Would you risk your life if you thought it might mean extending it? Would you die now if you thought you could be revived at some point in the future? Here are cases of people who went to extremes for immortality or their very own fountains of youth — and killed themselves in the process.
Top image: Crop from The Alchemist, In Search of the Philosophers' Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771.
Contrary to legend, Juan Ponce de Leon didn't really die searching for the Fountain of Youth, but some people have perished in the quest for extended youth and immortality. These aren't people who died in hopes of achieving spiritual immortality in some afterlife, but people who hastened their deaths in the hopes of extending life on Earth.
How do you preserve your body so you can help humanity in the distant future? A handful of monks, mostly practitioners of Shingon Buddhism, have turned to the nightmarish practice of self-mummification in order to prevent their bodies from decaying. As you might imagine, the process isn't even a tiny bit pleasant. It involved gradual starving yourself, drinking a resin-like substance, and then voluntarily entering a burial chamber. In one particularly fascinating case, a Buddha statue was made to encase the remains.
Yes, it's horrible, but according to some traditions, the monk isn't treated as dead. Instead, the monk is viewed as existing in a deep meditative trance. Some believe that the monks who entered this "state" would be called upon in billions of years, when humanity would need them — and their bodies intact.
Alexander Bogdanov is a fascinating figure, even if you don't take into account his strange death. Bogdanov was a major player among the Bolsheviks, but Vladimir Lenin had him expelled from the party after the two men had a falling out. He founded the art movement Proletkult and developed a study of tectology, a precursor to systems analysis. He also believed that blood transfusions were the key to rejuvenation, and perhaps eternal youth.
Bogdanov performed a number of blood exchanges, and reported improved health after each one — until the last one, that is. Bogdanov exchanged blood with a student who was suffering from malaria and died shortly later. It's not clear if the malaria was behind Bogdanov's death; Bogdanov and his students weren't familiar with blood types. The student, for the record, survived the procedure.
Elixirs of Life, potions and pills that could supposedly extend life — or even make the person who consumed them immortal — feature prominently in the history of imperial China. There were numerous alchemists who claimed to have perfected the formula, but in at least a handful of cases, their elixirs actually made the consumer's life much, much shorter.
Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of the Qin dynasty, died at age 39, likely from consuming mercury, which he thought would make him immortal. He even took the substance with him to the grave; it's believed that a moat of mercury encircles his tomb. That has greatly complicated plans to excavate his tomb.
There are a number of other emperors who supposedly died from poisoned immortality pills. Five T'ang emperors, for example, fell prey to these supposed elixirs of life, including Emperor Xianzong, who is said to have gone so mad from his medication that his eunuchs eventually assassinated him. And not all of these alleged victims of immortality died in ancient times. According to some sources, the Jiajing Emperor was taking mercury pills in an attempt to extend his life, which may have contributed to his death in 1567.
Although Henry II of France was married to Catherine de' Medici, his closest companion during his life was the widow Diane de Poitiers. It probably didn't hurt that Diane was known for incredibly youthful beauty, which she maintained well into her life. It also makes sense that a woman famous for her youthful appearance would go to great lengths to preserve it.
In Diane's case, this meant drinking a concoction made of gold chloride and diethyl ether, which apothecaries claimed could prevent aging. Sadly, the substance slowly killed Diane, who perished at age 66, having been banished from court after Henry's death. Recent studies of Diane's hair show evidence of chronic gold poisoning.
Diane, of course, is hardly the only person ever to die to maintain an illusion of youth. There have been cases of people who died thanks to lead-based makeup — and arsenic-based makeup — and people who have tragically died beneath the plastic surgeon's knife.
Also, an odd bit of trivia: Diane (who was often associated with the Roman goddess Diana) had her own symbol, a trio of crescent moons. Coincidentally, it resembles the biohazard symbol.
Chinese alchemists were hardly the only ones who believed that mercury might be a key ingredient in the elixir of life. Western alchemists sought to create the Philosopher's Stone, a substance that many believed could rejuvenate human beings — and perhaps even make them immortal. Mercury shows up in a great many Philosopher's Stone recipes.
Of course, handling that much mercury could be hazardous to an alchemist's health. For example, Sir Isaac Newton, who was deeply interested in creating the Philosopher's Stone, showed signs of mercury poisoning later in his life: tremors, delusions, confusion, and severe insomnia. A great many alchemists likely shortened their lives as they sought the secrets to immortality.
Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard was a respected physiologist and neurologist, but he did something toward the end of his life that tarnished his scientific reputation. He started injecting himself with extracts from the testicles of guinea pigs and dogs, claiming that it was a rejuvenating substance. Brown-Séquard did remain quite virile until his death at age 76, but most of his peers chalked any benefits from his "Brown-Séquard Elixir" up to a placebo effect.
Convinced that he had discovered a bona fide fountain of youth, Brown-Séquard gave his formula away for free to other scientists. Some people dubbed it a miracle substance, while others... well, other people got pretty sick. There was at least one recorded death from Brown-Séquard Elixir, although it's not clear if the fellow who died knew what his doctor was giving him. (According to news reports at the time, the doctor disappeared shortly afterward, and the going theory was that the dead man's friends murdered him.)
The most famous user of the elixir was probably Pud Galvin, a major-league pitcher and pioneering user of performance-enhancing drugs. Galvin claimed that the injections helped him play better, but they certainly didn't make him immortal. He died of "catarrh of the stomach" at age 45.
There has been some debate as to whether terminally ill people who want their bodies cryonically frozen should be able to have themselves frozen pre-mortem. In the case of Donaldson v. Van de. Kamp, Thomas A. Donaldson asked the California courts to declare that he had a constitutional right to premortem cryonic suspension. (Donaldson died and was ultimately cryopreserved in 2006.)
While cryonics facilities wait until after legal death to preserve a body, some people have hurried the process along. On its website, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation describes the case of a client who called for advice on how to kill himself so that he could be cryopreserved immediately. Eventually, the client shot himself and was, indeed, cryopreserved. He died in the hopes that he might someday be revived and see the future. From Alcor's perspective, though, all he did was reduce his odds of revivification.