HAROLD T. MERYMAN, 88

Harold T. Meryman, 88, dies; found method to freeze blood

Dr. Harold Meryman holds a cow that gave birth to the calf at right through a freeze-drying experiment.
Dr. Harold Meryman holds a cow that gave birth to the calf at right through a freeze-drying experiment. (Family Photo)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Harold T. Meryman, 88, an American Red Cross physician credited with saving countless lives for his innovative work refining the process of freezing blood, allowing thousands of units of blood to be kept in long-term storage in banks around the world, died Jan. 10 at Montgomery General Hospital in Olney.

He had received a diagnosis of prostate cancer in the late 1990s and died of coronary artery disease.

Dr. Meryman's specialty was cryobiology, the study of the effects of extremely low temperatures on living organisms. After working on his blood-freezing process for years, in 1971 he successfully devised a method of freezing concentrated red blood cells for up to 10 years and then thawing them for patients' use.

His "Meryman method," as it was dubbed, was considered a particular advantage for patients with rare blood types, which were often in short supply because blood spoiled after three weeks in refrigerators.

After Dr. Meryman mixed the red cells with glycerol, a chemical preservative to prevent the formation of ice, he would freeze the blood in liquid nitrogen at 121 degrees below zero. His innovation came in unthawing the blood and removing the glycerol.

Dr. Meryman placed the blood in a centrifuge that resembled a cream separator and passed a glucose-saline solution through the red cells that would "wash" the blood and filter out the glycerol.

Although other scientists had attempted to freeze and unthaw blood for decades, Dr. Meryman's method was the most efficient. He would lose only 2 percent of the red cells during the washing process, and his units emerged from the freeze healthier and better able to deliver oxygen in the bloodstream once transfused. His method remains in use today.

Harold Thayer Meryman was born Feb. 5, 1921, in Washington, where his father was principal of the Corcoran School of Art. He was a 1943 graduate of Harvard and received his medical degree in 1946 from the Long Island College of Medicine in Brooklyn, now part of the State University of New York system.

He joined the Navy that year and was assigned to the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, where he worked on projects involving the effects of freezing on tissues and observing samples through an electron microscope.

In 1951, he spent a year in Korea and Japan researching the effects of frostbite on troops there. He left the Navy in 1954 and joined the biophysics department at Yale University, where he spent three years as a research fellow sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

He returned to the Naval Medical Research Institute and in the late 1950s experimented with freeze-drying cells as a form of long-term storage. He was able to freeze dry red cells, reconstitute them in water and inject them into a rat with no aftereffects. The method was successful but not feasible for broad application.

In one experiment, Dr. Meryman used the same process with sperm cells. He later took freeze-dried bull sperm, reconstituted it and impregnated a cow. A calf was born as a result, and Dr. Meryman named the calf "Desicca," because the father's sperm had been desiccated. The calf lived a healthy life, but the experiment was never replicated.

In 1968, Dr. Meryman joined the American Red Cross and served in the cell, tissue and organ preservation research department.

Dr. Meryman left the Red Cross in 1994 and returned to the medical research institute, where he headed the transfusion and cryopreservation research program. From 2003 to 2007, Dr. Meryman served as president of CryoBioPhysica, an immunological research company based in Rockville.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, the former Mary Lane Latimer, of Sandy Spring; four children, Richard T. Meryman and Louise Meryman, both of Pine Plains, N.Y., Henry Meryman of Rockville and Charlotte Meryman of Williamsburg, Mass.; a brother; and four grandchildren.

One day on his farm near Sandy Spring, Dr. Meryman discovered a cardinal that had become caught in a peanut butter-laden mousetrap. He was entranced by the bird's beauty, and decided to give it a new life. He injected the bird's limbs with liquid nitrogen, manipulated the bird into an animated pose, and then put it in his home freezer next to the popsicles and ice cream.

The specimen came out of the freezer in almost lifelike condition. According to a 1960 Time magazine article, he presented his work and other examples -- including his children's pet guinea pigs and a fox that had eaten 27 of his chickens -- to the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian was impressed with the process and adopted it for use in animal exhibits.

Although Dr. Meryman experimented with freeze-drying organs for long-term storage and transplantation, he did not believe in human cryopreservation. He was known to express his views in lectures through poetry:

"I really think that I could freeze

My mother-in-law with the greatest ease.

The only thing that gives me pause

Is what will happen when she thaws."


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