To those who believe that people with terminal illnesses should have the right to take their own lives, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a heroic advocate for dying with dignity. To his opponents, he was a cold-blooded killer who preyed on more than 130 people suffering from mental illness, disability and chronic pain.
Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Mich., to a family of Armenian immigrants. As a teenager, he built his own chemistry set and lab and began inventing gadgets, including a one-tube radio and a water bicycle. After skipping several grades in school, Kevorkian attended the University of Michigan School of Medicine, where he specialized in pathology. By the time he graduated at 24, he had mastered five languages.
His medical career was interrupted for a year and a half by the Korean War, when he volunteered to serve as a medical officer in the Army. But upon his return to the states, Kevorkian began studying ways to predict imminent death by observing the eyes of patients. This research earned him the nickname “Dr. Death.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that states could reinstate the death penalty, Kevorkian launched a campaign to harvest the organs of consenting death row inmates for use in transplants. He deeply believed that doing so would save lives. However, these efforts were rebuffed.
In the 1980s, Kevorkian became a polarizing figure in medical circles for advocating the legalization of euthanasia. He did not believe that helping adults end their lives was a form of killing or murder; to him it was a compassionate medical service. To some religious conservatives, health care providers, disability advocates, politicians, members of the legal community and more centrist “death by dignity” organizations, it was an illegal act, one that could lead to the eradication of the aged and infirm.
In 1989, Kevorkian created a “suicide machine” that allowed terminal patients to end their own lives through the use of carbon monoxide gas or lethal drug injection. Over the next decade, he crisscrossed Michigan in his van, using The Thanatron (death machine) to help sick and dying people commit what he called “medicide.” His actions led to an arrest for first-degree murder — a charge that was later dismissed — and sparked a national debate about assisted suicide.
Michigan prosecutors would put the controversial physician through the legal wringer four times before they were able to actually convict him of second-degree murder in 1999. The state’s key piece of evidence was a videotape that Kevorkian made showing the planned death of a terminally ill patient named Thomas Youk. That video, which aired on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” showed Kevorkian administering the lethal drugs to the 52-year-old man who was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. “[Thomas] specifically chose a direct injection because he knew that it would be quickly done and it would not fail,” Melody Youk, Thomas’ widow, said.
Kevorkian spent eight years in prison, and was only granted parole in 2007 after promising not to assist in any more suicides. But even while behind bars, people sent him thousands of letters, offering support and seeking advice on how to end their lives. A year after his release, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. And in 2010, an HBO biopic of his life starring Al Pacino was released.
Privately, Kevorkian loved to read and assemble puzzles. He enjoyed playing the flute and the piano, and even composed classical music. After taking an art class in the 1960s, he painted nearly two dozens canvases, but eventually gave it up because he did not consider himself an artist.
Doctor-assisted suicide is now legal in Oregon, Washington and Montana. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that doctors in those states could not be prosecuted for helping terminally ill patients kill themselves.
Kevorkian died on June 3 of a pulmonary embolism. He was 83.