April 16, 1990: The Origins of Dr. Death (Assisted Suicide)

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A Brief History

On April 16, 1990, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan physician later to gain the sobriquet, “Dr. Death,” assisted in his first physician assisted suicide when he assisted a 54 year old woman that had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in the act of taking her own life.  Kevorkian had made his controversial views on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide public by advertising in Detroit area newspapers, the culmination of the evolution of his medical opinions about death and how patients should be allowed to handle their own fate.

Digging Deeper

Dr. Kevorkian (1928-2011) was Michigan born and raised, and studied medicine at the University of Michigan.  One of his early pursuits was the study of blood transfusions, and the feasibility of using cadaver (recently dead) blood for transfusion in living humans, which he successfully accomplished.  The US military establishment passed on that particular technology.  As far back as 1959, Kevorkian had controversial ideas about death, including the idea that condemned prisoners should be given the option of being placed under general anesthesia and experimented on until they died, as an alternative to being gassed, electrocuted or otherwise executed.  He also advocated for the harvesting of the organs of executed criminals for use in transplants.

The former gas chamber at New Mexico State Penitentiary, used only once in 1960 and later replaced by lethal injection.  Photograph by Shelka04 at en.wikipedia.

Kevorkian’s alma mater and employer, the University of Michigan did not agree with his radical thinking, and the doctor was obliged to part ways with his former place of employment and source of training.  Now employed at Pontiac General Hospital as a pathologist, Kevorkian continued his revolutionary thinking and by the 1980’s had developed his ideas about assisted suicide and providing “mercy killing” of terminal patients that desired a quicker and less agonizing death (i.e., euthanasia).  By 1987, Kevorkian had started running newspaper ads soliciting patients that desired death, and on April 16, 1990, he finally got his chance to deliver a willing patient to the (presumably) peace the patient had sought.  Providing a humane, pharmaceutical method to achieve death instead of forcing a person to use more extreme methods, such as shooting, hanging, jumping off a bridge, or intentional overdose that could not be counted on to do the job cleanly seemed to many as a reasonable alternative to dying slowly and horribly.  Of course, some patients are so far gone that they cannot physically cause their own death and need someone’s help if they are to achieve intentional death.

Thus began Jack Kevorkian’s career as “Dr. Death,” assisting about 130 patients to their own demise at their own request between 1990 and 1998.  Obviously, many people and many in positions of authority took exception to Kevorkian’s ideas and actions and in 1991, Kevorkian’s medical license was revoked by the State of Michigan.  Kevorkian used both intravenous transmission of drugs, allowing the patient to “push the button” starting the fatal flow whenever possible, as well as a gas mask contraption that killed the patient with carbon monoxide.

Jack Kevorkian from Wash. D.C. National press club.  Photograph by Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA.

Critics claimed that as many as 60% of those patients Kevorkian assisted in suicide were not even terminally ill, merely in pain and or depressed.  Critics also claimed Kevorkian did not always insist on the patient receiving psychiatric examination prior to the deadly deed.  Kevorkian faced 4 criminal trials for assisted suicides during his career as Dr. Death, racking up 3 acquittals and one mistrial.  In 1999, Kevorkian’s luck had run out, for he was charged with Second Degree Murder and convicted in only a 2 day trial!  Kevorkian had represented himself, an arrogance he was later said to have regretted.  Sentenced to 10-25 years in prison, his career in the assisted suicide field was over.  Kevorkian was released from prison in 2007, authorities believing he was dying of Hepatitis C.  Dr. Death fooled the doctors and authorities by living another 4 years, during which time he lectured on more than just assisted suicide and euthanasia, as well as making a run for Congress in 2008.  (He did not win.)

Dr. Death finally met his own death in 2011, dying from complications of Hepatitis and kidney failure as well as liver cancer.  Although his death was not a suicide or an assisted suicide, Kevorkian had refused heroic measures to prolong his suffering.

1st edition front cover of God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999) by Kurt Vonnegut. 

Question for Students (and others): Do you think a person has a right to get help killing themselves in the face of terminal illness or an agonizing chronic condition?  Should a doctor that assists in such a suicide be charged with a crime?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

DeCesare, Michael. Death on Demand: Jack Kevorkian and the Right-to-Die Movement. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015.

Kevorkian, Jack. Beyond Any Kind of God. Philosophical Library, 2015.

Vonnegut, Kurt. God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian. Seven Stories Press, 2010.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Halebtsi of Jack Kevorkian answering questions at UCLA with lawyer Mayer Morganroth (right) and former Foreign Minister of Armenia, Raffi Hovannisian (left), has been released by the copyright holder of this work into the public domain.  This applies worldwide.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.