Saul Kent’s Grand Obsession: A Personal Memoir
The first time I saw Saul Kent, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops while sitting cross-legged on the carpet in someone’s living room. This was during one of Alcor’s monthly board meetings, which were unstructured, open events during the 1990s. Saul’s hair was long and unkempt, he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, and he could have been mistaken for a homeless person—not that this would have concerned him. I watched him displaying a roguish grin as he counted on his fingers the legal steps he was going to take to sue someone who had run off with some Alcor funds. “I won’t bother with a warning letter,” he said. “When they receive the law suit, that’s the warning.”
As I saw his cheerful appetite for legal combat, I thought to myself, This is one man I never want to have as an adversary.
Little did I realize that he would end up becoming my patron.
Born in 1939, Saul Kent majored in phys-ed at a free New York college, where his favorite sports were baseball and basketball. He described himself as “one of the worst students ever. . . . When they told me to do something, I wouldn’t do it, simply because they told me to do it. I hated school, but I hated work more than I hated school, so that’s the reason I was in school.”
He dropped out, returned for a second attempt, was thrown out, managed to get back in, and finally graduated. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said later, “but I was adamant that I wouldn’t do something I wasn’t really interested in.” He made money intermittently as a ticket scalper. He once described his primary occupation as sunbathing.
Then he read Robert Ettinger’s Promise of Immortality, and it changed his life. He sent a letter to Ettinger, expressing himself with characteristic hyperbole. “The time for action is now,” he wrote. “Research must be intensified! People must be properly informed and persuaded! Equipment for body preparation and facilities for storage must be made available!”
Ettinger didn’t run a cryonics organization at this time, and had no desire to do so. He simply connected Kent with another New Yorker named Curtis Henderson, who had expressed interest, and in 1965, together with a young man named Karl Werner, they founded The Cryonics Society of New York. Werner’s day job consisted of designing tread patterns on tires. He was the one who coined the term “cryonics.”
Kent now embraced cryonics as his grand obsession. He became a tireless public-relations machine, appearing on local talk-radio shows, responding to information requests, organizing meetings in the New York area, and producing a newsletter. Using an old manual typewriter, he drafted literally hundreds of letters to newspapers, scientists, wealthy people—anyone who might be willing to help. But the people who showed up at society meetings were a mixed bag of misfits and dreamers.
Eventually Henderson did most of the hands-on work of running a cryonics facility in Sayville, on Long Island, where he flew a skull-and-crossbones flag from his home, “To keep the neighbors away.” With defiant, in-your-face honesty, he described his body-freezing operation as “a back-alley kind of thing,” and derived perverse pleasure from emphasizing its most primitive aspects. When visitors recoiled in shock, he challenged them to figure out a better way to freeze people—and keep them frozen, with minimal funds and hardly anyone to help out.
His efforts attracted the attention of a young student from Indiana named Michael Federowicz, who preferred to call himself Mike Darwin, as a gesture of defiance toward fellow students who mocked his belief in evolution. During his Christmas vacation, Darwin visited the New York facility where Henderson kept two storage tanks.
“The place was filthy,” Darwin told me during an interview many years later. “The office area was littered with candy wrappers, there was a dirty track worn on the carpet, and the tanks were all smudged with hand prints. So there we were, sleeping under some old blankets in this place, which we’re sharing with two frozen people, when all of a sudden Saul Kent bursts in. It’s 9 am and he says we have to get up, a woman’s just died and we’re going to have to freeze her. Here I am, a 17-year-old kid, and Saul says I have to do the job because I can do it better than he can. So that’s what happened. It was my first case, a woman named Clara Dostal. We froze her.”
In 1973, Saul became disillusioned with the whole thing. In a letter to another cryonicist, he stated flatly that “the cryonics movement has failed in every respect but one—we’ve been able to obtain an enormous amount of publicity. . . . All practical results, however, have been negligible.”
He ended his partnership with Henderson, but did not abandon his aspirations. He simply saw that a different approach was needed. Eventually he decided that if the concept of cryonics was too radical, maybe people would be interested in longevity; and once they accepted that idea, maybe they would take the next step and accept the idea avoiding permanent death completely.
Saul moved to Florida, where he started producing a little newsletter titled Anti-Aging News. He then went into partnership with another cryonicist named Bill Faloon and started selling anti-aging vitamins via mail-order. At this time, most people in America had never even heard of antioxidants, which placed Kent and Faloon right at the forefront of a growing market for dietary supplements. They appeared on Merv Griffin’s nationally networked TV talk show, where they netted a far bigger response than anyone had ever achieved trying to sell cryonics. Soon they were doing a flourishing business, which operated under a separate identity named Life Extension Foundation.
They used their profits to put more than $200,000 into an enterprise named Cryovita, where the principals were Darwin and a special forces veteran named Jerry Leaf, who had learned hypothermic surgical techniques at UCLA School of Medicine. “I think it’s of critical importance,” Leaf wrote later, “that we mobilize all we can from clinical medicine to minimize the amount of ischemic injury.” At the time, this was an innovative concept.
Darwin and Leaf mapped a protocol that became fundamental in cryonics. If a patient is hospitalized and seems near death, a standby team deploys equipment at the bedside, including an ice bath, a chest-compression device, and medications. The patient is moved to a nearby mortuary, where a surgeon does a cutdown to expose the femoral artery. Tubes are attached, in just the same way as in a conventional extracorporeal bypass. The patient’s blood is removed and replaced with an organ preservation solution. The patient is then moved to a cryonics facility for cryoprotective perfusion followed by rapid cooling.
Some cryonicists questioned whether all this labor and expense was really necessary. Robert Ettinger, who now ran the Cryonics Institute, was openly skeptical. “The main question,” he wrote, “is whether the ‘high tech’ difference materially improves the patient’s chances. I believe not.” He openly scoffed at some of Leaf’s ideas, such as using sterile technique. Surely, a few stray bacteria would be a trivial matter for future science to fix!
Leaf was unimpressed. “In Michigan they seem to have a point of view which relies almost completely on future technology to make up for their own inadequacies now,” he said. “It is not a view I can accept or cooperate with.”
Saul was squarely aligned with Leaf’s outlook. He lacked a science education, but saw the need for cryonics to distance itself from its primitive origins. He also believed that any measure which might improve the future prospect for revival was worth taking.
He and Faloon continued to fund Cryovita, which moved into a facility in a small industrial park in Fullerton, California. Alcor Foundation, which had been established by Fred and Linda Chamberlain in 1972, joined them as a subtenant.
Life Extension Foundation was increasingly successful, and Alcor relocated to a larger building in Riverside, California. Saul now lived in a big house in the hills overlooking Riverside, and monitored the R&D of cryonics, while Bill stayed in Florida, managing the dietary supplement business that generated the funding.
For a while, the future for cryonics seemed to show great promise. Progress was interrupted, however, by two traumatic events: An FDA raid on the offices of Life Extension, and the death of Saul’s mother Dora Kent..
The raid on Life Extension occurred in February, 1987. As Saul described it later: “An armed force of about 25 FDA agents and U.S. Marshals smashed down the glass doors of our store . . . and stormed into our nearby warehouse with guns drawn. At 10 AM, Bill Faloon received a phone call telling him that the FDA was breaking into our store with a battering ram. As Bill started to leave the warehouse, he suddenly found himself staring down the barrel of a 45 caliber pistol.”
As justification for the raid, the FDA accused Life Extension Foundation of selling products for which they claimed unapproved therapeutic effects. The therapeutic effects might be genuine, but that was irrelevant. The mere fact that they were not FDA-approved was a violation of federal law.
Lawyers representing Life Extension advised Saul and Bill to negotiate a plea for reduced jail time, but neither of them was willing to do so. Instead, they mounted a counter-attack, beginning with a full-page newspaper ad denouncing the federal agency. Ultimately they opened a store front titled “The FDA Holocaust Museum,” listing deaths which they believed had occurred as a result of failures to approve therapies in a timely fashion.
The case dragged on for more than a decade, as the defiance exhibited by Saul and Bill caused the FDA to escalate its threats. At one point, the agency filed additional charges carrying a total prison sentence of more than 80 years. During this period, attorney fees greatly impaired the ability of Life Extension to finance cryonics-related research.
The death of Saul’s mother occurred in December,1987. She had been moved into Alcor’s building to minimize the time interval between pronouncement and preservation, but the Riverside coroner suspected foul play. The subsequent drama has been described extensively in issues of Cryonics magazine, so I’ll only mention Saul’s part in it here, after he received a call from Mike Darwin telling him about the raid. In his words:
“I said I would be down there in a little while. Of course I never had any intention of showing up. What’s the point of everyone showing up and being placed under arrest? I got a hotel room somewhere, where they couldn’t find me, and started working on various strategies to deal with this problem, because once they discovered that the head wasn’t there, it was tremendously embarrassing, they got very angry, and they did what all cops do. The only thing they do at least halfway well is intimidation. They started screaming and yelling at everyone who was there, to tell them where Dora Kent’s head was, threatening them with all kinds of things. Ultimately they arrested six people, including Dave Pizer who just happened to be visiting from Arizona. He later won a false arrest suit on that.
“We didn’t have any legal help at this point, so we were looking for a lawyer who could get a temporary restraining order to block them from doing any further damage. We called Chris Ashworth, it was a Friday, he needed a $5,000 retainer in something other than cash. Jerry’s brother had $5,000 in gold coins, I got them and reached Ashworth, and he bit into one of the coins to see if it was real.”
I made my first visit to Alcor a couple of years later, when I was living in Los Angeles. Within two hours, Mike Darwin convinced me that cryonics might actually work, so I started attending Alcor meetings, such as the one where I first saw Saul Kent sitting cross-legged on the floor. I didn’t say much to anyone. I just watched and listened.
Eventually I joined Alcor and assessed the chain of events that had to occur for successful cryopreservation. As a rough guess, I estimated my chances of revival as maybe 1 in 10,000. Those were bad odds, so I did what Saul Kent had done, years previously. I started trying to promote cryonics, so that it could become sufficiently successful to fund more research.
Initially I wrote a one-page opinion piece for Omni magazine, including Alcor’s phone number. This triggered a small flood of information requests, which caught Saul’s attention. He called me to find out who I was, and then connected me with Courtney Smith and Brenda Peters, who were now running a chapter of Alcor in New York.
At first I thought that Saul was just helping me to get acquainted with people who would improve local capability. Later I realized that everything Saul did ultimately served one purpose: To improve his own chances of evading permanent death. That was the real nature of his grand obsession.
He had a strategy based on four goals.
1. To promote cryonics in such a way that more wealthy people would get involved and share the load of supporting it.
2. To finance more research into cryopreservation, to eliminate freezing damage.
3. To continue the work pioneered by Cryovita, which had made progress in mitigating injury during the initial hours after cardiac arrest.
4. To revive a whole mammal from cryopreservation.
Privately, he didn’t believe cryonics would achieve widespread acceptance until Goal 4 had been achieved. But he still wanted to promote cryonics in its current form, because if it attracted just one wealthy patron, that could make a significant difference.
This was the foundation on which my association with Saul began. He hoped that I might help him to achieve Goal Number 1. He was an excellent writer himself, when selling products for Life Extension. But he saw that my piece for Omni magazine had succeeded on a different basis. “It demonstrated the power of a testimonial,” he told me; and of course, he was right.
Gradually, we entered into a strange kind of friendship. It was not a normal friendship, because Saul could never allow personal loyalties to interfere with his grand obsession.
Everyone who joins a cryonics organization is motivated by self-interest. People want to save their own lives. But Saul was more up-front about it than anyone else I met, and I realized that no matter how friendly my relationship with him became, his focus on his own survival would take precedence. But then I realized that the grand obsession actually made it easier to interact with him, because he was totally and sometimes ruthlessly consistent. I always knew where I stood with him, I always knew what to expect from him, and therefore I was never disappointed by him, or annoyed with him, or frustrated by him, as some people were. Within his limits, we enjoyed a kind of camaraderie.
Soon I became involved in his personal mission to change the structure of Alcor. Under its bylaws, the board of nine directors was elected annually, but votes could only be cast by the directors themselves. Thus, they could re-elect each other, and during this period, the composition of the board remained static. How could this situation be changed?
Typically, Saul pursued his goal as an all-out offensive that lasted for months. He pestered people relentlessly to contribute to a compendium titled “Time for a Change,” which he cranked out as a book on a high-volume photocopy machine in the hallway of his house. I was fascinated and slightly unnerved by the manic intensity of his mission.
Ultimately Alcor elected a new President, but Saul failed in his efforts to change the Alcor bylaws regarding board elections. So, he moved to Plan B. He led a movement to start a new cryonics organization.
He was joined by a band of rebels including Brian Wowk, Ben Best, Brenda Peters, and myself. We founded CryoCare in 1993, using standby services managed independently by Mike Darwin and cryopreservation maintenance provided independently by Paul Wakfer. Brian Wowk served as president of CryoCare; subsequently, I inherited that role.
This was an exciting and idealistic period, as we established a totally new business model in cryonics. CryoCare was an administrative organization which signed up members and took responsibility for their treatment and care, while standby/transport and long-term cryopreservation were each provided by independent subcontractors on a for-profit basis.
Many Alcor members moved to CryoCare, largely thanks to the efforts of Brenda Peters, and one of them was Timothy Leary. When Leary was judged to have only a week to live, at his home near Beverly Hills, I took up residence at Saul’s house, with two objectives: To supervise the case on behalf of CryoCare, and to describe it for Wired magazine, where I had become a Senior Writer. But Leary was much tougher than his medical advisors had assumed, and so my residency at Saul’s house extended for six weeks. I have happy memories of hanging out with Saul and his wonderful wife Jo Ann, in the landscaped grounds of their beautiful house, while playing with their three cats, Maggie, Bear, and Willie. I also wrote a large piece of a prehistory novel while sitting in the guest room.
Leary reneged on his cryonics arrangements at the last moment, and opted to be cremated. As for CryoCare, it stopped providing service in 1999, after Mike Darwin chose not to continue providing service, and no one felt competent to take over that role. Most members of CryoCare rejoined Alcor, including Saul. Still, the concept of competing service providers was valid, and Saul was hugely instrumental in making it happen. Competition among subcontractors still exists in cryonics today.–
Saul’s fight with the FDA ended in 1996, with total vindication—the first defeat the FDA had suffered in this type of case during its entire history. Freed from their astronomical legal bills, Saul and Bill were now able to finance an entirely new research organization, Twenty-First Century Medicine, which was dedicated to improving all aspects of cryonics procedures. Saul succeeded in persuading a professional cryobiologist to join the laboratory, despite the risk of him being excommunicated from the Society of Cryobiology, which had a strict rule prohibiting its members from participating in the “pseudoscience” of cryonics. Typically, Saul’s campaign to lure this scientist to California had continued for years. When it succeeded, Saul told me that he considered this his greatest achievement.Subsequently, a new organization named Critical Care Research was split off from Twenty-First Century Medicine to focus on mitigating brain injury prior to cryoprotective perfusion. This effort was led by Mike Darwin and Steve Harris, MD, with other staff members including Joan O’Farrell and Sandra Russell. Unfortunately there were personality conflicts, as happens so often in cryonics organizations.
Saul acted as mediator for a few years, which was a role he did not enjoy. Ultimately he had to make a difficult decision: Would the organization suffer or benefit if there was a major change in personnel? He had known the staff members for years—decades, in some cases. But as always, his grand obsession took precedence. One of the key personnel was told that his services were no longer required.
Saul continued to supervise the two research companies on an ad-hoc basis, and since he had renewed his Alcor membership, he started to play an increasingly active role in its managerial politics—unofficially at first, and eventually as a board member. His presence was often considered abrasive by people who foolishly hoped that he might compromise on issues. ’–
After the demise of CryoCare, my involvement in cryonics lapsed until 2000, when I quit writing for Wired magazine and found myself looking for a new occupation at the age of 55, having never had a full-time job in my life. Jerry Lemler was now President of Alcor, so I asked him if I could write some new versions of their promotional literature. Lemler astonished me with a counter-offer: Following the departure of Fred and Linda Chamberlain, he needed someone as a team leader in standby-transport work.
I lacked formal credentials, but had participated in almost 20 cases as a volunteer, and had acquired detailed knowledge of procedures while writing a book about cryonics titled Life Unlimited (which was never published). I became associated with Alcor for six months, and managed five cases successfully. Once again Saul noted my ability, this time in a hands-on role, and when I quit because the stress of standby work was bad for my health, he came to me with a new plan. He wanted me to visit Suspended Animation, a business in Florida that had been founded by David Hayes and David Shumaker, using $2.1 million from Saul and Bill. Saul was still determined to provide free competition among service providers, and SA was his most recent attempt to achieve this in standby-transport work.
He asked me to visit them and write detailed reports of every aspect of the business. I did so, and notified him that since the municipality of Boca Raton had refused to allow SA a business license, its future was in doubt.
Eventually Saul visited the organization in person, and as Shumaker saw that his contract was not going to be renewed, he nominated me to succeed him. This initiated the most intense period of my collaborative work with Saul, in which we spoke at length on the phone almost every day. It was extremely instructive for me, as I saw Saul’s abilities as a strategist. I tended to be impatient, and wanted to resolve any conflict quickly. If I failed, I would give up and move on. Saul had immense patience, and he demonstrated the usefulness of postponing any action. Often, if he did nothing, a situation could change or even resolve itself, making intervention unnecessary. People who accused Saul of procrastination seldom realized that it was a deliberate policy.
By this time I had earned his trust by following one simple rule: I always told him the truth about everything. He never minded receiving bad news, because he said, and truly believed, that every problem creates an opportunity. What he could not tolerate was discovering something that had been hidden from him, especially if it was financially damaging.
As I worked to rebuild the company, I discovered that I had some skill at designing and fabricating standby equipment. Among this equipment was a prototype liquid-ventilation device, which I took with me to Critical Care Research. After it was demonstrated successfully, I suggested to Saul that I could be more useful to him as a designer-fabricator than as a manager. He agreed, and paid half the rent on a small apartment for me in Rancho Cucamonga. He also paid all the costs associated with establishing my own little workshop near Critical Care Research. The idea was for me to design and develop equipment which could then be tested at the lab.
I was given complete autonomy, so long as I continued to honor the policy of full disclosure. To me, this was a unique and astonishing opportunity, and it demonstrated another facet of Saul’s management style: If he received any indication at all that an innovation showed promise, money would be provided without any concern for formalities. When this policy worked, it could produce results in a short space of time. When it didn’t work, Saul terminated people and tried something else.
“Managers often hesitate to fire people,” he said to me once. “But you know, after someone is fired, I never hear anyone expressing regrets.”
I worked productively in California, but after two years I yearned to be back in my primary home in Arizona. Saul enabled me to build my own workshop there, where I continued working for him remotely until I reached the limit of my knowledge designing control electronics. I felt I should not be billing him to educate myself in this area, and recommended that he turn the project over to SA, who could hire someone with appropriate qualifications to finish it.
This was a mistake, as it would have cost him far less to pay me to learn how to build electronics that worked, instead of paying someone else who was supposed to know how to do it, but was not entirely successful.
At this time, in 2006, I went back to my old occupation of writing books. I stayed in touch with Saul, though, and he gave me periodic off-the-record updates of events at Alcor. These could be summarized very simply: He was never satisfied with anything, because he never saw sufficient progress toward his grand obsession.
As time passed, the struggle to push Alcor in the direction that he wanted finally wore him down. He quit from the board and gradually exercised less supervision of the two research organizations. I think he had never entirely recovered from the successful treatment of a brain tumor, twenty years previously. He was getting old and tired.
The last time I visited Saul was in May, 2022. I found him watching basketball, which was one of his favorite recreations. We started reminiscing about cryonics—the adventures and misadventures, the failures and mistakes, the schemes and ambitions. He enjoyed recounting some of his machinations, and he displayed the same rogueish grin I remembered from that first time when I saw him sitting cross-legged on the floor during an informal board meeting.
After an hour or so, he gave me an odd look. “You know,” he said, “it’s good to see you, Charles.” He sounded surprised, as if there were few sources of pleasure in his life anymore, and he hadn’t expected my visit to be one of them. I think it was the only time I ever heard him express pleasure about a purely social interaction.
Perhaps at this time he could afford to be less driven and more human, because he saw that his grand obsession was not going to be fulfilled in his natural lifetime. When I asked if he still hoped to be cryopreserved, he shrugged. “I no longer think it’s going to work,” he said, “but I’m going to do it anyway.”
Saul Kent labored more effectively to support the development and implementation of human cryopreservation than anyone else in history, as of the time of his death on May 26, 2023. I cannot express how honored I was to play even a small part in that quest.
I also have to say that regardless of his personal priorities, my admiration for Saul was mixed with a lasting love for such a remarkable man with whom I enjoyed so many adventures. He gave me opportunities that I could never have found elsewhere, and enabled me to develop capabilities that I didn’t know I possessed. For several years he was my patron; there is no other word for it.
During all the time I knew him, we never argued or harbored animosity. I understood his grand obsession, I shared it, I respected his judgment, and I stayed true to the principle of concealing nothing. This facilitated a relationship of pure synergy, unlike any I have known before or since.
In the hallway of his house there was a painting by his then-wife, Jo Ann Martin. It showed herself and Saul, at some time in the distant future, looking down at their younger selves, after emerging from cryopreservation. Tragically, Jo Ann died in such a way that will challenge the most sophisticated repair capabilities of nanotechnology.But Saul still has a nonzero chance of renewed life, and if he succeeds, there will be no one who deserves it more.
Jerry Leaf died of a heart attack in 1991 (Cryopreserved at Alcor).
Curtis Henderson died in 2009 (Cryopreserved at the Cryonics Institute).
Mike Darwin is no longer actively involved in cryonics.
Steve Harris, MD is no longer actively involved in cryonics.
Joan O’Farrell is no longer actively involved in cryonics.
Sandra Russell is no longer actively involved in cryonics.
Brenda Peters is working in the Timeship project, in Texas.
Ben Best is currently Director of Research Oversight for Life Extension Foundation.
Critical Care Research was shut down in 2022, and the building was sold.
Brian Wowk and Gregory Fahy still work for Twenty-First Century Medicine. Fahy became President of the Society