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Probably no medical doctor caused more controversy in the modern history than the late Dr. Jacob – Jack – Kevorkian, the (in)famous Doctor Death who firmly believed that if patients want to die, the doctors should be allowed to help them die and lived and worked according to his beliefs. The press called him Doctor Death, his supporters called him Doctor Life, the law said what he did was a murder, he said what he did was a medical service. Given the fact that euthanasia remains one of the most controversial issues of today, it is not very likely that these opposing views on Jack Kevorkian and his work will change any time soon.

Jack Kevorkian

Dr. Jack Kevorkian

Early Years

Jacob Kevorkian was born in 1928 in Pontiac, Michigan, to a family of Armenian immigrants. Kevorkian was a fast learner, learning German and Japanese by himself and graduating from the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor in 1952. and worked at the University for several more years.


One way or another, everything Kevorkian ever tried to do was somehow connected to death. In the late 1950s, Dr. Kevorkian proposed the controversial idea that a prisoner condemned to death should be subject to medical experimentation by his or her own choice and under complete anaesthesia instead of classical execution. This was rejected by the senior doctors at the University of Michigan and Kevorkian left the university. Another idea of his was that prisoners on death row should be primary organ donors, but Kevorkian found little support for this, too.

While working as a pathologist at Pontiac General Hospital, Kevorkian conducted several successful experiments with transfusing blood from the recently deceased into live patients and believed that this form of blood transfusion could be used in warfare, but military officials showed no interest.

Death Counseling

By the 1980s, Jack Kevorkian began advocating the ethics of euthanasia and offering what he called ‘death counseling’. His first public assisted suicide was that of Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old woman in 1990. The charges for murder were dropped, but Dr. Kevorkian lost his medical licence.

Between 1990 and 1998. Dr. Kevorkian reportedly assisted in the deaths of 130 terminally ill people. He constructed an euthanasia device called ‘Thanatron’ that would inject lethal drugs  intravenously when a patient pushed a button and another one called Mercitron, basically a a gas mask fed by a canister of carbon monoxide.

Trials and Imprisonment

Kevorkian was tried four times until 1998, when he released a video tape of a voluntary euthanasia in which he assisted by administering the lethal injection to the patient himself, unlike all previous cases where patients were the ones that pushed the buttons of the euthanasia devices themselves.

Kevorkian was found guilty of second-degree homicide and sentenced to 10–25 years in prison. After serving 8 years in prison, Kevorkian was paroled in 2007, under the condition that he would not assist any suicide.

Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in 'You Don't Know Jack'

Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in ‘You Don’t Know Jack’

Life after the Imprisonment

Jack Kevorkian gave a number of lectures and interviews in the subsequent years, stating his case and advocating the right of euthanasia for the terminally ill patients. In 2010, HBO released the critically acclaimed biopic “You Don’t Know Jack”, with Al Pacino starring as Jack Kevorkian.

Dr. Kevorkian died on June 3, 2011 aged 83, leaving the question whether he was Doctor Death or Doctor Life open for the years and possibly decades to come. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: “He sacrificed himself for everyone’s rights.”