Jack Kevorkian Papers

Bentley Historical Library banner

Jack Kevorkian Papers

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Jack Kevorkian manuscript collection held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

Researchers may also be interested in the The Kevorkian Papers Web Archives.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Medical pathologist, social activist, advocate for the terminally ill patients' right to die and physician-assisted suicide ("Medicide"), author, artist, and musician. Materials in this digital collection include audio recordings of music composed and performed by Kevorkian as well as legal definitions and a press release.


Jack (Jacob) Kevorkian was born Murad Kevorkian in Pontiac, Michigan on May 26, 1928. He was the second of three children and had two sisters, Margaret and Flora. Dr. Kevorkian’s parents Lewis (Levon) (1887-1960) and Satenig Kevorkian (1900-1968) were immigrants from Armenia. Lewis came to the U.S. prior to World War I from Passem, Erzerum (modern Turkey). At first he became employed by an automobile foundry. He soon enrolled in a night school to improve his English and learn mathematics. In the early 1930s Lewis lost his job at the automobile foundry but found work for a contractor and with time himself became a successful sewer and water main contractor, making a sizeable living as the owner of his own excavating company. Lewis built the house where Jack Kevorkian was born.

At 15 years of age Satenig witnessed the horrors of the 1915 Armenian genocide. She fled her native Govdun, Sepastia, finding refuge with relatives in Paris, and eventually reuniting with her brother in Pontiac, Mich. Tales of the horrors inflicted on Satenig became part of the family heritage, influencing Jack Kevorkian. Lewis and Satenig met through the Armenian community in Pontiac, where they married and started a family.

Kevorkian’s older sister Margaret (Margo) was born in 1926. She graduated with honors from the Pontiac Central High School in 1943. Avid reader and learner, Margaret travelled with her mother in the Near East and Europe, then enrolled in art courses at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She worked for the Michigan Children’s Aid Society and the General Motors, and for the MacManus, John, and Adams International Advertising Agency in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Jack and Margaret Kevorkian were very close. Margaret passed in 1994. Her daughter Ava Janus donated Jack Kevorkian’s papers to the Bentley Historical Library. Kevorkian’s younger sister Flora married Hermann Holzheimer, a German diplomat.

As children, the three Kevorkian siblings were encouraged to perform well in school, and all demonstrated high academic performance. Jack was able to enter Eastern Junior High School when he was in the 6th grade, and by the time he was in high school he had taught himself German and Japanese in preparation for military service, but World War II ended before he came of military age. His interest in languages, specifically, the origin and complexities of words, continued throughout his life. The young Jack Kevorkian was described by his friends as an able student interested in art and music. He graduated with honors from Pontiac High School in 1945 at the age of 17.

Kevorkian was accepted and attended the University of Michigan School of Engineering between 1946 and 1948. In the beginning he planned to be a civil engineer but in the middle of his freshman year he began focusing on botany and biology. He also took classes in chemistry, mathematics, engineering drawing, rhetoric, history, psychology, German, and Japanese, among other courses. By mid-year, he had set his sights on medical school, often taking 20 credit hours in a semester in order to meet the 90-hour medical school requirement. He graduated with a Medical Degree in Clinical Pathology in 1952 and completed his internship at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit (1952/1953).

In 1953-1955 Kevorkian served for 15 months as 1st Lieutenant General Medical Officer in preventive medicine in Korea. While in Korea, he used his Japanese language skills in medical intelligence.

Upon his return to Michigan in 1955, Kevorkian entered a medical residency in Pathologic Anatomy at the University of Michigan. While serving his residency at the University of Michigan hospital, Kevorkian became fascinated by death and the act of dying. He made regular visits to terminally ill patients, photographing their eyes in an attempt to pinpoint the exact moment of death. Kevorkian believed that doctors could use the information to distinguish death from fainting, shock or coma in order to learn when resuscitation was useless.

Dr. Kevorkian’s first scientific article was published in the America Journal of Pathology in 1956. In addition to scientific articles, he began writing on the subjects of death penalty and participation of prisoners in clinical research. He caused a stir with colleagues by proposing that death-row prison inmates could be used as the subjects of medical experiments while they were still alive. Inspired by research that described medical experiments the ancient Greeks conducted on Egyptian criminals, Kevorkian formulated the idea that similar modern experiments could not only save valuable research dollars, but also provide a glimpse into the anatomy of the criminal mind. In 1958, he advocated his view in a paper presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His ideas earned him a nickname “Dr. Death” and minor media attention, and resulted in his ejection from the University of Michigan medical residency program. Dr. Kevorkian finished his residency at the Pontiac General Hospital (1959-1960).

While in Pontiac, after hearing about research on transfusing blood from corpses into living patients by a team of Soviet researchers, Kevorkian enlisted the help of medical technologist Neal Nicol to simulate these same experiments. The results were highly successful, and Kevorkian believed the procedure could help save lives on the battlefield—if blood from a bank was unavailable, doctors might transfuse the blood of corpse into an injured soldier. Kevorkian pitched his idea to the Pentagon, figuring it could be used in Vietnam, but he was denied a federal grant to continue his research. Instead, the research fueled his reputation as an outsider and jolted his colleagues. Also during this time, as a result of his experimentations, Kevorkian became infected with Hepatitis C.

In the 1960s Kevorkian held employment as Associate Pathologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Ann Arbor (December 1960-July 1961), Associate Pathologist at Pontiac General Hospital (1961-1966), Medical Director at the Medical Diagnostic Center in Southfield (1967-1969). Also in the 1960s Kevorkian enrolled in an adult education oil painting class in Pontiac, Mich. In his art he combined his understanding of the human anatomy with his fascination with death. Kevorkian continued to paint throughout his life. He was also a skilled jazz musician and a composer.

In the 1970s Kevorkian worked as a Pathologist at Saratoga General Hospital in Detroit (1970-1976). During this period he published more than 30 professional journal articles and booklets about his philosophy on death. In 1976 he moved to California where he held two part-time pathology jobs in Long Beach. In 1984, prompted by the growing number of executions in the U.S., Kevorkian advocated the idea of giving death row inmates a choice to donate their organs and die by anesthesia instead of poison gas or the electric chair. He was invited to brief members of the California Legislature on a bill that would enable prisoners to have this choice. His actions received attention of the media and he became involved in the growing national debate on dying with dignity.

Following a dispute with a chief pathologist, Kevorkian claimed that his career was doomed by physicians who feared his radical ideas. He “retired” to devote his time to painting, music, and a documentary project on Handel’s Messiah and to continue his research for death-row campaign. Before Kevorkian left California in 1984, all of his artwork, musical instruments, compositions, videos, master films, research papers, his library, and all of his personal belongings were stolen from the storage facility. Kevorkian began to paint again only in 1993, when he recreated some of the 18 pieces of his stolen art.

After years of survival, in 1985, Kevorkian returned to Michigan. He moved to a small apartment in Royal Oak to write a comprehensive history of experiments on executed humans, which was published in the Journal of the National Medical Association. In 1986 he discovered a way to expand his death-row proposal when he learned that doctors in the Netherlands were helping people die by lethal injection. In 1987 Kevorkian visited the Netherlands, where he studied techniques that allowed Dutch physicians to assist in the suicides of terminally ill patients without interference from the legal authorities.

Kevorkian began writing new articles, this time about self-administered euthanasia, or Medicide, as he called physician-assisted suicide. He created a machine he called the “Thanatron” (Greek for “instrument of death”) which he assembled out of $45 worth of materials. The Thanatron consisted of three bottles that delivered successive doses of fluids: first a saline solution, followed by a painkiller and, finally, a fatal dose of the poison potassium chloride. Thanatron enabled self-administration of the lethal dose of the fluids. After years of rejection from national medical journals and media outlets, Kevorkian became the focus of national attention for his machine and his proposal to set up “obitoriums,” where doctors could help the terminally ill end their lives. He began to advertise in Detroit-area newspapers for an obitorium which would offer “death counseling” for the terminally ill and their families. Kevorkian intended to bear all the expenses of Medicide.

Due to media interest, Kevorkian’s ideas became known to the general public. In 1990 he was contacted by Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Oregon woman who suffered from Alzheimer’s, an incurable condition that causes progressive loss of memory, insight, and other mental functions. Adkins was a member of the Hemlock Society –she joined before she became ill– and asked Kevorkian to assist her in ending her life. Janet and her husband Ron Adkins traveled to Detroit. On June 4, 1990 Kevorkian assisted her in ending her life on a bed inside his 1968 Volkswagen van parked in a campground near his home in Michigan. Immediately after Adkin’s passing, Kevorkian called the police, who arrested and briefly detained him. Ron Adkins and two of his sons held a news conference in Portland and read the suicide note Mrs. Adkins had prepared. Janet Adkins was the first person who was assisted by Kevorkian in Medicide.

After the Adkins story reached the media, Kevorkian became a national celebrity. The State of Michigan immediately charged Kevorkian with Adkins’ murder but in December 1990 District Court Judge Gerald McNally dismissed murder charge against Kevorkian due to Michigan’s indecisive stance on physician-assisted suicide.

In October 1991 Kevorkian attends the deaths of Marjorie Wantz, a 58-year-old woman from Sodus, Mich., who suffered from pelvic pain, and Sherry Miller, a 43-year-old woman from Roseville, Mich., who suffered from multiple sclerosis. The deaths occurred at a rented state park cabin near Lake Orion, Mich.

Following these deaths a Michigan judge issued an injunction barring Kevorkian’s use of the Medicide machine and in November 1991 Kevorkian’s Michigan medical license was suspended by the state Board of Medicine. When a medical examiner ruled that the deaths of the two women were homicides, Kevorkian was charged in February 1992 with two charges of murder and one count of illegally providing a controlled substance. Unable to gather the medications needed to use the Thanatron, Kevorkian assembled a new machine, called the Mercitron, which delivered carbon monoxide through a gas mask.

While on bail awaiting for his trial, Kevorkian kept being contacted by terminally ill patients and members of their families asking for help. To ensure the comfort of those he assisted and to protect himself against criminal charges, Kevorkian required documentation of a person’s wish to die. Family physicians, mental health professionals, social workers, and religious leaders were consulted. People had at least a month to consider their decision and possibly change their minds. Kevorkian’s sister Margo videotaped consultations with “Medicide families.” He also spoke on the phone and corresponded with a California dentist who sought assistance in constructing a Medicide machine to end his own life.

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge David Breck dismissed charges against Kevorkian in deaths of Miller and Wantz in July 1992, but the Oakland County Prosecutor Richard Thompson appealed this decision.

In December 1992 the State of Michigan passed a bill outlawing assisted suicide to take effect on March 30, 1993. On February 15, 1993 Hugh Gale, a 73-year-old man with emphysema and congestive heart disease, died in his Roseville, Mich. home. Prosecutors discovered papers that showed Kevorkian altered his account of Gale’s death, deleting a reference to a request by Gale to halt the procedure.

On February 25, 1993 Michigan Governor John Engler signed the legislation banning assisted suicide. In April of that same year a California judge suspended Kevorkian's medical license after a request from that state's Medical Board.

On August 9, 1993 Thomas Hyde, a 30-year-old Novi, Michigan, man with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was found dead in Kevorkian's van on Belle Isle, a Detroit park. Hours after a judge ordered Kevorkian to stand trial in Hyde's death, on September 9, Kevorkian was present at the death of cancer patient Donald O'Keefe, 73, in Redford Township, Mich.

Jailed in Detroit after refusing to post $20,000 bond in case involving Thomas Hyde’s death, Kevorkian fasted November 5-8, 1993. Kevorkian began fast in Oakland County jail for refusing to post $50,000 bond after being charged in the October 1993 death of 72-year-old Merian Frederick of Ann Arbor, Mich., who suffered from the Lou Gehrig's disease. Kevorkian ended fast and left jail after Oakland County Circuit Court Judge reduced bond to $100 in exchange for Kevorkian’s vow not to assist in any more suicides until state courts resolve the legality of his practice.

The first trial of Dr. Kevorkian began in Pontiac, Mich., on April 19, 1994. The prosecution charged Kevorkian with murder in administering drugs to Thomas Hyde in assisting him to commit suicide. The trial was presided over by Judge Thomas Jackson, Richard Thompson led the prosecution. Kevorkian was represented by Geoffrey Fieger of Fieger, Fieger, Kenney, Johnson & Giroux of Southfield, Mich. Fieger helped Kevorkian escape conviction by successfully arguing that a person may not be found guilty of criminally assisting a suicide if they administered medication with the “intent to relieve pain and suffering,” even if it did increase the risk of death. Fieger also brought Mayer “Mike” Morganroth as a co-counsel. Morganroth had 40 years of extensive high-profile criminal trial experience: Lyndon Larouche, Mayor Coleman Young, DeLorean Motor Company, Carolyn Warmus, Hierarchy of the Teamsters, among other trials. Fieger counseled Kevorkian for 6.5 years, while Morganroth co-counseled for a good portion of that period. Morganroth represented Jack Kevorkian for 16.5 years (11 years as sole lead counsel) with respect to a wide range of matters, including criminal trials as co-counsel with Geoffrey Fieger, all of which resulted in acquittal or dismissal of charges, the successful petition for early release of Kevorkian from prison, appeals and entertainment matters, including book deals, lecture deals, and movie and documentary deals. The jury found Kevorkian not guilty of violating the Michigan law that prohibited assisted suicide in case of Thomas Hyde’s death on May 2. On May 10, 1994, Michigan Court of Appeals declared that the state’s 1993 ban on assisted suicide was enacted unlawfully. The Court voided the assisted-suicide law, saying it violated the State Constitution, which requires a bill to have a single object.

On December 13, 1994, the state Legislature failed to reach agreement on a bill that would make the ban on assisted suicide indefinite. On the same day the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that assisting in a suicide, while not specifically prohibited by statute, was a common-law felony and that there was no protected right to suicide assistance under the state Constitution. The ruling reinstated cases against Kevorkian.

Kevorkian opened a Medicide clinic in Springfield Township, Mich. in June 1995. He named the clinic after his sister Margaret, who passed in 1994. Kevorkian referred to the physician-assisted suicide by euthanasia as “Medicide,” and to the people he assisted with such as his ‘consulting “patients”’ or ‘Medicide “patients.”’ His role was of a “consulting Doctor,” because he did not provide treatment as would a traditional doctor—by helping patients overcome or control a disease in order to live.

The first and only Medicide “patient” was a 60-year-old Kansas City, Mo., woman with ALS, Erika Garcellano. A few days later the clinic was kicked out by the building’s owner.

The second trial of Dr. Kevorkian began on February 20, 1996 in Pontiac, Mich. Kevorkian was charged in the deaths of Merian Frederick and Dr. Ali Khalili, 61, of Oak Brook, Ill., who suffered from bone cancer and who passed in November 1993. Both deaths occurred in Kevorkian’s apartment. The trial was assigned to Judge David Breck, Thompson led prosecution, Fieger led the defense team. Thompson argued that Kevorkian acted recklessly and failed to discuss other options with the deceased’s family physicians. Frederick and Khalil family members testified for the defense by expressing their appreciation that Kevorkian ended the suffering experienced by their loved ones. The jury acquitted Kevorkian on March 8, 1996. In 1997, a group called Merian's Friends formed with the intention of placing the issue of physician-assisted suicide on the ballot in hopes of legalizing the practice.

The third trial began almost immediately after Kevorkian’s second acquittal, on April 16, 1996. He was charged in assisting in the deaths of Marjorie Wantz and Sherry Miller in 1991. Prosecution challenged Kevorkian’s subjective judgment in determining whether Marjorie Wantz was mentally competent to make the decision to end her own life, as three psychiatrists have diagnosed Wantz as mentally ill and recommended that she receive counseling. Kevorkian faced a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted in the Wantz and Miller deaths. For the start of the trial, Kevorkian wore colonial costume— tights, a white powdered wig, and big buckle shoes— a protest against the fact that he was being tried under centuries-old common law. Once again, defense presented family testimonies. He was acquitted by the jury on May 14, 1996.

During the trials, Kevorkian received support from the professional medical community. In October 1995 a group of doctors and other medical experts in Michigan announced its support of Kevorkian, saying they will draw up a set of guiding principles for the "merciful, dignified, medically-assisted termination of life." In February 1996 the New England Journal of Medicine published results of a massive study of physicians’ attitudes towards doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon and Michigan. The study demonstrated that a large number of physicians surveyed support, in some conditions, doctor-assisted suicide. Oregon was the first state to legalize assisted suicide when voters passed a tightly restricted Death with Dignity Act in October 1994. Oregon enacted the Death with Dignity Act in October 27, 1997, allowing terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.

Ionia County Circuit Judge Charles Miel declared a mistrial in Dr. Kevorkian's fourth assisted suicide trial in June 1997, only a day after it got under way. By the time of his fourth trial, Kevorkian admitted attending 45 Medicides since 1990.

In September-October of 1998, the Michigan legislature enacted a law making assisted suicide a felony punishable by a maximum five year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine. They also closed the loophole that allowed for Kevorkian’s previous acquittals. On November 22, 1998 CBS 60 Minutes aired a September 17, 1998 video recording of the lethal injection administered to Thomas Youk, 52, a Lou Gehrig’s disease patient who had requested Kevorkian’s help. On the recording, Kevorkian helped Youk to administer the drugs, which was very significant, as all of his earlier Medicide patients had reportedly completed the process themselves. Kevorkian allowed the tape being aired and spoke to 60 Minutes, daring the courts to pursue him legally. Following this program, a second-degree murder charge against Kevorkian was filed. This time Kevorkian chose to represent himself in court.

On March 26, 1999, a jury in Oakland County, Mich. convicted Kevorkian of second-degree murder and the illegal delivery of a controlled substance. In April, Judge Jessica R. Cooper sentenced him to 10 to 25 years in prison with the possibility of parole. During the next three years, Kevorkian unsuccessfully attempted to pursue the conviction in appeals court. Lawyers representing Kevorkian sought to bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that request was also declined.

While in prison, Kevorkian continued to write. He prepared essays that accompanied art, music, photographs, books, and poetry to be included in the exhibit titled “The Doctor Is In: the Art of Dr. Jack Kevorkian” that opened in September 1999 at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Mass. In April 2000 he received Gleitsman Citizen Activist of the Year Award and a sculpture designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. In 2002 Kevorkian participated through written questions in a university program on death and dying at Oklahoma City University. Also in 2002 Dr. Kevorkian was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In August 2003 he was called to give deposition as expert witness on medical research on the effect of mercury on human tissue, based on his early writings on the subject. While in prison Kevorkian wrote a number of articles and books. He prepared articles for the New York Times, Wm Safire Column, Forbes ASAP, Popular Mechanics, New York Review of Books, The Nation, American Journal of Forensics Psychiatry, among others. Kevorkian published books glimmerICs (2004) –an anthology on previous research and new material on philosophy, medicine, mathematics, religion, history, health, medicine, art, humor, his life and the future; Amendment IX: Our Cornucopia of Rights (2005) –a book on the subject of Bill of Rights; and in 2007 Kevorkian started working on a book entitled Dear Dr. Jack using selected letters out of thousands written to him by supporters during his 8 years of incarceration.

After eight years in prison, on June 1, 2007 Kevorkian was paroled for good behavior and released from the Lakeland Correctional Facility. He was on parole for two years, under the conditions that he is not to assist anyone else, or provide care for anyone older than 62 or disabled. He was also forbidden by the rules of his parole from commenting about assisted suicide. Kevorkian said he would abstain from assisting any more terminal patients with Medicide, and his role in the matter would strictly be to persuade states to change their laws on assisted suicide.

As Kevorkian was suffering from liver damage due to the advanced stages of Hepatitis C, doctors suspected he had little time left to live. However, in 2008, at the age of 79, Kevorkian decided to run as an Independent candidate for the U.S. Congress against Republican Joe Knollenberg and Democrat Gary Peters. Also in 2008 he began working on his book When the People Bubble Pops, about the dangers of overpopulation around the world. In 2009 Kevorkian lectured to 5,000 students at the University of Florida, Wayne State University, and other colleges. The following year Kevorkian wrote on the subject of the Ninth Amendment in the form of a Bill of Rights of Natural Rights, prepared another anthology of his early research for World Press, and spoke to the Armenian Association at UCLA.

In 2010 Kevorkian attempted to travel to Armenia but was not allowed on the plane from Berlin, Germany. Also that year he met with the executive team of HBO film You Don’t Know Jack. Production began in 2005, while Kevorkian was still imprisoned. The film is based in part on the book, Between the Dying and the Dead: Dr. Jack Kevorkian's Life and the Battle to Legalize Euthanasia by Neal Nicol and Harry Wylie (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006). The film featured an ensemble of performing stars: Al Pacino as Jack Kevorkian, Brenda Vaccaro as Margaret Janus, Susan Sarandon as Janet Good (a longtime civil rights worker who cooperated with Kevorkian), Danny Huston as Geoffrey Fieger, and John Goodman as Neal Nicol. The film was released later in 2010 and was nominated for 16 Emmys. Kevorkian attended the 2010 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, where Al Pacino asked him to “stand before the world.” In addition to You Don’t Know Jack, he was the subject of documentaries Right to Exit (2004) and Kevorkian (2010).

Kevorkian’s art has received critical acclaim. Many of his paintings created after 1993 are preserved in a permanent collection of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s materials at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Mass. Kevorkian referred to his paintings as social, political and medical commentaries that should provoke thought and discussion on aspects of life that may be disagreeable but are universal. Several of the paintings are part of the series on medical signs and symptoms, in which Kevorkian shows the conditions of human suffering that he was witnessing on a daily basis.

His musical art finds the lighter side of mankind. An active musician and composer, he played and composed pieces for flute, organ, piano, and keyboard. His personal idol was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose works were played in Kevorkian’s hospital before he died. Kevorkian’s own musical compositions are strongly influenced by Bach and some of his 1999 paintings are celebrations of Bach’s music.

In 2010 Kevorkian’s web site, The Kevorkian Papers, was launched www.thekevorkianpapers.com

Dr. Jack Kevorkian died on Friday, June 3, 2011, at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. With him were his niece Ava Janus and his attorney and friend Mayer Morganroth. Kevorkian was 83.

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

Recent Deposits RSS Feed

Search Deep Blue

Advanced Search

Browse by

My Account


Coming Soon

MLibrary logo