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Kevorkian papers available to the public at Bentley Historical Museum

Nov 18, 2015

Color photograph of painting by Jack Kevorkian "Nearer My God to Thee" (oil, between 1963 and 1966). Painting was stolen from Kevorkian's storage in Long Beach, Calif., circa 1989.
Credit Image courtesy the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library

He became known to the world as “Dr. Death.” His first so-called “medicide” happened in the Detroit area in 1990.

From that point, Michigan pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian became the best-known face of the right-to-die movement. He assisted in the suicides of over 100 terminally ill people between 1990 and 1998.

He died in 2011 at age 83.

Now, Kevorkian’s papers are open to the public at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

Olga Virakhovskaya, Bentley’s lead archivist for collections management, tells us the Bentley museum became interested in Kevorkian’s papers in the mid-90s. They reached out to him, but “it never happened.”

She says that after Kevorkian’s death in 2011, a field archivist contacted his niece, Ava Janus, who turned out to be open to the idea and they made it happen.

“It’s a very diverse collection of papers, just as diverse and interesting as Dr. Kevorkian himself. And it reflects on every interesting aspect of his personality, his interests, and his work,” Virakhovskaya says.

The collection includes sheet music composed by Kevorkian, recordings of him playing his music, reproductions of his paintings, as well as materials reflecting his medical and scientific interests.

“We know him for the medicide ... I believe that he coined that term, that’s what he called this physician-assisted suicide. But he was also interested in organ donation and organ transplantation. He had quite a few other scientific interests,” she says.

Not even prison could stem Kevorkian’s flow of creativity. According to Virakhovskaya, the doctor invented and patented a dental instrument while behind bars.

Virakhovskaya tells us that through the collection, she got to know a very different Dr. Kevorkian than was portrayed on the television or in newspaper clippings.

She says that it’s very clear that the people who met him and particularly the medicide families – the families of patients seeking Kevorkian’s unique medical services – “absolutely loved him.”

“There was something about his persona, on the personal level, that did not come through the TV set, did not come through the newspaper clippings. It was personal and made people just love him,” she says.

Virakhovskaya doesn’t agree with the nickname the media attached to Kevorkian, “Dr. Death.”

“The medicide families didn’t call him that,” she says. In fact, she tells us that in many cases his patients and their families referred to him as “Dr. Life.”

“He’s a controversial figure, and it comes across in the collection,” Virakhovskaya says.

Janus tells us she wanted to donate her uncle’s papers because she wants to perpetuate his ideas. She chose the Bentley Historical Library because both she and her uncle attended U of M and because she trusts them to handle the papers.

She says she took Kevorkian’s media attention in stride, because he had appeared in the media lots of times even before he took on his first medicide patient.

Janus adds that he wasn’t exactly misrepresented on TV and in the newspaper.

“Uncle was a very complex man. He could be very, very laid back, which was his natural way. Very personable, had a good sense of humor. He could also speak with tremendous zeal and enthusiasm on something he really believed in,” she says.

She tells us he didn’t enjoy the limelight, but felt the attention was necessary in order to spread his ideas and get his message across.

Janus firmly believes in everything her uncle stood for, and that Kevorkian is directly responsible for bringing the idea of physician-assisted suicide to the table for discussion.

“It makes sense, it’s necessary. Whether we want to talk about it or not, it’s necessary,” she says.