Jacob “Jack” Kevorkian (Doctor Death) May 26, 1928 – June 3, 2011 was an American pathologist, euthanasia activist, painter, author, composer, and instrumentalist. He is best known for publicly championing a terminal patient’s right to die viaphysician-assisted suicide; he claimed to have assisted at least 130 patients to that end. He was often portrayed in the media as “Dr. Death”; however, many consider him a hero as he helped set the platform for reform. He famously said, “Dying is not a crime.”
In 1999, Kevorkian was arrested and tried for his direct role in a case of voluntary euthanasia. He was convicted of second-degree murder and served eight years of a 10-to-25-year prison sentence. He was released on parole on June 1, 2007, on condition he would not offer advice nor participate nor be present in the act of any type of suicide involving euthanasia to any other person; as well as neither promote nor talk about the procedure of assisted suicide. As an oil painter and a jazz musician, Kevorkian marketed limited quantities of his visual and musical artwork to the public.
Early life and education
Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Michigan, on May 26, 1928, to Armenian immigrants. His father, Levon, was born in the village ofPassen, near Erzurum, and his mother, Satenig, was born in the village of Govdun, near Sivas. His father moved from Turkey in 1912 and made his way to Pontiac, where he found work at an automobile foundry. Satenig fled the Armenian Genocide of 1915, finding refuge with relatives in Paris, and eventually reuniting with her brother in Pontiac. Levon and Satenig met through the Armenian community in their city, where they married and began their family. The couple had a daughter, Margaret, in 1926, followed by son Jack — and, lastly, the third child, Flora.
Kevorkian graduated from Pontiac Central High School with honors in 1945, at the age of 17. In 1952, he graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.
Kevorkian completed residency training in anatomical and clinical pathology and briefly conducted research on blood transfusion. Kevorkian left the active practice of medicine and was sleeping in his own vehicle from time to time.
Over a period of decades, Kevorkian developed several controversial ideas related to death. In a 1959 journal article, he wrote:
“ I propose that a prisoner condemned to death by due process of law be allowed to submit, by his own free choice, to medical experimentation under complete anaesthesia (at the time appointed for administering the penalty) as a form of execution in lieu of conventional methods prescribed by law.
Senior doctors at the University of Michigan, Kevorkian’s employer, opposed his proposal and Kevorkian chose to leave the University rather than stop advocating his ideas. Ultimately, he gained little support for his plan. He returned to the idea of using death row inmates for medical purposes after the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia re-instituted the death penalty. He advocated harvesting the organs from inmates after the death penalty was carried out for transplant into sick patients, but failed to gain the cooperation of prison officials.
As a pathologist at Pontiac General Hospital, Kevorkian experimented with transfusing blood from the recently deceased into live patients. He drew blood from corpses recently brought into the hospital and transferred it successfully into the bodies of hospital staff members. Kevorkian thought that the U.S. military might be interested in using this technique to help wounded soldiers during a battle, but the Pentagon was not interested.
In the 1980s, Kevorkian wrote a series of articles for the German journal Medicine and Law that laid out his thinking on the ethics of euthanasia.
In 1987, Kevorkian started advertising in Detroit newspapers as a physician consultant for “death counseling”. His first public assisted suicide, of Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old woman diagnosed in 1989 with Alzheimer’s disease, took place in 1990. Charges of murder were dropped on December 13, 1990, as there were, at that time, no laws in Michigan regarding assisted suicide. In 1991, however, the State of Michigan revoked Kevorkian’s medical license and made it clear that given his actions, he was no longer permitted to practice medicine or to work with patients.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his famous suicide machine a pioneer and advocate of assisted suicide .
According to his lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian assisted in the deaths of 130 terminally ill people between 1990 and 1998. In each of these cases, the individuals themselves allegedly took the final action which resulted in their own deaths. Kevorkian allegedly assisted only by attaching the individual to a euthanasia device that he had devised and constructed. The individual then pushed a button which released the drugs or chemicals that would end his or her own life. Two deaths were assisted by means of a device which delivered the euthanizing drugs intravenously. Kevorkian called the device a “Thanatron” (“Death machine”, from the Greek thanatos meaning “death”). Other people were assisted by a device which employed a gas mask fed by a canister of carbon monoxide, which Kevorkian called the “Mercitron” (“Mercy machine”).
Criticism and Kevorkian’s response
My aim in helping the patient was not to cause death. My aim was to end suffering. It’s got to be decriminalized.
According to The Economist: “Studies of those who sought out Dr. Kevorkian, however, suggest that though many had a worsening illness … it was not usually terminal. Autopsies showed five people had no disease at all. … Little over a third were in pain. Some presumably suffered from no more than hypochondria or depression.”
In response, Kevorkian’s attorney Geoffrey Fieger published an essay stating, “I’ve never met any doctor who lived by such exacting guidelines as Kevorkian … he published them in an article for the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry in 1992. Last year he got a committee of doctors, the Physicians of Mercy, to lay down new guidelines, which he scrupulously follows.” However, Fieger stated that Kevorkian found it difficult to follow his “exacting guidelines” because of “persecution and prosecution”, adding “[H]e’s proposed these guidelines saying this is what ought to be done. These are not to be done in times of war, and we’re at war.”
In a 2010 interview with Sanjay Gupta, Kevorkian stated an objection to the status of assisted suicide in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. At that time, only in those three states was assisted suicide legal in the United States, and then only for terminally ill patients. To Gupta, Kevorkian stated, “What difference does it make if someone is terminal? We are all terminal.” In his view, a patient did not have to be terminally ill to be assisted in committing suicide, but did need to be suffering. However, he also said in that same interview that he declined four out of every five assisted suicide requests, on the grounds that the patient needed more treatment or medical records had to be checked.
Kevorkian was a jazz musician and composer. The Kevorkian Suite: A Very Still Life was a 1997 limited-release CD of 5,000 copies from the ‘Lucid Subjazz’ label. It features Kevorkian on the flute and organ playing his own works with “The Morpheus Quintet”. It was reviewed in Entertainment Weekly online as “weird” but “good natured”. As of 1997, 1,400 units had been sold. Kevorkian wrote all the songs but one; the album was reviewed in jazz review.com as “very much grooviness” except for one tune, with “stuff in between that’s worthy of multiple spins.”
Jack Kevorkian's artwork on display by AricBoone
He was also an oil painter. His work tended toward the grotesque and macabre; he sometimes painted with his own blood, and had created pictures such as one “of a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse.” Of his known works, six were made available in the 1990s for print release. The Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, Michigan, is the exclusive distributor of Kevorkian’s artwork. The original oil prints are not for release. Sludge metal band Acid Bath used his painting “For He is Raised” as the cover art for their 1996 album Paegan Terrorism Tactics.
In 2011, his paintings became the center of a legal entanglement between his sole heir and a Massachusetts museum.
Kevorkian was tried four times for assisting suicides between May 1994 to June 1997. With the assistance of Fieger, Kevorkian was acquitted three times. The fourth trial ended in a mistrial. The trials helped Kevorkian gain public support for his cause. After Oakland County prosecutor Richard Thompson lost a primary election to a Republican challenger, Thompson attributed the loss in part to the declining public support for the prosecution of Kevorkian and its associated legal expenses.
Conviction and imprisonment
On the November 22, 1998, broadcast of CBS News’ 60 Minutes, Kevorkian allowed the airing of a videotape he made on September 17, 1998, which depicted the voluntary euthanasia of Thomas Youk, 52, who was in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. After Youk provided his fully informed consent (a sometimes complex legal determination made in this case by editorial consensus) on September 17, 1998, Kevorkian himself administered Thomas Youk a lethal injection. This was highly significant, as all of his earlier clients had reportedly completed the process themselves. During the videotape, Kevorkian dared the authorities to try to convict him or stop him from carrying out mercy killings. Youk’s family described the lethal injection as humane, not murder.
On March 26, 1999, Kevorkian was charged with second-degree murder and the delivery of a controlled substance (administering the lethal injection to Thomas Youk). Because Kevorkian’s license to practice medicine had been revoked eight years previously, he was not legally allowed to possess the controlled substance. As homicide law is relatively fixed and routine, this trial was markedly different from earlier ones that involved an area of law in flux (assisted suicide). Kevorkian discharged his attorneys and proceeded through the trial representing himself, a decision he later regretted. The judge ordered a criminal defense attorney to remain available at trial as standby counsel for information and advice. Inexperienced in law but persisting in his efforts to represent himself, Kevorkian encountered great difficulty in presenting his evidence and arguments. He was not able to call any witnesses to the stand as the judge did not deem the testimony of any of his witnesses relevant.
After a two-day trial, the Michigan jury found Kevorkian guilty of second-degree homicide.
Kevorkian was sent to a prison in Coldwater, Michigan, to serve his sentence. After his conviction (and subsequent losses on appeal), Kevorkian was denied parole repeatedly until 2007.
In an MSNBC interview aired on September 29, 2005, Kevorkian said that if he were granted parole, he would not resume directly helping people die and would restrict himself to campaigning to have the law changed. On December 22, 2005, Kevorkian was denied parole by a board on the count of 7–2 recommending not to give parole.
Reportedly terminally ill with Hepatitis C, which he contracted while doing research on blood transfusions, Kevorkian was expected to die within a year in May 2006. After applying for a pardon, parole, or commutation by the parole board and GovernorJennifer Granholm, he was paroled for good behavior on June 1, 2007. He had spent eight years and two and a half months in prison.
Kevorkian was on parole for two years, under the conditions that he not help anyone else die, or provide care for anyone older than 62 or disabled. Kevorkian said he would abstain from assisting any more terminal patients with death, and his role in the matter would strictly be to persuade states to change their laws on assisted suicide. He was also forbidden by the rules of his parole from commenting about assisted suicide.
Activities after his release from prison
Jack Kevorkian answering questions at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with lawyer Mayer Morganroth (right) and former Foreign Minister of Armenia, Raffi Hovannisian (left)
Kevorkian gave a number of lectures upon his release. He lectured at universities such as the University of Florida, Nova Southeastern University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. His lectures were not limited to the topic of euthanasia; he also discussed such topics as tyranny, the criminal justice system, politics, the Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Armenian culture. He appeared on Fox News Channel’s Your World with Neil Cavuto on September 2, 2009, to discuss health care reform.
On April 15 and 16, 2010, Kevorkian appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°, Anderson asked, “You are saying doctors play God all the time?” Kevorkian said: “Of course. Anytime you interfere with a natural process, you are playing God.” Director Barry Levinson and actors Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, who appeared in You Don’t Know Jack, a film based on Kevorkian’s life, were interviewed alongside Kevorkian. Kevorkian was again interviewed by Cavuto on Your World on April 19, 2010 regarding the movie and Kevorkian’s world view. You Don’t Know Jack premiered April 24, 2010 on HBO. The film premiered April 14 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. Kevorkian walked the red carpet alongside Al Pacino, who portrayed him in the film. Pacino received Emmy and Golden Globe awards for his portrayal, and personally thanked Kevorkian, who was in the audience, upon receiving both of these awards. Kevorkian stated that both the film and Pacino’s performance “brings tears to my eyes – and I lived through it”.
Congressional race 2008
On March 12, 2008, Kevorkian announced plans to run for United States Congress to represent Michigan’s 9th congressional district against eight-term congressman Joe Knollenberg (R-Bloomfield Hills), former state senator Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township), Adam Goodman (L-Royal Oak) and Douglas Campbell. (G-Ferndale). Kevorkian ran as an independent and received 8,987 votes (2.6% of the vote).
Kevorkian taught himself German and Japanese.
Illness and death
Kevorkian had struggled with kidney problems for years. He was diagnosed with liver cancer, which “may have been caused by hepatitis C,” according to his longtime friend Neal Nicol. Kevorkian was hospitalized on May 18, 2011, with kidney problems and pneumonia. Kevorkian’s condition grew rapidly worse and he died from a thrombosis on June 3, 2011, eight days after his 83rd birthday, at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. According to his attorney, Mayer Morganroth, there were no artificial attempts to keep him alive and his death was painless. Kevorkian was buried in White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery in Troy, Michigan.
Judge Thomas Jackson, who presided over Kevorkian’s first murder trial in 1994, commented that he wanted to express sorrow at Kevorkian’s death and that the 1994 case was brought under “a badly written law” aimed at Kevorkian, but he attempted to give him “the best trial possible.” Maria Silveira, a professor of internal medicine, said she became involved with palliative care partly because of the attention Kevorkian brought to the complex issue of unintended suffering, adding that he had a tremendous impact and fueled the public awareness of unintended suffering and the need to address it. Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s lawyer during the 1990s, gave a speech at a press conference in which he stated: “Dr. Jack Kevorkian didn’t seek out history, but he made history.” Fieger said that Kevorkian revolutionized the concept of suicide by working to help people end their own suffering, because he believed physicians are responsible for alleviating the suffering of patients, even if that meant allowing patients to die. John Finn, medical director of palliative care at the Catholic St. John’s Hospital, said Kevorkian’s methods were unorthodox and inappropriate.
He added that many of Kevorkian’s patients were isolated, lonely, and potentially depressed, and therefore in no state to mindfully choose whether to live or die. Derek Humphry, author of the suicide handbook, Final Exit, said Kevorkian was “too obsessed, too fanatical, in his interest in death and suicide to offer direction for the nation.” In a 2015 Retro Report story about Kevorkian’s legacy and the Right to Die movement, journalist Jack Lessenberry said Kevorkian “got a national debate going, which I think he then helped stifle by his own outrageous actions.” Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, said that Kevorkian “was a major historical figure in modern medicine.” The Catholic Church in Detroit said Kevorkian left behind a “deadly legacy” that denied scores of people their right to humane deaths. Philip Nitschke, founder and director of right-to-die organization Exit International, said that Kevorkian “moved the debate forward in ways the rest of us can only imagine. He started at a time when it was hardly talked about and got people thinking about the issue. He paid one hell of a price, and that is one of the hallmarks of true heroism.”
The epitaph on Kevorkian’s tombstone reads, “He sacrificed himself for everyone’s rights.”
• Kevorkian, Jack (1959). The Story of Dissection. Philosophical Library
• Kevorkian, Jack (1960). Medical Research and the Death Penalty: A Dialogue. Vantage Books
• Kevorkian, Jack (1966). Beyond Any Kind of God. Philosophical Library
• Kevorkian, Jack (1978). Slimmericks and the Demi-Diet. Penumbra, Inc.
• Kevorkian, Jack (1991). Prescription: Medicide, the Goodness of Planned Death. Prometheus Books.
• Kevorkian, Jack (2004). glimmerIQs. Penumbra, Inc.
• Kevorkian, Jack (2005). Amendment IX: Our Cornucopia of Rights. Penumbra, Inc
• Kevorkian, Jack (2010). When the People Bubble POPs. World Audience, Inc .
Selected journal articles
• Kevorkian J (1985). “Opinions on capital punishment, executions and medical science”. Medicine and Law 4 (6): 515–533.
• Kevorkian J (1987). “Capital punishment and organ retrieval”. Canadian Medical Association Journal 136 (12)
• Kevorkian J (1988). “The last fearsome taboo: Medical aspects of planned death”. Medicine and Law 7
• Kevorkian J (1989). “Marketing of human organs and tissues is justified and necessary”. Medicine and Law 7. (6): 557–565.
Jack Kevorkian Quotes
Five to six thousand people die every year waiting for organs, but nobody cares.
Despite the solace of hypocritical religiosity and its seductive promise of an after-life of heavenly bliss, most of us will do anything to thwart the inevitable victory of biological death.
I got to dislike parties, like Jefferson and Madison. I think they’re harmful. But the system is flawed so badly. I like what Plato said, long ago. Democracy is fit only for a small country. Can’t survive in a large country.
As a medical doctor, it is my duty to evaluate the situation with as much data as I can gather and as much expertise as I have and as much experience as I have to determine whether or not the wish of the patient is medically justified.
All the big powers they’ve silenced me. So much for free speech and choice on this fundamental human right.
In quixotically trying to conquer death doctors all too frequently do no good for their patients’ ease but at the same time they do harm instead by prolonging and even magnifying patients’ dis-ease.
I learned to smile by going through hell. Now I know what hell is and you don’t. I can’t tell you how it is, cause you can’t do it with words.
When your conscience says law is immoral, don’t follow it.
I’m not lying to myself like most people.
I hate to say this, but I’ll repeat it: After death, all we know that you do is stink.
I’m afraid of sudden death. I’d like to know I’m going to die. That’s why death row wouldn’t be so bad, although it’s not pleasant. And cancer, inoperable, wouldn’t be bad. That’s not pleasant either. But to drop dead suddenly, it’s hard on everybody else. My family, my relatives, my friends. It’s just not a good way to go. I want to know I’m going to die.
Dying is not a crime.
The public has no power. The government knows I’m not a criminal. The parole board knows I’m not a criminal. The judge knows I’m not a criminal.
The single worst moment of my life… was the moment I was born.
The American Medical Association says the humane way is to let people starve and thirst to death. If you did that to an animal, youd be put in jail immediately … In the face of such insanity masquerading as authority, who wouldnt be strident?
When history looks back, it will prove what I’ll die knowing.
When you have nothing left to burn, you must set yourself on fire.
The Jews were gassed. Armenians were killed in every conceivable way… So the Holocaust doesn’t interest me, see? They’ve had a lot of publicity, but they didn’t suffer as much.
I’m trying to knock the medical profession into accepting its responsibilities, and those responsibilities include assisting their patients with death.
First of all, do any of you here think it’s a crime to help a suffering human end his agony? Any of you think it is? Say so right now. Well, then, what are we doing here?
I will admit, like Socrates and Aristotle and Plato and some other philosophers, that there are instances where the death penalty would seem appropriate.
I don’t enjoy good food. I don’t enjoy flashy cars. I don’t care if I live in a dump. I don’t enjoy good clothes. This is the best I’ve dressed in months.
This is not a trial. This is a lynching. There is no law.
The Supreme Court of the United States… has validated the Nazi method of execution in… concentration camps, starving them to death.
Thanks to DR. Kevorkian Canada will join a group of countries that permit some form of assisted suicide, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and
Germany. Assisted suicide is legal in only a few American states, including Washington, Oregon, Montana and Vermont.