Hugh Hixon

Alcor Member Profile
From Cryonics 2nd Quarter 2011

By Chana de Wolf

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Hugh Hixon

If you have been an Alcor member for an appreciable amount of time you have most likely heard of, or even met, Hugh Hixon. Hugh, who serves as Research Fellow at Alcor, has been employed at the organization since 1983 and is responsible for several of the technical developments that Alcor utilizes in the field and the OR during cryopreservation cases. Hugh is the quintessential 'tinkerer' — the guy who has been around longer than anyone else, knows the most about cryonics technologies, and who can utilize that breadth of experience and knowledge to improve both the processes and equipment involved in carrying out a case and in maintaining patients in long-term storage.

Hugh Hixon Hugh Hixon, Research Fellow, has worked at Alcor since 1983. He has devoted more than half of his life to cryonics.

Over the years, Hugh has become an integral part of Alcor operations. His involvement in everything from solution preparation to dewar maintenance to doing cryoprotective perfusions reflects his interest in every aspect of the field. Indeed, whenever there has been a scientific or technical void at Alcor, Hugh has done his best to fill it. In speaking with him, it is apparent that he views cryonics not just as a part of his life, but as his life. And with good reason: Hugh's history is practically one and the same with Alcor history.

Hugh Hixon Hugh's working day frequently includes filling the cooldown dewar with liquid nitrogen in preparation for an upcoming patient.

Of course, Hugh's life didn't start with cryonics. Born in 1942 in Long Beach, CA, he grew up in the area and became interested in chemistry at a young age, primarily due to a fascination with explosives. In high school he read most of an industrial chemistry textbook, which described such processes as the production of carborundum (silicon carbide) jewelry by exposing a mixture of sand and charcoal to extremely high temperatures (2500 - 3000°C) inside of an industrial furnace.

The seeds of intrigue planted, Hugh extended his quest for chemical knowledge at the University of Redlands, where he obtained a Bachelor's degree in chemistry. Working for only a short while after graduation, he then received a draft notice and "escaped into the Air Force" where he was a munitions officer. Jumping from Lackland, TX, to Denver, CO, to Las Vegas, NV, Hugh fulfilled his duties in aerospace munitions, learning much about thermonuclear weapons, but primarily performing administrative duties such as managing the bomb dump in Las Vegas.

Following the Pueblo incident in South Korea, Hugh was sent to the Taegu, Korea, Air Force station for 9 months, then went back to the U.S. at Cannon Air Force base in Clovis, NM, for 2.5 years before leaving the service. "It was interesting work," he explains, "but ultimately, I didn't have quite the attention to detail that you need to have as an officer."

Picking up where he left off, Hugh went back to school, entering the graduate program in biochemistry at California State University at Long Beach in 1973. "I became a tenured graduate student," Hugh jokes. "I spent over a decade in grad school, and didn't obtain my Master's degree in biochemistry until 1983." Spending such a long time in school allowed Hugh to explore his interests in depth and to take a lot of additional classes that a biochemist wouldn't normally take, including advanced inorganic chemistry, organic catalysis, electrochemistry, solvation chemistry and internal chemical reactions.

During that time, around 1977, Hugh's college roommate, Laurence Gale, introduced him to cryonics. Fred and Linda Chamberlain, founders of Alcor, had recruited Laurence into Alcor after meeting him at a series of Libertarian/Randian seminars, and Laurence sought Hugh's help with some problems Alcor was having at the time. By 1978, Hugh had participated in his first cryopreservation; he was becoming more involved in cryonics every day.

It wasn't long before some cryonicists, Thomas Donaldson in particular, were stumping for research. Jerry Leaf, who worked in the Department of Thoracic Surgery at UCLA, heeded the call, bringing surgical experience and perfusion technology to cryonics. Hugh met Jerry and they performed their first case together, flying the patient from New York to California for perfusion-based cryoprotection. It was a large leap forward of technical capability in cryonics.

In 1982, cryonics activist and pioneer Mike Darwin moved his Indianapolis based cryonics operation out to California and merged with Jerry Leaf 's company Cryovita, becoming part owner (Hugh later became part owner, as well). That same year, Hugh and Jerry made their own personal cryopreservation arrangements with Alcor and Hugh joined the Alcor Board. Mike Darwin, who had shown promising leadership qualities, was installed as Alcor President. The next year (1983) Hugh finally got his Master's degree in biochemistry.

Given his now-serious involvement in cryonics, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Hugh basically went straight from graduate school to a career at Alcor. He was officially hired as Facilities Engineer in 1983, and initially did a lot of the necessary administrative work, including editing, publishing, and mailing Cryonics magazine.

Meanwhile, research moved forward with a grant to Alcor from the Life Extension Foundation which was headed by Saul Kent and Bill Faloon. Alcor and Cryovita developed the MHP-2 washout solution which is still in use at Alcor today. A consequence of the intense experimentation was that the surgical team got a lot of bypass experience. Hugh recalls that "Jerry did the surgeries, while Mike did the perfusions. Initially, I was batching the perfusates and doing the blood chemistry, running the Radiometer blood-gas machine."

In 1988, following the Dora Kent case — which resulted in severe tensions between Alcor and the Riverside, CA, coroner's office — the Board replaced Mike Darwin with Carlos Mondragon as President. "There were a couple of years of fighting at Riverside," Hugh remembers. "The media frenzy surrounding the Dora Kent case led to Jerry Leaf losing his job at UCLA. Meanwhile, the Society for Cryobiology blacklisted anyone associated with cryonics as well as vendors who sold products to cryonics organizations, making it difficult for Alcor to obtain dewars for patient storage. Then, to top it all off, Jerry Leaf went down and was cryopreserved in 1991." "It turned out Jerry was the glue holding everyone together," Hugh laments. More infighting and tensions led to Carlos Mondragon's replacement by Steve Bridge as President, and Mike Darwin leaving the organization. With Jerry Leaf and Mike Darwin no longer active at Alcor, Hugh, who until then had been in a rather subsidiary position in the OR, suddenly had to pick up the slack. "At that point, there was a pretty steep curve for learning how to do perfusions," he admits.

A strong push was made to move Alcor out of Riverside for several reasons. To begin, Alcor was simply outgrowing the Riverside facility. Additionally, ongoing political struggles after the Dora Kent case had resulted in a change in the facility's zoning to prohibit animal experimentation. In the same vein, continued problems with the local coroner's office did not bode well for operations. And last, but not least, Riverside was also in an earthquake zone, putting the patients in long-term care at risk. That's when David Pizer, a member and businessman with strong ties in the Phoenix area, suggested that Alcor move to Arizona. Given the situation in Riverside, Phoenix was inviting. There were practically no risks of natural disaster, and the political climate looked friendly. With Dave Pizer's help, Alcor made the move to Arizona in 1994 and was welcomed with open arms by the City of Scottsdale, where the facility remains to this day.

Things have gone fairly smoothly for Alcor since relocating to Arizona, though internal and external politics have continued to exert their effects, as evidenced by a succession of President/CEOs. Steve Bridge kept a promise to resign after 4 years in 1997 and was followed by a return of Fred and Linda Chamberlain (1997-2001). (They had been Alcor's original CEOs, 1972-1975). After the Chamberlains there was Jerry Lemler (2001-2003), Joe Waynick (2003- 2005), Steve van Sickle (2005-2008), Tanya Jones (2008-2009), Jennifer Chapman (2009- 2010), and now Max More (2011- ). But through it all, Hugh has remained a constant fixture, even in the face of personal adversity.

Hugh Hixon  

Hugh Hixon

And what more frightening foe could a cryonicist face than something life-threatening? Plagued by a genetic predisposition for coronary artery disease, Hugh underwent bypass surgery in 1996. "That bought me 10 years without any problems," he explains. When he had angina in 2006, ending with a mild heart attack, Hugh was ready to try something new. Ever the experimentalist, he took part in a treatment known as enhanced external counterpulsation (EECP). Immediately relieved of coronary artery disease (CAD) related symptoms, Hugh was amazed at the results. "My angina had come back, and was unstentable. Nitro relieved the angina, but at the cost of continuous nitro headaches," he recalls. "EECP worked spectacularly for me."

Through it all, Hugh was at Alcor doing was he does best: technical development. Over the years he has invented such useful devices as the "crackphone," which determines cracking temperature and degree of cracking during cryopreservations. He used his experience in the construction of the Cryovita Labs Mobile Advanced Life Support System (MALSS) to design and build Alcor's Mobile Advanced Rescue Cart (MARC). He is the initial fabricator of the Bigfoot Patient Pod System and he modified the MVE Bigfoot dewar design for simpler manufacture. Hugh also designed and was instrumental in constructing the Patient Care LN2 Bulk Fill System, in addition to conceiving, designing, and constructing the LN2 Vacuum Transfer System and the LN2 Vapor Cloud Extractor ("fog sucker"). He has contributed to the development of several iterations of cooldown boxes and control systems at Alcor.

Hugh Hixon Captain at the helm: Hugh monitors the computer used to control patient cooldown to cryogenic temperature. He is responsible for the development of many technologies used by Alcor today.

Hugh also designs Alcor's perfusion tubing packs, makes cryoprotectant solutions for perfusions, occasionally participates in field washouts and patient transports, and, of course, still performs cryoprotective perfusions, resulting in his participation in a record number of cases. "By default, I've turned out to be the person at Alcor who knows the most about cryonics technologies," Hugh points out. "And because I do so much stuff, when I have an angina attack, it tends to make people really nervous."

Indeed. As Hugh has aged, his continued struggles with CAD have brought this issue to the forefront. All are agreed that, given his long history in cryonics and breadth of knowledge across so many fields, Hugh is simply irreplaceable by any other single person. It is more likely that at least two people will be necessary to perform the varied duties and functions that Hugh will eventually leave as his legacy.

"The most challenging aspect of cryonics is to understand what we are doing and make it work," he says. "Ultimately, it must be possible, because we're alive. We basically just need to control molecular biology. But how easy will this be? We don't know yet. All we can do for now is cryopreserve the patient and either wait for nanotechnology or come up with a reversible cryoprotectant." To that end, Hugh will undoubtedly continue to contribute ideas and design concepts to improve Alcor's operations and services right up until the moment he requires them himself.

Accordingly, Hugh's advice to fellow members is: "Don't be in a hurry to get cryopreserved; there are still a lot of problems to be solved;" and "Don't lie to yourself about the chances for success, either generally or personally; it's an experiment. But it's not a dice roll; we can affect the outcome. Lying leads to failure."

If our little experiment ultimately is successful, I'll be first in line to thank Hugh Hixon.

Hugh Hixon Steve Van Sickle, former Alcor CEO, and Hugh Hixon prepare liquid nitrogen ice cream at the author's wedding.


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