Dr Jack Kevorkian: Practitioner of assisted suicide dubbed 'Dr Death' for helping 130 people take their own lives

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The Independent Online

"Have a nice trip," the small, intense man with cropped grey hair told the woman, as she lay on the makeshift bed, fitted with new sheets, pillowcases and curtains to protect the occupant's privacy, in the back of his ancient Volkswagen van. "Thank you, thank you," replied Janet Adkins that day in early June 1990, despairing at her inexorably advancing Alzheimer's disease.

Then she pushed a button on the machine rigged up beside her. Lethal drugs, first sodium pentathol, then potassium chloride, flowed into her veins. Within a few minutes, she was dead, and Jack Kevorkian was on his way to becoming the world's most-famous – for many people, most-infamous – practitioner of assisted suicide.

The macabre scene took place in a local park in the suburbs of Detroit, suitably equipped with electrical hookups for the machine which Kevorkian called the Thanatron and whose business he described as "medicide". Janet Adkins was the first of some 130 people he would help to take their own lives over the next decade. In the process he became one of the best-known figures in America, his name recognition surpassed, it was claimed at one point, only by the President and First Lady. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine, earned the inevitable sobriquet of "Dr Death", and was interviewed three times by Barbara Walters, then as now queen of TV celebrity journalists.

The authorities detested him, but the general public was more sympathetic. On four occasions Kevorkian was charged with doctor-assisted suicide. Three times he was acquitted; the fourth attempt to jail him ended in a mistrial. Only when he crossed the line from facilitating a suicide to actually killing his willing accomplice in death, was he finally convicted for second degree murder, and sent to prison for 10 to 25 years.

Long before that however he had forced his country, and indeed the rest of the developed Western world, to confront the end-of-life dilemmasof suicide – whether assisted or unassisted – and of euthanasia, passive or active.

Kevorkian was an unlikely instigator of so wrenching a moral debate. His father was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, who emigrated to Detroit and worked in a car factory before starting his own excavating business. Jack was an able student who graduated with honours from high school and took a degree from Michigan University's medical school in 1952. After working as a pathology intern at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and obtaining a Michigan state medical licence, he served as an army doctor during the closing months of the Korean war.

Sometime during this period, he acquired his lifelong, and often ghoulish, obsession with death, its circumstances and even the uses to which death could be put.

Years later, he told an interviewer that when he was at the University of Michigan, he was informed he would have to leave unless he disavowed a proposal he had made for death row prisoners to be used in medical experiments. Another idea was for blood to be taken from dead soldiers on the field of battle and given to wounded colleagues nearby.

At one point Kevorkian advocated charges in death penalty laws so that a condemned convict's organs could be immediately and automatically used for medical purposes. "Each prisoner could save five, six, seven lives," he reportedly said. "They're young, they're in good shape. What a waste."

Even so, Kevorkian was in his sixties before he arrived at what he saw at his life's mission. Over the intervening 30 years, he was many things: writer, inventor (of a paddle-wheel bicycle and a disposable shorts sun visor among other things), film-maker and expressionist painter, whose canvasses were filled with strident symbolism of death and suffering. But the theory and practice of assisted suicide loomed ever larger in his thinking.

Thus arose the Thanatron, whose technology – by co-incidence or otherwise – was remarkably similar to that of the lethal injections that are today the standard method of execution for the 37 US states with the death penalty on their books. He was convinced he had found his purpose, to end unnecessary suffering that medicine and society would not stop. But at least one critic said this self-styled angel of mercy had the mentality of a serial killer.

After Ms Adkins, the "medicides" gathered pace. He was jailed twice, on the second occasion going on a liquids- only hunger strike until his acquittal 18 days later. The controversy – and the publicity – only grew, and Kevorkian thrived on it, even though he was stripped of most of his medical licences, and carbon monoxide, administered by a machine called the "Mercitron", replaced the Thanatron as his modus operandi. But in September 1998, another change of technique brought his downfall.

For two years, Thomas Youk had suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS or "Lou Gehrig's Disease", that attacks the muscles causing paralysis and death, and for which no cure has yet been found. Youk asked Kevorkian to inject the lethal potassium chloride himself, and the doctor obliged. He also videotaped the procedure and gave the film to the CBS news programme 60 Minutes.'

This time, though the victim was on record with his request to die, the case was technically not one of assisted suicide but of second degree murder.

"Dying is not a crime," Kevorkian liked to say. Now however it was, and he was sent to jail. Repeated requests for parole were denied, on the grounds that once released, he would revert to his old ways. Finally, in December 2006, a judge granted Kevorkian's wish – but only because the man who had helped to end the lives of people suffering from a terminal illness was afflicted with one of his own.

Jack Kevorkian, US pathologist and doctor. Born Pontiac, Michigan, 26 May 1928. Died Detroit, Michigan, 3 June, 2011