The True Story of 'Dr. Death' Jack Kevorkian

Jack Kevorkian, by his own estimate, helped more than 130 people take their own lives.

Jack Kevorkian was never an easy man to like.

The physician dubbed "Dr. Death" was stubborn, self-promoting and intolerant of those who disagreed with him and his obsession to help chronically and terminally ill patients end their own lives.

To those who believed in his services, he was a savior. To those who believed only God should take a sick person's life, he was more aligned with Satan.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Kevorkian's second-degree murder conviction for the death of Tom Youk, a 52-year-old accountant in the final stages of Lou Gehrig's disease, a crippling affliction that had paralyzed most of his muscles and left him terrified he would choke to death on his own saliva.

Kevorkian had been tried several times before for using his homemade machines to offer death to patients who wanted to exit on their own timetable. But in Youk's case, Kevorkian was judged to have overstepped. For the first time, the physician had pressed the button himself, because he said Youk was too paralyzed to do it.

He also videotaped Youk's death and later played the disturbing tape for journalist Mike Wallace during a segment of "60 Minutes." Performing euthanasia crossed the line for a great many Americans, including the young Oakland County District Attorney David Gorcyca.

"Then he went on '60 Minutes' and basically baited me to prosecute him," Gorcyca told So Gorcyca did. "The whole issue of assisted suicide was set aside by him. It was all about Dr. Kevorkian and what he was doing. Medical experts thought it was a mockery," the former prosecutor said.

Whether revered or reviled, Kevorkian's life, and legacy is equal parts history and howling headlines. This is his story.


Murad Jacob Kevorkian was born May 28, 1928, to Armenian immigrants who fled the Ottoman Empire genocide of their people and settled in Pontiac, a town north of Detroit that became a new capital of the modern automobile industry.

From the beginning, young Jack was never typical. He buried his head in reading and drawing. Extremely intelligent, he grew bored in school and after throwing spitballs at his sixth-grade teacher, was bumped to junior high school. 

In high school, he was the recipient of a special award from the National Honor Society and belonged to the Chemistry-Physics Club. He learned German and Japanese. Over the course of his life, he taught himself to read and speak in six more languages.

After the end of World War II, Kevorkian went to the University of Michigan, and then to the college's medical school. But it was always the dying, and not the living, who fascinated Kevorkian's medical mind. He decided to become a pathologist, and thus begun his lifelong study of bodies and death.

His "Dr. Death" nickname came early, and it had nothing to do with assisted suicide.

After returning from a 15-month dispatch to the Korean War, Kevorkian's pathology ideas veered into what many considered the macabre. In a 1958 paper presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he posited that death row inmates could serve humanity by volunteering for "painless" medical experiments that would ultimately kill them. He also advocated harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for transplants.

In response, the University of Michigan's pathology department chairman told Kevorkian to shut up or leave. Kevorkian quit and went to Pontiac General in his hometown. There, he took up experimenting on colleagues by injecting blood from corpses into the living. He had heard from another resident that Russian doctors were doing the procedure.

The transfusions Kevorkian and his colleagues carried out produced no ill effects. Then the young doctor had an epiphany. In wartime, couldn't lives be saved by injecting the blood of fallen soldiers into wounded comrades? He published his research in a 1964 issue of Military Medicine. 

But when Kevorkian pitched his research to the Pentagon, military officials shut him down and refused his application for a federal grant to continue his studies. He vowed to never again to "waste time and effort in futile appeals for support from government agencies."

He also spent time during this period photographing the eyes of dying patients, trying to pinpoint the exact moment of death. He postulated the information could help doctors know the difference between death and shock, coma or fainting, and therefore be able to determine when resuscitation was useless.

That effort also led to nowhere. 

From the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, Kevorkian bounced between Michigan and Los Angeles, where he made a 90-minute movie about Handel's "Messiah," and resumed his eyeball photography while working at local hospitals. By 1986, he was back in Michigan, living in an austere apartment and sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

He tried, without luck, to find a job at local hospitals. Even the Oakland County coroner's office wouldn't hire him. 

"I'm too controversial for most positions," he said in 1990. "All they have to do is see my publications on cadaver blood and on the condemned prisoner work. That alone settles the issue."

The doctor began a new career — as a self-described physician consultant for "death counseling." In 1987, he advertised those services in Detroit newspapers.

His first patient was Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old English teacher who was diagnosed in 1989 with Alzheimer's disease. She reached out to Kevorkian a year later, after reading about his controversial "suicide machine," a contraption he built with bags of liquids and a metal rack.

Adkins traveled to Michigan with her husband, and both met with Kevorkian. The woman was already losing parts of her memory and did not want to end up in a vegetative state, she told the physician.  After unsuccessfully trying to book a hotel or hospital room for the procedure, Kevorkian hooked Adkins to his "Thanatron," from the Greek thanatos, meaning death, in the back of his rusting van.

With the side of her hand, Adkins triggered the release of a powerful sedative. Shortly after, the machine switched to potassium chloride, which stopped her heart.

The doctor also used another device he called a "Mercitron," or mercy machine, which dispensed carbon monoxide through a gas mask.

By his own count, Kevorkian helped more than 130 people take their own lives between 1990 and 1998. One of his favorite slogans was "dying is not a crime." After assisting in his patients' deaths, Kevorkian would leave their bodies at local emergency rooms.

He was not, he told reporters, hastening death but rather ending suffering, an act that needed to be decriminalized. By 1999, he had been charged in the deaths of four patients, including Adkins. He was acquitted three times, and a fourth case ended in mistrial. The so-called "right to die" movement was getting traction, though many said Kevorkian was the wrong messenger for the cause.

His critics "thought he was too open, he seemed to be not the usual type of doctor," attorney Mayer Morganroth told

Morganroth helped represent Kevorkian in those trials, and became a lifelong friend. To those who said Kevorkian was the wrong person to champion the rights of the dying, the lawyer responded, "Who else would be the right messenger? Nobody else who performed it would admit to it or talk about it." The only way to spread the message, Morganroth said, was "to promote it such a manner as he did."

Morganroth considered himself one of Kevorkian's few friends. "Almost everybody associated with him was using him to further their own gains," he said. "I never tried to cash in on it. I was probably the only person he listened to."

Kevorkian wasn't just a doctor, Morganroth is quick to note. He wrote limericks and musical scores. He played several instruments, including guitar and violin. He was an accomplished painter, though his subjects leaned toward darkness and included such imagery as a child eating the flesh of a decomposing corpse.

"He was an extraordinary man," his former attorney said. He liked Kevorkian — admired him, even.

Kevorkian never married and never had children, something he regretted later in life, he said. Because Kevorkian was frugal, and single-minded in his beliefs, Morganroth said his client would not have been an easygoing partner.

"Any woman would not have lived a nice life," he said. 

In 1999, Kevorkian's legal luck ran out.

Pushing the button to end Thomas Youk's life proved a huge mistake for Kevorkian. Assisting someone in ending their life was much different than ending their life for them.

"We thought this was a straight-up case of second-degree murder," said former prosecutor Gorcyca, who is now in private practice.

He had been watching the "60 Minutes" segment with some colleagues when it aired on a Sunday evening in 1998. He purposely hadn't prosecuted Kevorkian since taking office in 1996. "He kept dropping off bodies and I kept ignoring them," he said. Media coverage "went from the front page to the back page," and the prosecutor's office was spared the scrutiny and cost of going after the highly publicized doctor.

But for Gorcyca, the "60 Minutes" interview was just too much. Kevorkian had dared prosecutors to come after him. Gorcyca said he had no choice but to take the bait.

Kevorkian's second-degree murder trial last two days. This time, Kevorkian represented himself, though two attorneys sat with him during trial. "He was fully confident that he was going to be acquitted," Gorcyca said. "He didn't think for a nanosecond that he would get convicted. But the jury didn't agree with that because he went too far."

The judge didn't agree with the doctor, either. "You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did and dare the legal system to stop you," Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jessica Cooper said at his April 1999 sentencing hearing. "Well, sir, consider yourself stopped," she added.

"When you purposely inject another human being with what you know is a lethal dose, that, sir, is murder," the judge admonished before sentencing Kevorkian to 10 to 25 years in prison.

He served eight years, with time off for good behavior. He walked out of prison at age 79, unrepentant and smiling, but he vowed to never again assist anyone with suicide. According to Morganroth, the retired pathologist never did.

Instead, he lobbied for state legislation allowing doctors to help the terminally ill end their lives. He gave speeches across the country, while living in a small, one-bedroom apartment rented for him by his former lawyer, and subsidized by speaking fees that Morganroth collected on his behalf.

He again lived a frugal life. "His favorite food was hot dogs," Morganroth said. In 2008, Kevorkian announced he would run as an independent for a congressional seat. He lost, but managed to earn 2.6 percent of the vote. 

His health worsened, reportedly from hepatitis C, but in 2010, he managed to make the Hollywood premier of "You Don't Know Jack," a HBO film starring Al Pacino as Kevorkian. There are photos of Kevorkian and Pacino, smiling arm in arm, on the red carpet.

In 2011, at age 83, Kevorkian died at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Though he was seriously ill, Kevorkian did not take his own life. He died after a blood clot broke free and lodged in his heart. 

His legacy, like his life, is polarized into camps that believe he was a pariah and those who consider him a prophet.

Whatever one believes, the notion of having a doctor enable a dying patient to end his or her life, has become more palatable to Americans.

There are currently seven states, as well as the District of Columbia, that allow physicians to help mentally sound, terminally ill patients end their suffering, should it become unbearable, by taking prescription medication that would gently end their lives as they slept, according to Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization advocating patient rights and individual choices at the end of life.

President Barbara Coombs Lee told she views the overall impact of Kevorkian's methods as "a plus" in the movement to allow the terminally ill to chose their time to die.

"Before Kevorkian, there was no real awareness of intolerable" suffering endured by the dying, she said. "Most suffered in silence ... There was a huge taboo about talking about end-of-life suffering."

Kevorkian was "such a provocateur, he just took the lid off that taboo," she said. To obtain relief, terminal patients were willing to leave their homes, and their states, to hook up to Kevorkian's machines, she explained. But, that method offered little dignity, she said. "It was such an ignominious way to go, in the back of a Volkswagen van ... and then dumped at the door of a local ER."

The pathologist "highlighted the problem" of suffering before death, but "did essentially nothing to offer society a solution," she said. 

"He left it to us to be the actual advocates of social change," she said her organization and others like it. "Kevorkian was no good at that."