Skip to main content

Life on Ice

A History of New Uses for Cold Blood

After the atomic bombing at the end of World War II, anxieties about survival in the nuclear age led scientists to begin stockpiling and freezing hundreds of thousands of blood samples from indigenous communities around the world. These samples were believed to embody potentially invaluable biological information about genetic ancestry, evolution, microbes, and much more. Today, they persist in freezers as part of a global tissue-based infrastructure. In Life on Ice, Joanna Radin examines how and why these frozen blood samples shaped the practice known as biobanking.
The Cold War projects Radin tracks were meant to form an enduring total archive of indigenous blood before it was altered by the polluting forces of modernity. Freezing allowed that blood to act as a time-traveling resource. Radin explores the unique cultural and technical circumstances that created and gave momentum to the phenomenon of life on ice and shows how these preserved blood samples served as the building blocks for biomedicine at the dawn of the genomic age. In an era of vigorous ethical, legal, and cultural debates about genetic privacy and identity, Life on Ice reveals the larger picture—how we got here and the promises and problems involved with finding new uses for cold human blood samples.

288 pages | 16 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History: Environmental History, History of Technology

History of Science


"Her sharply original history focuses on serum collected from indigenous communities and frozen during the cold war. Some samples have had a starry afterlife: one from the Belgian Congo, taken in 1959, later became the oldest trace of HIV/AIDS on record. Radin sweeps from the emergence of cryonics to the rise of genomics — and from burning ethical debates over indigenous rights to ancestral remains."


"Radin discusses the background of refrigeration technology and the curious connection between Christianity and cryobiology, and she adds information on the ongoing debate concerning the ethics of scientific exploitation and informed consent. What resonated with me most was learning how this vast collection of blood and tissue samples affects nuclear preparedness."

Paige Williams | The New Yorker

"Life on Ice is a welcome contribution to the topic of biological collections and postcolonial science and technology studies. It combines careful historical accounts with broad-ranging interests, leading to a narrative that is rich in fascinating detail...It is written in a nimble and warm style that is distinctive for its lively language and extensive use of metaphor, even if the latter is a double-edged sword, as it can at times obscure the important message. Still, this book rewards the reader with a considered reflection on the unique challenges that the freezer—and the archive—present us with as they mediate the multiplicity and complexity of our lived time(s)."

H-Net Reviews

"Radin’s book has both the advantages and the disadvantages that come with studies that refocus their historical narrative around the scientific subject as opposed to scientists or institutions: they cover a lot of ground, but the narrative threads must be made to work together despite their tendency to pull in all directions. Life on Ice manages to make it work, in a wide-ranging narrative that somehow unites extremely disparate characters and places"


"Perhaps the principal value of Life on Ice is in drawing together different disciplinary perspectives to offer a wide-ranging view of the historical origins of biomedicine, gracefully weaving together historical, anthropological, epidemiological, scientific, and technological concepts and concerns in a complex, eloquently written, and robustly documented narrative."

Environmental History

“In the era of global warming, modern science has entered its first ice age. With brilliant sangfroid and cool postcolonial discernment, Radin shows how the vast new ecosystems of frozen life that surround us give insight into our pasts and futures. A sanguine and utterly compelling story, Life on Ice reveals that the appropriation and mobilization of millions of frozen specimens—bits of persons—have accompanied and even made possible the globalization of biomedical science.”

Warwick Anderson, author of The Collectors of Lost Souls

“In this deeply humane, imaginative, and beautifully written book, Radin provides a poignant and practical account of the profound questions of knowledge, ethics, and justice that result from the seemingly mundane act of freezing. When our blood and tissue can be frozen, how does it alter experiences of life and death? What are the appropriate uses of our newly immortal bodies, and who gets to decide? Life on Ice is essential reading for scientists, historians, and citizens who must grapple with the promise and perils of biomedical innovation, forensic investigations, and knowledge formation premised on access to life suspended and infinitely extended in frozen animation.”

Jenny Reardon, author of The Postgenomic Condition: Ethics, Justice, and Knowledge after the Genome

“Radin does more in Life on Ice than tell the lively history of twentieth century technologies of freezing, the implications for storage of blood, and the ‘latent’ life conserved within—she constructs sophisticated visual metaphors as her framework of analysis. Using language that correlates temperature with temporality, Radin reveals how scientific salvation narratives are co-constituted with settler nationalist narratives of progress. Both are predicated on hierarchies of social life in which indigenous peoples and other ‘primitives’ serve as raw materials for the production of Western nation states. Her tracing of bioscience genealogies will challenge attentive scientists to consider different narrative and ethical paths forward.”

Kim TallBear, author of Native American DNA

Table of Contents

Preface: Frozen Spirits
Introduction: Within Cold Blood

Part 1 The Technoscience of Life at Low Temperature
Chapter One: Latent Life in Biomedicine’s Ice Age

Part 2 Temporalities of Salvage
Chapter Two: “As Yet Unknown”: Life for the Future
Chapter Three: “Before It’s Too Late”: Life from the Past

Part 3 Collecting, Maintaining, Reusing, and Returning
Chapter Four: Managing the Cold Chain: Making Life Mobile
Chapter Five: When Futures Arrive: Lives after Time

Epilogue: Thawing Spirits



History of Science Society: Suzanne J. Levinson Prize

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press