Playing God

Matthew Price is a journalist and critic in New York.

It was one of the more fascinating, odd and troubling scientific ventures of the last century. An outline reads like some pulp sci-fi tale: During the 1930s, a hero pilot teams up with a brilliant surgeon in a spooky, black-walled lab to unlock the secret of eternal life to save the West. It sounds a bit nutty, but this isn’t fiction.

The aviator was Charles Lindbergh and the doctor was Alexis Carrel, a diminutive Frenchman with a dainty pince-nez perched on his face. In Carrel’s laboratory at New York’s Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, they experimented on animal tissues and organs, fashioning a pump to keep specimens alive -- forever. (In theory, at least.) But their research was allied with a disturbing vision: Alarmed by the state of Western civilization, which they saw as besieged by inferior races and weak genes, they hoped to bestow immortality on an elite that would dominate lesser beings.

In “The Immortalists,” an account of this nearly forgotten pursuit, David M. Friedman ably guides us through a thicket of science and politics and the passions that drove Lindbergh and Carrel. Although the author sometimes resorts to melodramatic flourishes to heighten already dramatic scenes, he nonetheless provides careful explanations and measured judgments about a very complicated endeavor. Just what are we to make of this bizarre project? Their quest went unfulfilled -- immortality was a chimera -- but their pump was an early development in bioengineering, just as their techniques pointed the way to the science of modern organ transplants. That aside, Friedman’s book is a cautionary tale, a study in how otherwise brilliant men, poisoned by ideology and misguided by a reverence for technology, succumbed to a god complex.


Lindbergh saw the human body as little different from an airplane -- a collection of parts that could be replaced and endlessly tweaked. When his sister-in-law took ill from a heart ailment that baffled her doctors, Lindbergh buzzed with ideas for a cure, even suggesting that she be given an “artificial heart.” He sought out Carrel, who was known for his keen interest in experimentation.

When they met in 1930, Carrel was famous. In 1912, he’d won the Nobel Prize in medicine for a pioneering method of sewing and connecting blood vessels. (“In the long history of cutting open the body to heal it, Carrel’s achievement is perhaps second in importance only to the discovery of anesthesia,” Friedman notes). Carrel was also a pioneer in tissue culture, a field that stoked his ideas about mortality. By rinsing waste products from animal tissue, he said he was able to preserve samples indefinitely, demonstrating in 1911 “that death is not a necessary, but merely a contingent, phenomenon.”

Death, Carrel thought, could be surmounted by the right technology. In Lindbergh, he saw a man with the technical prowess to move his vision forward. Lindbergh, in turn, found a research partner and substitute father. Swathed in special hooded robes, they tinkered and improved on Carrel’s design for a perfusion pump to keep organs alive outside the body. (This earned them a Time magazine cover in 1938). The book’s lab accounts are riveting, but not for the faint of heart -- Carrel performed gruesome experiments on live animals. Carrel also believed in extrasensory perception and clairvoyance, and Lindbergh, on his historic 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic, said he communed with “the inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men.” The “science” of immortality, he believed, would give him passage to this otherworldly realm.

More unsettling are their political beliefs. Carrel saw democracy as “an error of the brain”; “There is no escaping the fact that man was definitely not created equal,” he told the New York Times in 1935. That year, he published the bestselling “Man, the Unknown,” which Friedman calls a “blend of science and spiritualism, self-denial and sexism, nostalgia and authoritarianism, hubris and eugenics.” Arguing that “the feeble-minded and the man of intelligence should not be equal before the law,” Carrel proposed a “high council of experts” to help perfect humankind by eliminating the criminally insane and other undesirables.

Abeliever in eugenics, Lindbergh followed a similar path. Ironically, he would split with Carrel on a crucial issue of the day. In Nazi Germany and Hitler, Lindbergh saw a crucial bulwark against the Eastern hordes he thought would overtake the West. Putting aside his lab pursuits, he embarked on a still notorious political campaign, calling for a rapprochement with Germany. (Though both men were anti-Semites, Friedman cautiously argues that they were not committed to the annihilation of the Jews.) But Carrel, a veteran of World War I, couldn’t support a resurgent Germany as “the West’s great protector.” The outbreak of war and internal politics at the Rockefeller Institute ended Carrel’s research. Forced into retirement by his disapproving boss in 1938, Carrel returned to France, where he would die in 1944, his legacy mired in accusations of collaboration.

Friedman’s account of Lindbergh’s postwar trajectory is unexpectedly poignant. If he was an intolerant, even sinister figure in the 1930s -- see Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” for its chilling vision of a Lindbergh presidency -- the war changed him. A 1945 tour of a Nazi death camp led him to realize that there was a direct line from his elitist scientific vision to the horrors of Nazism. “How can one work for the idol of science when it demands the sacrifice of cities full of children, makes robots of men, and blinds their eyes to God?” he asked in a 1948 book. Friedman gives the last word to a leading tissue culture specialist, who says of Lindbergh and Carrel’s research, “All of us are following in their footsteps.” *