Dr Jack Kevorkian
Pathologist who practised 'assisted suicide', earning him a prison sentence and the nickname of 'Dr Death'
Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00
JACK Kevorkian, the American pathologist who died on Friday aged 83, attracted considerable notoriety through his strenuous efforts to assist the terminally ill to commit suicide.
Embodying society's moral confusion over the issue of voluntary euthanasia, Kevorkian, a gaunt, white-haired figure who favoured sensible cardigans and clip-on ties, was dubbed "Dr Death" and "Jack the Dripper".
Since law forbade him to kill the terminally ill at their request, he provided the facilities, demonstrated the apparatus of self-destruction and then watched.
Kevorkian claimed to have helped some 130 people to commit suicide. In 1999, after the television show 60 Minutes broadcast a videotape he had made of the assisted suicide of a 52-year-old man, he was convicted of second-degree murder. He served eight years in prison.
Renowned for his good humour, Kevorkian termed himself an "obituarist", the first of a new variety of medical specialist who would assist the terminally ill to kill themselves under strictly controlled guidelines.
For his first deaths, in 1990, he used a suicide machine he called a "mercitron", an apparatus which pumped saline into the "client", switching to a lethal solution when the client pressed a button.
After he had used it three times, the apparatus was confiscated and in 1991 his Michigan state medical licence was revoked, preventing him from buying drugs. He switched to the simpler and less expensive process of gassing by carbon monoxide.
He was vigorously opposed by pro-life lobbies, the authorities and even by those in favour of voluntary euthanasia, who considered that Kevorkian's morbid fascination with the point of departure cast their cause in an unfavourable light.
His supporters pointed to the ageing population and the ability of modern medicine to prolong life almost indefinitely at astonishing cost and even his detractors admitted that his activities ensured that the issue of euthanasia remained in the public conscience.
The son of comfortably off Albanian immigrants, Jacob Kevorkian was born in Detroit on May 26, 1928.
He trained in pathology at Michigan University, where he was considered an exceptional student; he later reputedly taught himself to speak seven languages.
During the Fifties, he became somewhat isolated from his colleagues and began to advocate increasingly controversial measures: the use of the organs of condemned prisoners for experimentation.
Kevorkian went to practise in California, attempting to make a film about organ harvesting, but finally drifted back to Michigan, where he found himself unemployed. In 1989 he demonstrated his "suicide machine" on television and had business cards printed advertising his services -- though he never accepted payment.
His first client was Janet Adkins, a 53 year old suffering from Alzheimer's, who died in a Michigan forest in the back of his Volkswagen camper van in 1990.
Over the following years Kevorkian continued to practise exclusively in Michigan, where he assisted sufferers from cancer, Alzheimer's, arthritis, heart disease, emphysema and multiple sclerosis through the final exit.
The more the authorities attempted to restrain him, the more publicity he garnered -- and the more requests for assistance he received.
By November 1993, despite the introduction of laws in his home state of Michigan banning him from assisting in a suicide, Kevorkian had helped 19 people take their own lives. He was unsuccessfully tried four times by prosecutors before finally being imprisoned in 1999.
Last year, Al Pacino starred as Kevorkian in a film for HBO, You Don't Know Jack.
Jack Kevorkian was unmarried.