Jack Kevorkian, 1928–2011

The doctor who crusaded for assisted suicide

Jack Kevorkian was dubbed “Dr. Death” long before he became notorious for promoting euthanasia. His colleagues gave him the macabre nickname when he was an intern at Detroit Receiving Hospital in the 1950s, where he took the night shift so he could quietly photograph patients’ eyes at the instant of their deaths, sometimes while wearing a black armband.

Born Murad Kevorkian to Armenian immigrant parents in Pontiac, Mich., in 1928, Kevorkian was a standout student who taught himself German and Japanese and won a special award from the National Honor Society, said Bloomberg.com. He completed his medical studies at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1952. During a residency at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, he arrived at the “turning point” in his life when he watched a “skeletal” woman dying of cancer. “From that moment on,” he recalled in 1991, “I was sure that doctor-assisted euthanasia and suicide are and always were ethical.”

That certainty led him to question long-standing taboos, including the one against human vivisection, said The New York Times. In 1958 he presented a paper that advocated “giving murderers condemned to die the option of being executed with anesthesia” so that doctors could experiment on them and harvest their organs. He also proposed transfusing blood from cadavers to live patients.

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Kevorkian’s career as a “death counselor” began in 1987, said the London Guardian. He called for the establishment of walk-in suicide clinics, and for $30 built a “Thanatron,” or death machine, which allowed patients to dose themselves with an anesthetic and then heart-stopping potassium chloride. Housed in his Volkswagen van, it was used for the first time in 1990 by a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. In all, he helped some 130 people kill themselves, before being convicted of second-degree murder in 1999, six months after 60 Minutes aired a videotape of him giving an injection to a man suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He served eight years in prison and was released in 2007.

After that, Kevorkian continued to advocate for assisted suicide and saw his life turned into an HBO movie, You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino. Screenwriter Adam Mazer, who won an Emmy for the script, addressed Kevorkian during the awards telecast. “I’m grateful you’re my friend,” he said. “I’m even more grateful you’re not my physician.”

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