Profile: Jack Kevorkian - A bit of his own medicine

America's Dr Death, accused last week of murder, believes condemned prisoners should be experimented on
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF KEATS was half in love with easeful death, Dr Jack Kevorkian is head over heels in love with it. Until now, it is the death of other people that has appealed so strongly to this veteran campaigner for legalised euthanasia, but if he is convicted of murder for having killed Thomas Youk by injection - an event relayed on CBS television last weekend - he says he is ready to embrace his own death by hunger strike. He'll have to kill himself, though, because the state of Michigan, being one of only 13 American jurisdictions without the death penalty for murder, won't do it for him.

Who is this strange doctor whose clinical practice seems to consist almost exclusively of finishing off his patients? Dr Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1928, the son of immigrant survivors of the Armenian genocide. He claims that family memories of that genocide had no effect upon his subsequent development, though fascination with death is the one constant of his career. His contrary spirit manifested itself at high school where, at the height of the Second World War, he learnt German and Japanese.

He studied medicine at the University of Michigan and qualified in 1952. Called up during the Korean War, he served 15 months in Korea and spent the remainder of his military service in Colorado, where he taught himself music and developed a passion for Bach, whom he would later describe as his deity.

Returning to civilian life, he decided on a career in pathology. His first research was in the changes to be seen in the back of the human eye immediately before, during and immediately after death. The other doctors in his hospital found his research, and his evident enthusiasm for it, somewhat alarming.

He very early developed a particular obsession which has remained with him ever since, unchanged in over 40 years of proselytism: he believed it was wrong that medical advantage should not be taken of people who were inevitably soon to die. He therefore went to a State penitentiary in Ohio to propose to convicted murderers who had been sentenced to death that (unspecified) medical experiments be performed on them before their executions. Their deaths, he said, would then not have been entirely in vain.

He has never swerved from this opinion. In his autobiography, he rails against the moral obtuseness of the medical profession that, in his view, has incomprehensibly failed for over a quarter of a century to take up his suggestion that experimentation on condemned prisoners be made into a separate, board-certified medical speciality. In an article published in Germany, he excused Nazi doctors for having experimented in the death camps, because at least some physiological knowledge emerged thereby from the general slaughter. One of his published works is a comprehensive history of experimentation on executed humans. He believes that opposition to his modest proposal arises from an absurdly antiquated theological outlook.

Perhaps it is not altogether surprising in the circumstances that his medical career has not followed an entirely orthodox path. He worked as a pathologist at Pontiac General Hospital for six years, after which his employment record grew ever spottier, and included the setting up of an early computerised diagnostic centre which soon went bankrupt. Among other things, he subsequently invented a new kind of baseball cap which he tried to market, and in 1989 he was turned down for a position not as a doctor, but as a paramedic. He now has no licence to practise medicine anywhere in the United States.

Dr Kevorkian is not motivated by money. He is not interested in good food or other luxuries, does not care where he lives and once proudly boasted on television that his suit cost only $15. He has never married. It was in the late 1980s that he moved into euthanasia. In 1987 he had a business card printed: "Jack Kevorkian, MD... Bioethics and Obitriaty... Special Death Counseling. By Appointment only."

He did not help anyone to die until 1990 when a 54-year-old Oregon woman killed herself using his newly invented automatic syringe, the Thanatron (later refined into the Mercitron), in the back of his battered Volkswagen van parked in a campsite near Detroit. Dr Kevorkian's accession to world fame was secure. His favoured method for assisted suicide, however, is the inhalation of carbon monoxide. He thinks it gives the deceased a nice healthy pink tinge, which comforts relatives. If he had a coat of arms, its motto would no doubt be a quotation from Mrs Gamp: He'd make a lovely corpse. Since that first assisted suicide, he has hardly looked back. He has attended about 40 deaths, has twice been charged with murder and also several times with assisting suicide. So far - thanks to an alliance with Geoffrey Fieger, a clever lawyer who believes in Kevorkian's crusade - he has not been found guilty of any crime.

Controversy has attached not only to the very concepts of physician- assisted suicide and euthanasia, but to the particular cases chosen by Kevorkian. A high proportion of his "patients" have been women, giving rise to the charge of misogyny; and some appear not to have been suffering from any fatal condition at the time of their demise.

For example, his 35th case, Judith Curren, was found at post mortem to be suffering from nothing other than obesity, though she had also suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome before her death. Only five feet one inch tall, she weighed 19 stones, and was said to be confined to a wheelchair, though whether that confinement was for physical or psychological reasons is a matter of dispute.

Moreover, she was unhappily married to her former psychiatrist, who is strongly suspected of having been repeatedly violent towards her. Not only had she obtained a restraining order against him, but the police had been called to their house 10 times. Shortly before her death, her husband was arrested for assaulting her, though he was later released.

When he helped her to kill herself, Kevorkian knew nothing of her unhappy domestic circumstances. Asked on television whether this ignorance implied that he did not know the people he killed very well, Kevorkian replied: "Who said the relationship should be intimate? I'm a medical doctor, I can review records, and I can see patients, and I can examine them. Who says I've got to learn what their family history is and who their children are and what they did 50 years ago?"

So much for careful evaluation of candidates for assisted suicide. And in any case, Kevorkian has said that the question is not the fatality of a disease, but quality of life of the sufferer. He has also said that the disabled would be acting in the best interests - economic and other - of society by removing themselves from it.

He ascribes the reluctance of American doctors to emulate him to the worst motives. He likens himself to a victim of the Spanish Inquisition (only worse). He has also compared himself to a victim of the Gestapo. He believes that the churches, the hostile press, the medical profession and financial interests are involved in a conspiracy against him. It is his version of the great Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik-Capitalist conspiracy.

He believes the medical profession is against him because it does not want to forgo its fees for attending dying patients. "If a patient's suffering is curtailed by three weeks, can you imagine how much that adds up to in medical care?" he wrote. "And a lot of drugs are used in the last several months and years of life, which add up to billions of dollars for the pharmaceutical industry." He also believes that the courts in Michigan are in the hands of the Catholic Church.

For relaxation, Kevorkian paints and plays music. His paintings are lurid depictions of death in its many forms. Recently, he issued a jazz CD entitled A Very Still Life, in which he is joined by the Morpheus Quintet.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia are but stalking horses for Kevorkian's wider social vision of routine experimentation upon dying people and walk-in municipal suicide centres where the ill and merely disgruntled will be helped (at public expense) to shuffle off this mortal coil. They will be manned by salaried specialists in death called obitriatists, who practise patholysis, the dissolution of all suffering.

Despite his manifold peculiarities, his love of death and his clear interest in doing away with people, Kevorkian is nonetheless sometimes taken seriously as a man with a humanitarian mission. But in sober reality, he is the kind of man who gives killing people a bad name.