling discovery, principally that "a great many people have to be coaxed into admitting that life is better than death, healthy is better than sick, smart is better than stupid, and immortality might be worth the trouble!"

In 1962 Ettinger privately published a preliminary version of The Prospect of Immortality. This finally attracted attention of a major publisher, and led to the 1964 Doubleday hardcover and various subsequent editions which launched cryonics. Since the commercial publication of The Prospect of Immortality all those active in cryonics today can trace their involvement, directly or indirectly, to the publication of one or both of Ettinger's books. While Ettinger was the first, most articulate, and most scientifically credible, to argue the idea of cryonics, he was not the only one. In 1962, Evan Cooper had authored a manuscript entitled Immortality, Scientifically, Physically, Now under the pseudonym "N. Durhing"[1]. Cooper's book contained the same argument as did Ettinger's, but it lacked both scientific and technical rigor and was not of publication quality. Ettinger became a media celebrity, discussed in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Paris Match, Der Spiegel, Christian Century, and dozens of other periodicals. He appeared on television with David Frost, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, and others. Ettinger also spoke on radio programs coast-to-coast to promote the idea of human cryopreservation.

Organizational activities

Following publication of The Prospect of Immortality Robert Ettinger again waited for prominent scientists, industrialists, or others in authority to see the wisdom of his idea and begin implementing it. By contrast, Cooper was an activist and must be credited with forming the first cryonics organization (although the word "cryonics" was not to be coined until 1965) the Life Extension Society (LES). LES advocated immediate action to implement human cryopreservation and established a nationwide network of chapters and coordinators to develop a grassroots capability for delivering cryopreservation on an emergent basis. Cooper left cryonics activism in 1969, and was lost at sea in 1983. But his activities with LES provided the basis for the formation of the first Cryonics Societies.

In 1966 the Cryonics Societies of California and Michigan were formed. Ettinger was elected President of the Cryonics Society of Michigan (CSM). In 1970s CSM was transformed under the direction of Ettinger into the Cryonics Institute (CI) and the Immortalist Society (IS). In 1976, Ettinger's mother, Rhea Ettinger, became CI's first patient. Ettinger was President of both CI and IS until 2003.

From 1964 until circa 1990 the growth of the cryonics movement was slow. During this period cryonicists suffered from lack of consistent or quality professional medical, legal, philosophical, business or financial support. Admission of interest in, or advocacy of cryopreservation, uniformly resulted in reactions of revulsion, ridicule, or both. Media and public perception were consistently negative. This external pressure was exacerbated by the anxiety and fear felt as cryonicists experienced the death of cohorts and loved ones and were, of necessity, forced to provide whatever level of care they could manage on a more or less mutual aid basis. Cryonics, contrary to public perception at this time, was (and still is) a middle class undertaking, and the resources available were those of mortuary personnel and equipment and procedures which cryonicists were able to construct and devise themselves. An additional worry was the uncertain legal status of cryonics and the ever present possibility of governmental interdiction.

The growth of the internet has made a crucial difference to the spread of the cryonics meme (idea), which, despite much media coverage, seems to be mainly dependent upon personal contact and personal investigation.

Quotes by Robert Ettinger

"I had and have, no credentials worth mentioning being only a teacher of college physics and math. It is precisely this that prevented me, for so long, from doing more: I knew I carried no weight, had no formal qualifications, and was not suited for a leadership role. But as the years passed and no one better came forward, I finally had to write, and later felt I had to form organizations (although others had come into existence). This tragedy, in various manifestations, may persist. Potentially effective leaders may have turned aside because I (and later a few other obscure people) reluctantly preempted leadership. Business people and investors may have hesitated because the small, poorly capitalized organizations already in the field have had such limited (although increasing!) success in attracting participants."
"Tragedy is in the eye of the beholder. As Sid Caesar (or maybe Mel Brooks -- one of those really heavy thinkers) said: 'The difference between comedy and tragedy? When the saber tooth tiger eats Moe, that's comedy. When I get a hangnail, that's tragedy.' And if the Tiger of Death eats you, that is the ultimate tragedy; that is when the world ends, when the cosmos disappears, when Everything becomes Nothing.
"The 'tragedy' of the slow growth of immortalism pertains mostly to them, and perhaps to you -- not so much to me or to us, the committed immortalists. We already have made our arrangements for cryostasis after clinical death -- signed our contracts with existing organizations and allocated the money. We will have our chance, and with a little bit of luck will 'taste the wine of centuries unborn'. "

Books by Robert Ettinger

  • The Prospect of Immortality (1962, 1964 & later editions)
    • Available online at The Prospect of Immortality
  • Man Into Superman (1972 & later editions)
    • Available online at Man Into Superman
  • Youniverse (2004)


  1. ^ Price, Michael (17 Dec 2003). Subject: Ev Cooper. CryoMsg 23124. CryoNet. Retrieved on 2007-09-29.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Robert_Ettinger". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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