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Die another day

The unlikely collaboration between an American hero and a French scientist to attain immortality

The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever
By David M. Friedman
Ecco, 338 pp., illustrated, $26.95

While lying on his back in the Utah desert one night in 1928, gazing at the stars, Charles Lindbergh experienced a revelation. It was similar to the "reincarnation," as he called it, while flying the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris the year before. During his transatlantic flight, he saw "spirits" and "inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men" gliding about his plane. Some even spoke to him.

Now, alone again in a vast expanse, Lindbergh asked the gods a question: If aeronautical engineering had overcome the tyranny of gravity, why couldn't a kind of human engineering allow mortals to slip the bonds of flesh and conquer death?

In "The Immortalists," David M. Friedman tells a wonderful tale that sounds like mythology, but it's true. Lindbergh, a colossus in the public imagination, meets the first medical scientist in the United States ever to win a Nobel Prize, Dr. Alexis Carrel. Lindbergh is a near-savant when it comes to engineering; Carrel is a father of organ transplantation. Carrel sees in the younger man a gifted protégé, and Lindbergh is awed, a little too awed, by Carrel's opinions about the destiny of humanity. Together, they work to alter it.

Their hubris is staggering. Lindbergh's penchant for secrecy fits perfectly with Carrel's love of drama. Wearing black robes in a black surgical room, they perform revolutionary organ transplants on lab animals, using Lindbergh's medical devices to sustain life. But both men embrace a goal that is much more "god-like," a term Friedman tends to overuse. The real solution, they believe, is eugenics - the selective breeding of humankind. "There is no escaping the fact that men are not created equal," Carrel told The New York Times. And the fallacy was perpetuated by democracy, "which was invented in the eighteenth century, when there was no science to correct it."

Carrel's opinions strongly influenced Lindbergh. He was honored to work with a Nobel Prize recipient who treated him like a son. So whenever Carrel, as a race-conscious bioscientist, heaved a sigh about the effects of the Great War - that it had reduced the white population and diluted its gene pool - Lindbergh winced in sympathy. To help prevent a second fratricidal war between whites, Lindbergh used his celebrity to call for non-intervention in Europe's affairs in the late 1930s.

He gave radio broadcasts, he lectured, he appealed to the readers of popular magazines like Reader's Digest: "We, the heirs of European culture, are on the verge of a disastrous war, a war within our own family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race. . . . It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again. . . . Our civilization depends on a united strength among ourselves. . . . on a Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back either a Genghis Khan or the infiltration of inferior blood. . . . Let us not commit racial suicide by internal conflict."

If you hear overtones of Nazism in Lindbergh's worldview, you're right. He was an admirer of the Nazis: dazzled by their order, efficiency, and especially by their aircraft. He coolly informed American military pilots to stay out of Germany's way; no one could beat the Luftwaffe.

But Carrel and Lindbergh parted at a historic intersection: September 1939. The Reich was on the move, and the French-born scientist had served as a doctor during the First World War. Non-intervention, he knew, was foolish. He sailed for home just in time to see the Germans march through Paris. Carrel said, "[Lindbergh] is committing suicide with the stupidities he is uttering!"

When the United States finally declared war, Lindbergh was stunned when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson informed him that his services as a volunteer military reserve pilot would not be required because of his demonstrated "lack of faith in our cause." Nevertheless, Colonel Lindbergh finagled his way to the South Pacific and, in 1944, wearing a civilian uniform, flew Corsairs and P-38s against the Japanese.

Friedman weaves biomedical engineering, science, and history into a tight narrative that fascinates. Laboratories may not seem like interesting places, but the descriptions of Lindbergh and Carrel's clinical experiments make the reader bend over their shoulders with real enjoyment. The thunder of Nazi boots coming closer as they theorize about the making of a heroic race is brilliantly handled historical irony.

And as a biographer he succeeds with one of the hardest tasks of the genre: showing the moral development of his subjects. Lindbergh and Carrel are men with Olympian egos who are humbled, then rise again. On his deathbed, Carrel whispers to the priest attending him, "I achieved fame. Out in the world, people spoke of me and my works. Yet now I am nothing more than a little baby before God."

Lindbergh's revelation, unlike the ethereal one he experienced in the desert, occurred when he saw a manmade hell. Near a former concentration camp in Germany he was shown a stone mountain penetrated by 50 tunnels. Inside was a huge chamber containing 4,000 V-2 rockets in various stages of assembly. Twenty thousand slave laborers had died constructing the secret facility. The stench, says Friedman, was like the one in Carrel's "mousery," where thousands of mice had fought, killed, and mated to establish a heroic breed.

Lindbergh must have realized that what science could not give a master race was a soul.

Charles J. Shields is the author of "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee." He is working on the authorized biography of Kurt Vonnegut.

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