Friday, 2 October 2009

Giving good head

If money was no object, and you found yourself stricken with an incurable disease, the concept of cryonic preservation would undoubtedly hold some appeal.

Simply freeze yourself like a freshly picked vegetable and wait until a cure has been developed, that can be administered to your freshly de-frosted body. Consequently, rich people from all walks of life have embraced the technology, turning themselves into human ice-lollies in the hope that medical science will one day be able to solve their problems.

Ever since his death in 1966, speculation has been rife about animator, union-buster and rumoured anti-Semite Walt Disney. If the urban legend is to be believed, lung cancer may have claimed the life of the entertainment mogul, but the cremation was actually a sham, with Walt's frozen corpse placed into storage beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Interestingly, the first known case of cryonic freezing occurred a month later in January 1967, lending a certain timeliness to the tale.

In the last forty years cryonics have become a regular science-fiction staple, with characters regularly flash-frozen, or at least held in suspended animation. Futurama viewers will be familiar with the show's disembodied heads - an eclectic mix of 20th century icons who have managed to retain their consciousness, and more bizarrely, their vocal chords.

And yet it still comes as something of a shock to discover that all over the world, there really are cabinets filled with dry ice and the severed heads of the great and good. People like Theodore Samuel "Ted" Williams, a legendary left fielder in Major League Baseball.

Having played 21 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Ted was considered one of the sport's greatest ever hitters, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. When he died, aged 83 in 2002, his family chose to have him frozen as part of a pact "to be put into biostasis after we die". The idea was that the family might one day be reunited, once medicine had evolved sufficiently to cure their ailments.

Unfortunately for Ted, he placed a little too much faith in human nature, as well as medical science. According to Larry Johnson - a former executive at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona - Williams' severed head was abused at the facility, with one technician using Ted's noggin as a giant softball, replacing the more traditional bat with a monkey wrench.

Although this gruesome little anecdote may encourage people to think twice before turning themselves into Frosty the Snowcorpse, I suppose there's an upside too. Williams clearly wanted to live on, and at least this way the baseball legend is helping future generations to practice their swing.

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