Fifty years ago, the first human was cryopreserved in the hopes of future revival. To this day, cryopreservation remains the only chance at a longer life in the future for all those who will age to death prior to the advent of effective rejuvenation therapies. James Bedford's preservation was a straight freezing with all the attendant tissue damage, unlike the vitrification techniques used today. It is certainly the case that future restoration would require exceptionally comprehensive control and manipulation of molecular biology, of the sort enabled by a mature molecular nanotechnology industry. The degree to which the data of his mind still exists despite ice crystal and fracture damage, or can be reconstructed, is an open question left to be answered by future generations.
Cryonics has long been expected to be a last in first out endeavor should it succeed: those preserved more recently, and thus with better preservation techniques, will be the easiest to revive - though of course "easiest" is a relative measure here. All of cryonics is in effect a wager on a decent preservation process, survival of the preservation organization, and then a golden future of advanced technology and great wealth. That is nonetheless a wager that looks very favorable in comparison to the alternative options at the end of life.
Bedford was preserved a few years prior to the establishment of professional cryonics organizations, and in that early stage of the industry some of those organizations were poorly run. Preserved individuals were lost to thawing. Of all the initial patients from the late 1960s and early 1970s, only Bedford remains. Depending on where you wish to draw the line between life and death, he might be counted as the world's oldest surviving human. For so long as the data of the mind remains, encoded in the fine structures of brain tissue, there is the possibility of future restoration in an age of far greater and more capable technology.
Dr. James Hiram Bedford, a former University of California-Berkeley psychology professor died of renal cancer on Jan. 12, 1967. Bedford was the first human to be cryonically preserved - that is, frozen and stored indefinitely in the hopes that technology to revive him will one day exist. He's been at Alcor since 1991. His was the first of 300 bodies and brains currently preserved in the world's three known commercial cryonics facilities: Alcor; the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan; and KrioRus near Moscow. Another 3,000 people still living have arranged to join them upon death.
Cryonics patients are no longer frozen, but "vitrified." First, the body is placed in an ice-water bath. Then, ice-resistant chemicals are pumped into the body, taking the place of water in the blood. That way, in the next step, when the body or brain is cooled to well-below freezing using nitrogen gas, it hardens without forming cell-damaging ice. Vitrification has been used to effectively preserve blood, stem cells, and semen. But restoring life to a vitrified human - or to an organ as complex as the brain - remains an unfathomably distant prospect. If there is a divide on cryonics in the scientific community, it's between neuroscientists willing to state that reanimation is at least within the realm of physical possibility, and those who believe it's so unlikely that selling even the hope is unethical.
Bedford's preservation in the pre-vitrification days was a crude, ad hoc affair. He legally died in a southern California nursing home at the age of 73, after donating his body to the Life Extension Society, a group of early cryonics enthusiasts. Hours after death he was injected with the solvent dimethyl sulfoxide in an attempt to stave off tissue damage, packed in a Styrofoam box of dry ice, and eventually submerged in liquid nitrogen. For the next 27 years, Bedford's liquid-nitrogen-filled chamber was constantly on the move, as various cryonics companies folded or were forced to move for insurance or regulatory problems. The $100,000 he'd set aside to pay for his body's long-term care evaporated as his wife and son faced legal challenges from other family members objecting to his unconventional resting place. From 1977 to 1982, frustrated with the high cost of maintenance, they appear to have kept his unit in a self-storage facility in southern California, occasionally topping off the liquid nitrogen themselves. Upon his wife's death in 1982, Bedford's body and container were entrusted to the company that became Alcor. Then-director Jerry Leaf, who died and was cryopreserved in 1991, took out a life insurance policy on himself to fund Bedford's ongoing care.