This Day in Jewish History / Robert Ettinger Dies – at Least, for Now

Futurism author Robert Ettinger had his body frozen, and is sure he'll be back - though if both his wives return too, he acknowledges, that could be a problem.

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Robert Ettinger, some time during WWII.
Robert Ettinger, some time during WWII.Credit: Courtesy of Robert Ettinger

On July 23, 2011, writer and futurist Robert C.W. Ettinger, died – at least for the time being.

Ettinger, an advocate of freezing bodies at death for defrosting when medical science is capable of repairing their illnesses and reversing the effects of aging, had arranged for his corpse to be packed in ice and transferred to the warehouse owned by his non-profit Cryonics Institute, for deep-freeze hibernation. He says he’ll be back.

Robert Chester Wilson Ettinger was born on December 4, 1918, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The family of his mother, the former Rhea Chaloff, had immigrated to the United States from Odessa. His father, Alfred Ettinger, was born in Berlin.

A few years after Robert’s birth, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Alfred ran a furniture store.

Inspired by robot with human brain

When he was 12, Robert read a science-fiction story called “The Jameson Satellite,” by Neil R. Jones. Jones captured his imagination with the tale of a scientist who arranged to have his body sent to outer space. It remained in orbiting deep-freeze for 40 million years, until brought back to earth by advanced mechanical beings - who were able to install his brain inside a robot, and thus give him new life. 

Ettinger served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army during World War II, and in November 1944, was shot and badly wounded in Germany. It was during his four-year period of recovery that he heard about the research of a scientist who had shown that frog sperm remained viable even after being frozen and defrosted.

This advance lead Ettinger to the concept that death is a process, rather than an immediate and irreversible finality. Thus, if done properly, this school of thought goes - human tissue could be frozen without being "fatally" damaged.

Back in Michigan, after the war, Ettinger, studying on the GI Bill, picked up a bachelor’s degrees and two master’s, at Wayne State University, in physics and chemistry, both of which he then taught at the college level.

Somehow nobody jumps on board

In 1948, he published a short story, “The Penultimate Trump,” which explored the potential of cryogenic freezing, hoping that others with the practical skills would begin working to make it a reality. But that didn’t happen, not even 14 years later, when Ettinger published “The Prospect of Immortality,” a non-fiction work in which he spelled out his ambition for what he thought could lead to eternal life.

However, Prospect became an offering of the Book of the Month Club, and was translated into nine languages. Ettinger was interviewed by such television personalities as Johnny Carson and William F. Buckley, Jr. But they and others generally treated him as a crank, more there for entertainment value than as a serious visionary.

At a certain point, Ettinger realized that he was going to have to get the ball rolling himself, and founded the first Cryonics Society, in Michigan. That evolved into the Cryonic Institute, the non-profit cold-storage organization he set up in an industrial park in Clinton Township, Michigan.

The first person to be frozen upon death was Ettinger’s mother, Rhea, in 1977. His first wife, Elaine, whom he met at a Zionist meeting in 1949, became a long-term resident of the institute, upon her death, in 1988, as did his second wife, Mae Junod, who died in 2000, after suffering several strokes.

Ettinger, who did not lack for a sense of humor, acknowledged to an interviewer for the Detroit News in 2010, that “If both of my wives are revived, that will be a high-class problem.”

His death in 2011, at age 92, was of natural causes – many of them – and he of course was cryopreserved, too. His son, David Ettinger, now runs the Cryonic Institute, which has signed up some 900 living people willing to pay $28,000 to have their corpses frozen and stored until a time when it is deemed worthwhile to defrost them. Shelley Ettinger, is an activist with multiple causes, among them LGBT and Palestinian rights, and is a recent novelist.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

This following ABC report on Robert Ettinger's demise was aired in 2012.