Jack Kevorkian, Who Assisted Suicides, Dies at 83

Mark Schoifet
Bloomberg News
June 3, 2011
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Jack Kevorkian, the defiant physician known as Dr. Death who was hailed as a compassionate visionary for igniting a national debate on assisted suicide and reviled as a ghoulish publicity hound, has died. He was 83.

Kevorkian died at about 2:30 a.m. at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, according to Associated Press, citing his lawyer, Mayer Morganroth. Kevorkian had been hospitalized since last month with pneumonia and kidney problems.

An official cause of death had not been determined, but Morganroth said it appears Kevorkian suffered a pulmonary thrombosis when a blood clot from his leg broke free and lodged in his heart, the Detroit Free Press reported.

By his own estimate, Kevorkian helped 130 patients kill themselves with his self-built “suicide machines,” sometimes inside his dilapidated 1968 Volkswagen van. The retired pathologist usually dropped the corpses off at hospital emergency rooms and morgues, or left them in motel rooms.

Kevorkian was convicted of murder in 1999 in the death of Thomas Youk, 52, a Michigan man suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He injected Youk with lethal drugs and then showed a videotape of the death on the CBS News television program“60 Minutes.” Sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison, he was paroled in June 2007.

Kevorkian’s medical career was unconventional from the start. As an intern in the mid-1950s, he began photographing the eyes of patients at the moment of death, a practice that led his hospital colleagues to give him his nickname. Later he gained notoriety for advocating unorthodox medical practices such as live operations on death-row prisoners and blood transfusions from corpses to living patients.

‘Keeping Their Distance’

By the time of his release from prison, most assisted- suicide advocates had distanced themselves from Kevorkian, even though they credited him with raising public awareness of a previously taboo subject. In the U.S., Oregon, Washington and Montana now allow some form of physician-assisted suicide, or what proponents call “death with dignity.”

“Dr. Kevorkian himself may not be a good poster boy for the right-to-die movement,” thePittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in an editorial after his release. “But with the first of the 75 millionbaby boomers now moving into their 60s, the uncomfortable questions Dr. Kevorkian raised are not likely to go away. On the contrary, they are apt to be with us more than ever.”

Murad “Jack” Kevorkian was born on May 28, 1928, in Pontiac, Michigan, the son of Armenian immigrants. His mother and father had escaped the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. His father, Levon, ran a small excavating company.

At Pontiac High School, where he graduated in 1945, Kevorkian received a special award from the National Honor Society and was a member of the Chemistry-Physics Club. He taught himself German and Japanese.

Turning Point

Kevorkian enrolled at the University of Michigan and then the university’s medical school. He graduated in 1952 with a specialty in pathology, the study of disease.

A turning point in Kevorkian’s life came as an intern at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He came upon a middle-age woman who was suffering from cancer. In his 1991 book, “Prescription: Medicine -- The Goodness of Planned Death,” Kevorkian described the patient as an “emaciated skeleton” with “yellow eyeballs sunken in their atrophic sockets.”

“It seemed as though she was pleading for help and death at the same time,” Kevorkian wrote. “Out of sheer empathy alone, I could have helped her die with satisfaction. From that moment on, I was sure that doctor-assisted euthanasia and suicide are and always were ethical, no matter what anyone says or thinks.”

Army Medic

Kevorkian served 15 months as an Army medic in Korea beginning in 1953, and then finished his service at an encampment in Colorado, where he taught himself to read music. He learned to play Bach on the recorder and flute.

After his discharge, Kevorkian did residencies at Pontiac General Hospital, Detroit Receiving Hospital and the University of Michigan Medical Center.

It was while working at Detroit Receiving in 1956 that Kevorkian began to establish his ghoulish reputation. He asked to work nights so he could photograph the eyes of patients as they died, sometimes while wearing a black armband. If eyes could pinpoint the exact moment of death, Kevorkian speculated, doctors would know when resuscitation efforts were useless.

Kevorkian published his research in the American Journal of Pathology in an article titled “The Fundus Oculi and the Determination of Death.”

His next crusade was to persuade government officials to allow vivisection -- live operations -- of death-row prisoners. His plan was to anesthetize the inmates, and then cut them open for testing, transplants and organ harvesting before killing them with a lethal injection.

Nazi Comparisons

Kevorkian brushed aside comparisons to the experiments conducted by Nazi concentration camp doctors.

“Those medical crimes apparently were such a horrendous discovery for the civilized world that, regrettably, they seem to have blunted reason and common sense with regard to the rational assessment of the use of condemned human subjects for research,” he wrote.

Kevorkian presented a paper on the subject at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Shortly afterward, the University of Michigan Medical Center, where he was then working, asked Kevorkian to drop his campaign or quit. He left and went back to Pontiac General.

Some critics, notably Wesley J. Smith of the National Review and Weekly Standard magazines, said Kevorkian’s “obsession” with human vivisection -- not compassion for the suffering -- was the real motivation behind his later campaign for assisted suicide.

Corpse Transfusions

As opposition to the death penalty grew in the 1950s, Kevorkian turned his attention to a new cause: promoting blood transfusions from cadavers to live patients. Kevorkian, who had read that the Soviet army used the technique in World War II, argued that the procedure would save the lives of American soldiers.

In 1961, he published an article in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology detailing his experiments on corpses, according to “Appointment With Doctor Death,” a 1993 book by Michael Betzold. In one, he plunged a syringe into the heart of a dead girl, drawing out her blood and transferring it through makeshift tubing into the veins of his assistant.

“Most of us just sort of changed the subject when he got on it,” Murray Levin, then an internist at Pontiac General, told Betzold. “We thought it was inappropriate. We had plenty of blood. We didn’t need to deal with cadavers.”

The Pentagon rejected his idea, and Kevorkian vowed never again to waste time in futile appeals for support from government agencies, Betzold wrote.

In 1970, Kevorkian was named chief pathologist at Saratoga General Hospital on the east side of Detroit.

California Dreaming

Six years later, Kevorkian abruptly abandoned his medical career, packed his Volkswagen van and moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of producing a feature film based on Handel’s “Messiah,” an 18th-century oratorio based on the life of Jesus. According to “Appointment With Doctor Death,” Kevorkian spent $100,000 of his own money and was able to get the film made, though it was never shown. He later declined to speak about it.

Kevorkian moved back to Michigan in 1986 but was unable to find a job. It was during a 1987 trip to the Netherlands, where euthanasia was legal in some instances, that Kevorkian’s interest in the subject was rekindled.

‘Risky Step’

“I decided to take the risky step of assisting terminal patients in committing suicide,” he wrote later. “I could not even consider performing active euthanasia and thereby being charged with murder.”

In June 1987, Kevorkian advertised in a newspaper as a “physician consultant” who was available for “death counseling.” One response came from a man whose brother was in a coma and therefore could not consent; the other was from a woman Kevorkian deemed to be mentally ill.

Undeterred, he published an article, “The Last Fearsome Taboo: Medical Aspects of Planned Death,” in the Journal of Medicine and Law in 1988. In it he called for the creation of what he called obitoria, or suicide clinics, where terminally ill patients could go to die. Even the Hemlock Society, which advocated legal physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, rejected the idea of walk-in death clinics.

Kevorkian built his first thanatron, or “death machine,” from $30 worth of scrap parts. Patients would press a button to activate an intravenous drip of sodium thiopental, a barbiturate used as a general anesthetic, which put them to sleep and set off a 60-second timer. After 60 seconds, the timer would activate a lethal dose of potassium chloride through the tube, and the patient would die of a heart attack.

Death in Van

Kevorkian’s first assisted suicide took place on June 4, 1990. Janet Adkins, a 54-year-oldPortland, Oregon, woman with Alzheimer’s disease, died by using the suicide machine in Kevorkian’s van in Groveland Oaks Park near Holly, Michigan. Four days later, a county judge enjoined Kevorkian from assisting in any more suicides.

A murder charge filed against Kevorkian was dismissed in December 1990 because Michigan had no law against assisted suicides. It was the first of several unsuccessful attempts to prosecute him.

The next year, the state revoked Kevorkian’s license to practice medicine, forcing him to switch to carbon monoxide for his suicides since he could no longer prescribe drugs. In December 1992, Governor John Engler signed a temporary law making assisted suicide a four-year felony while a commission studied the issue.

Sent to Jail

Kevorkian was sent to jail in 1993 after he refused to post $20,000 bail in the death of Thomas Hyde, a 30-year-old Michigan man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Bail was reduced and paid for by Geoffrey Fieger, a flamboyant trial lawyer who would become a ubiquitous presence on television as Kevorkian’s spokesman.

In December 1994, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Michigan’s ban on assisted suicide and also ruled that the practice was illegal in the state under common law. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Kevorkian’s appeal.

In 1996, Kevorkian was acquitted in four more assisted suicides. A judge dismissed murder charges in two of those deaths. For the start of one of the trials, Kevorkian wore a colonial costume to protest that he was being tried under centuries-old common law.

In one notorious assisted suicide, Kevorkian removed the man’s kidneys and held a press conference to offer the organs to anyone needing a transplant.

Michigan’s law permanently banning assisted suicide took effect in September 1998, though by then prosecutors had given up trying to stop him.

‘Consider Yourself Stopped’

Perhaps eager for a confrontation with authorities, Kevorkian switched from assisted suicide to euthanasia. He administered a lethal injection to Youk in September 1998 and was charged with second-degree murder after the videotaped death was shown on “60 Minutes” two months later. The sentencing judge said, “Sir, consider yourself stopped.”

By then, Kevorkian said, he had helped more than 130 people end their lives.

Kevorkian was released from prison on June 1, 2007, and placed on parole for two years, with stipulations that he could no longer help anyone kill themselves. He was also barred from caring for anyone who is older than 62 or disabled.

‘Cavalier, Reckless’

“The fundamental flaw in Dr. Kevorkian’s crusade was his cavalier, indeed reckless, approach,” the New York Times wrote in an editorial. “He was happy to hook up patients without long-term knowledge of their cases or any corroborating medical judgment that they were terminally ill or suffering beyond hope of relief with aggressive palliative care.”

In 2010, Kevorkian was portrayed by actor Al Pacino in the HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack.”Before the film aired, Kevorkian told Anderson Cooper of CNN that he didn’t regret his actions.

“No, why would I?” he said. “I wouldn’t have started if I thought I was going to regret it. I knew what I was stepping into. I knew I was getting into one of the most illegal things in the world. It was the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean I’m stronger than most people. It just means I’m loonier.”