DETROIT - Jack Kevorkian built his suicide machine with parts gathered from flea markets and stashed it in a rusty Volkswagen van.
But it was Kevorkian's audacious attitude that set him apart in the debate over doctor-assisted suicide. The retired pathologist who said he oversaw the deaths of 130 gravely ill people burned state orders against him, showed up at court in costume and dared authorities to stop him or make his actions legal. He didn't give up until he was sent to prison.
The 83-year-old Kevorkian died yesterday at a Michigan hospital without seeking the kind of "planned death" that he once offered to others. He insisted suicide with the help of a medical professional was a civil right.
His gaunt, hollow-cheeked appearance gave him a ghoulish, almost cadaverous look and helped earn him the nickname "Dr. Death." But Kevorkian likened himself to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, and called physicians who didn't support him "hypocritic oafs."
"Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity," he once said. "I put myself in my patients' place. This is something I would want."
Kevorkian died at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, where he had been hospitalized since May 18 with pneumonia and kidney problems. He suffered from a blood clot that traveled up from his leg, according to attorney Mayer Morganroth, who was present and said his friend was "totally in peace, not in pain."
"His medical directive was not to be given any CPR or continuing-life program." Morganroth said.
Despite Kevorkian's relentless efforts in the 1990s, few states made physician-assisted suicide legal. Laws took effect in Oregon in 1997 and Washington state in 2009, and a 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling effectively legalized the practice in that state.
Kevorkian catapulted into the public eye in 1990 when he injected lethal drugs into an Alzheimer's patient. He often left the bodies at emergency rooms or motels.
For much of the decade, he escaped legal efforts to stop him. His first four trials, all on assisted-suicide charges, resulted in three acquittals and one mistrial. Murder charges in Kevorkian's first cases were thrown out because Michigan had no law against assisted suicide. The Legislature wrote one in response. He also was stripped of his medical license.
Kevorkian's ultimate goal, described in his 1991 book "Prescription: Medicide - The Goodness of Planned Death," was to establish "obitoriums" where people would go to die. Kevorkian was freed in June 2007 after serving eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence. His lawyers said he suffered from hepatitis C, diabetes and other problems, and Kevorkian promised in affidavits that he would not assist in any more suicides if released.
Born in 1928, in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, Kevorkian graduated from the University of Michigan's medical school in 1952 and went into pathology.
He said he first became interested in euthanasia during his internship year when he watched a middle-aged woman die of cancer. She was so emaciated, her sagging, discolored skin "covered her bones like a cheap, wrinkled frock," Kevorkian wrote.