History of the life extension movement
The extension of life has been a desire of humanity and a mainstay motif in the history of scientific pursuits and ideas throughout history, from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Smith medical papyrus, all the way through the Taoists, Ayurveda practitioners, alchemists, hygienists such as Luigi Cornaro, Johann Cohausen and Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, and philosophers such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Benjamin Franklin and Nicolas Condorcet. However, the beginning of the modern period in this endeavor can be traced to the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, to the so-called “fin-de-siècle” (end of the century) period, denoted as an “end of an epoch” and characterized by the rise of scientific optimism
and therapeutic activism, entailing the pursuit of life extension (or life-extensionism). Among the foremost researchers of life extension at this period were the Nobel Prize winning biologist Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) — the author of the cell theory of immunity and vice director of Institut Pasteur in Paris, and Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894) — the president of the French Biological Society and one of the founders of modern endocrinology.
Sociologist James Hughes claims that science has been tied to a cultural narrative of conquering death since the Age of Enlightenment. He cites Francis Bacon (1561–1626) as an advocate of using science and reason to extend human life, noting Bacon’s novel New Atlantis, wherein scientists worked toward delaying aging and prolonging life. Robert Boyle (1627–1691), founding member of the Royal Society, also hoped that science would make substantial progress with life extension, according to Hughes, and proposed such experiments as “to replace the blood of the old with the blood of the young”. Biologist Alexis Carrel (1873–1944) was inspired by a belief in indefinite human lifespan that he developed after experimenting with cells, says Hughes.
In 1970, the American Aging Association was formed under the impetus of Denham Harman, originator of the free radical theory of aging. Harman wanted an organization of biogerontologists that was devoted to research and to the sharing of information among scientists interested in extending human lifespan.
In 1976, futurists Joel Kurtzman and Philip Gordon wrote No More Dying. The Conquest Of Aging And The Extension Of Human Life, (ISBN 0-440-36247-4) the first popular book on research to extend human lifespan. Subsequently, Kurtzman was invited to testify before the House Select Committee on Aging, chaired by Claude Pepper of Florida, to discuss the impact of life extension on the Social Security system.
Saul Kent published The Life Extension Revolution (ISBN 0-688-03580-9) in 1980 and created a nutraceutical firm called the Life Extension Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes dietary supplements. The Life Extension Foundation publishes a periodical called Life Extension Magazine. The 1982 bestselling book Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach (ISBN 0-446-51229-X) by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw further popularized the phrase “life extension”.
In 1983, Roy Walford, a life-extensionist and gerontologist, published a popular book called Maximum Lifespan. In 1988, Walford and his student Richard Weindruch summarized their research into the ability of calorie restriction to extend the lifespan of rodents in The Retardation of Aging and Disease by Dietary Restriction (ISBN 0-398-05496-7). It had been known since the work of Clive McCay in the 1930s that calorie restriction can extend the maximum lifespan of rodents. But it was the work of Walford and Weindruch that gave detailed scientific grounding to that knowledge. Walford’s personal interest in life extension motivated his scientific work and he practiced calorie restriction himself. Walford died at the age of 80 from complications caused by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Money generated by the non-profit Life Extension Foundation allowed Saul Kent to finance the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the world’s largest cryonics organization. The cryonics movement had been launched in 1962 by Robert Ettinger’s book, The Prospect of Immortality. In the 1960s, Saul Kent had been a co-founder of the Cryonics Society of New York. Alcor gained national prominence when baseball star Ted Williams was cryonically preserved by Alcor in 2002 and a family dispute arose as to whether Williams had really wanted to be cryopreserved.
Regulatory and legal struggles between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Life Extension Foundation included seizure of merchandise and court action. In 1991, Saul Kent and Bill Faloon, the principals of the Foundation, were jailed. The LEF accused the FDA of perpetrating a “Holocaust” and “seeking gestapo-like power” through its regulation of drugs and marketing claims.
In 2003, Doubleday published “The Immortal Cell: One Scientist’s Quest to Solve the Mystery of Human Aging,” by Michael D. West. West emphasised the potential role of embryonic stem cells in life extension.
Other modern life extensionists include writer Gennady Stolyarov, who insists that death is “the enemy of us all, to be fought with medicine, science, and technology”; transhumanist philosopher Zoltan Istvan, who proposes that the “transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else”; futurist George Dvorsky, who considers aging to be a problem that desperately needs to be solved; and recording artist Steve Aoki, who has been called “one of the most prolific campaigners for life extension”.