Monday, February 25, 2008

Doom of a Hero

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, medicine, aviation

When I saw the title, The Immortalists, I expected a book about the work of people such as Robert Ettinger, author of The Prospect of Immortality (1962). Ettinger was a pioneer in cryonic preservation (both his wives are on ice; he still lives at age 90 as of this writing. He leaves the discovery of resuscitation and repair techniques to future scientists).

What I found was quite different. In The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and their Daring Quest to Live Forever author David M. Friedman brings us a double biography. Lindbergh was the most beloved hero of the early 1900s, later a much-maligned antiwar spokesman, and much later returned to hero status. Carrel was a Nobel-winning surgeon who became first beloved then hated for his pro-eugenic speaking and writing, and who remains controversial since his death in 1944.

By the midpoint of the book, just before the monochrome plates, I knew all I wanted to about "Lucky Lindy", and much more than I cared to about Dr. Carrel. The aviator-become-bioscience researcher was not just "Lucky": He was one of the most gifted mechanical engineers of his day. He was also a sharp avionic investigator who early judged that the German air force was capable of taking on the whole world and winning. His judgment proved mostly correct, but he had been hoodwinked as to the range of their bombers.

The Doctor was, as judged by examples of his own writing, a monster. To be fair, I looked outside the book for further quotes, and my first impression was upheld. He was a bigoted advocate of "the white man's burden" and an anti-Semite. Yet his bigotry was not without relief, and he saw a need for "the right kind of Jews" to leaven a populace.

His influence on Lindbergh was almost beyond belief. Every sociological notion of Carrel's was emphasized and exaggerated in Lindy. Carrel had said of him, defending his employment of the aviator to make equipment for medical experiments, " who achieve great things in one area are capable of great accomplishments in all domains." (p 78) We have many examples of how tragically wrong such a notion is, but in this case, Lindbergh did happen to be a marvelously capable technician.

He was, however, pretty blind socially. The author remarks at one point, "...Charles Lindbergh was less interested in people than in machines." (p 105) He remained strongly anti-Semitic and anti-"colored" until quite late in life. Thankfully, he did moderate his views quite a lot around 1970.

Carrel started out a moderate bigot and stayed that way. In his book Man, the Unknown he advocated a super-priesthood, an "Academy of man" to tell everyone else what to do...or else. A large step beyond Plato's Republic. He is thought to have carried out some of the French eugenic experiments that occurred after his return to France in 1939, but I can't find solid evidence either way. But any supportive truck with the Vichy government tars him, in my view. It is his involvment in the underground French Resistance that partly redeems him.

Lindbergh and Carrel collaborated for about a decade on equipment and techniques intended to keep organs alive outside the body. Perhaps damaged or diseased organs could be repaired while artificial or temporarily transplanted organs took their place. Perfusion pumps made by Lindbergh were a key to these experiments.

Lindy's pumps were based on, and greatly improved upon, a mechanism by which Dr. Carrel kept a piece of chicken heart alive and throbbing for more than twenty years. It was learned decades later that the tissue was continually replenished because of stray heart cells in the serum that bathed it, which was frequently topped up with fresh preparations. Heart muscle cells and some stem cells would incorporate into the lump, replacing cells that died off, then multiplying as needed. Probably, the last original cell died out in the seventh or eighth year. Chicken heart cells have a natural lifetime of about five years. This was not deliberate deception on Carrel's part; he didn't know it was happening.

The aim of these experiments was physical immortality. During a soul-searching time in Utah, Lindbergh thought, "If man could learn to fly,...why could he not learn how to live forever?" (p 21, quoted from Autobiography of Values, 1977) Only since 1990 have we learned how misguided the experiments were. Once genuine life-extension technology is actually developed (if ever), even today's foolish experiments with stem cells will seem equally mistaken.

Friedman is a good writer, but he had a tough couple of subjects. I confess I skimmed over quite a bit in the second half. I did find one bit of comfort in it all. The "boomers" aren't the first generation to bridle against the strictures of mortality...just the richest.

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