Dozens of letters in the Bentley Historical Library’s newly archived collection about University alum Jack Kevorkian, an advocate for assisted suicide, all read something similar to one written in December 1992: “Dear Dr. Kevorkian … I can no longer continue living like this. The quality of my life is totally diminished … I have nothing to look forward to but continued pain and loss of dignity.”
According to Lara Zielin, editorial director at the Bentley Historical Library, the recently acquired collection includes art, papers and photographs from throughout Kevorkian’s life.
Ava Janus, Kevorkian’s niece and the sole heir to his estate, eventually donated the collection to the Bentley Library after his death in 2011. The collection was opened to the public in mid-September.
The collection is of particular relevance since California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed the End of Life Option Act into law, which allows terminally ill patients the right to end their lives with the assistance of a physician.
California joined Washington, Oregon and Vermont in legalizing what is commonly known as physician aid in dying, or assisted suicide.
According to Bentley Library Director Terry McDonald, a history professor, the library was in touch with Kevorkian’s representatives when he was still alive, discussing the possibility of his collection coming to campus. McDonald said that so far, the collection has generated a tremendous amount of attention, particularly from the media.
“Dr. Kevorkian was a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School, and therefore his story is part of the University story,” McDonald said. “Of course he was a major figure in Michigan politics in the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century when his version of the ‘right to die’ debate became an important issue in the state. For both of those reasons, we wanted to have his archives here at the library.”
McDonald also said there is biographical material about Kevorkian’s youth growing up in Pontiac, as well as information on his time as a student in the Medical School and about his career, first as a pathologist and later as a “right to die” activist.
Not only was Kevorkian a physician, McDonald said, but he was also a poet and painter, as seen in examples of his various works displayed in the Bentley collection.
However, of most interest to people are the so-called “medicide” files, which are the letters Kevorkian received from people who wanted him to help them with their death, and in some cases, videotape recordings of actual interviews with his clients, McDonald said.
“He was this compelling and really interesting person and, especially in Michigan, we know him as ‘Dr. Death’ and this ‘right to die’ guy,” Zielin said. “But he was so much more, and he has this long and interesting eccentric and admittedly odd career.”
Mayer Morganroth, Kevorkian’s longtime attorney, said there are many public misconceptions about the doctor, the first regarding the nickname “Dr. Death.” Morganroth said Kevorkian did not receive the name because he was bringing about the end of life; instead, he received it after inventing the oculi, an instrument used to determine whether a person had died.
Morganroth said overall, many people see Kevorkian as having the right message, but being the wrong messenger.
“He only became an outgoing messenger in order to get the word out,” Morganroth said. “Anyone else that performed this, and certainly a lot of doctors did, never came out, never said they did … it wasn’t a question of being the right or wrong messenger. The only messenger we could have was somebody who came out and was really outspoken, which was contrary to his ordinary nature.”
In 1999, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder for helping facilitate patients’ suicides. After serving eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence, Kevorkian was released in 2007 on the condition that he would no longer promote the practice. He died in 2011.
Morganroth added that he met a few relatives of Kevorkian’s clients throughout the trial proceedings, and many were appreciative of what the doctor had done for their loved ones.
“It was terrible because (the trial) was happening as a result of something that he did for them,” Morganroth said. “He never charged them, he never even charged for the gas in his car or anything. He paid for everything himself, he never charged any of the people a penny.”
Now that the collection is public, Zielin said, there has been an uptick in interest in Kevorkian and his life, particularly after the ruling in California. Relatives of Kevorkian’s former clients have heard about the collection and have come to see what the archives contain.
“It’s a sensitive subject, and we’re aware it evokes lots of strong feelings,” Zielin said. “We’re trying to be respectful and cautious about the material while, at the same time, not withholding the things that his estate wanted public.”
McDonald said the Kevorkian collection is reminiscent of the Bentley’s 10,000 others in that many of these archives address controversial topics crucial to the history of the University and the state of Michigan.
“The debate over the so-called ‘right to die’ is an ongoing concern in contemporary America,” he said. “There’s no doubt that most people believe Kevorkian was a pioneer in that whole debate. He was a very controversial figure in Michigan political history, and he has also been seen as a contributor to the nationwide debate of the right to die.”
McDonald said he thinks it is important to understand that the people Kevorkian assisted were all terminally ill.
“By the time they contacted him, they were in favor of what he was doing,” McDonald said. “Most of the people that have come in have been in favor of what happened then and also the fact that the collection is available.”
“At the time that (Kevorkian's clients) approached him, they were suffering so much that I think that’s an important perspective on this debate of the right to die,” he added. “I think the collection provides some insight into that.”
Zielin said many of the archived materials are also available online, as the archivists made a point to digitize Kevorkian’s art and videos so they would be accessible to the wider public.