Oct. 24, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 3

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    Forensic pathologist, human rights activist Kirschner, 1940-2002

    An internationally recognized authority on forensic pathology, human rights violations, police brutality, torture and child abuse, Robert Kirschner died at the University Hospitals Sunday, Sept. 15. He was 61.

    Kirschner was a Clinical Associate in Pathology and Pediatrics and a founding member of the faculty board of the Human Rights Program at the University.

    Kirschner’s human rights activities took him to more than a dozen foreign countries in Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where torture, extra-judicial executions and mass killings had occurred. He was a forensic consultant to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda where he was involved in the exhumation of mass graves in those countries.

    He worked with the U.N. Truth Commission in El Salvador, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and other international human rights associations. He also was a key contributor to the development of the United Nations manual on the effective investigation and documentation of torture, informally known as the “Istanbul Protocol”– the first such standards to be developed for international use.

    “I’ve been in this field for more than 20 years, and there’s no one whom I’ve met in forensic pathology who was more committed and passionate about working to promote human rights and justice than Bob,” said Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

    Jacqueline Bhabha, founding director of the University’s Human Rights Program and now director of Harvard University’s committee on human rights, said of Kirschner: “His energy, his commitment, his vision and his ability to relate theory to practice made him indispensable in starting the Human Rights Program at the University. Bob provided the bridge between the academy and the human rights community. He was inspirational as a colleague and extremely influential and encouraging for the students.”

    Kirschner also devoted considerable effort to the detection and prevention of child abuse, especially shaken baby syndrome.

    In addition to writing and lecturing on the subject, he was frequently consulted by law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other physicians about child abuse injuries and often testified in court.

    He earned a B.A. from Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Penn., in 1962, and his M.D. from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1966. He completed his residency training in Pathology at Chicago in 1971. After a two-year leave of absence for military service in the U.S. Public Health Service from 1971 to 1973, he joined the faculty at Chicago as an Assistant Professor in Pathology.

    In the early 1970s his interests began to shift away from scanning electron microscopy of minute cellular structures toward criminal investigation of deaths. In 1978, he began to work for the newly created Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office as a forensic pathologist. The next year, he helped to identify the remains of the 273 people killed in the crash of American Airlines flight 191.

    Kirschner’s skills as a Deputy Medical Examiner from 1978 to 1986, and as Deputy Chief of the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office from 1987 to 1995, quickly made him an authority on non-accidental injuries and deaths, “not something,” he often said, “that you can learn from books.” He testified as an expert witness for plaintiffs and defendants in more than 600 criminal cases and civil lawsuits in 15 states, as well as federal, military and international courts.

    In 1985, Kirschner was recruited to join a team pulled together by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to investigate skeletal remains found after the “disappearance” of more than 20,000 people during the previous military regime in Argentina. Kirschner and his colleagues collected evidence of widespread murder and torture, identified many of the bodies and trained Argentine students in forensic science. Their evidence helped convict nine former Junta members of human rights violations.

    The trip also left Kirschner hooked on human rights work, and he began to volunteer for Physicians for Human Rights. From 1985 to 2000, he was involved in 36 international human rights missions at the request of PHR, the Organization of American States, the United Nations or the AAAS.

    “It is hard to imagine how excruciatingly difficult this work could be,” said PHR’s Sirkin. “It meant awfully long hours, in horrible conditions, often pervaded by the stench of mass graves. He had to be tough and detached yet passionate and devoted just to get through it.”

    Kirschner was widely recognized for these efforts. He served as chairman of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, was a member of the board of directors of PHR and established its international forensic program. He presented nearly 200 lectures around the world and received numerous honors for his efforts to support human rights in the United States and abroad.

    He also was recognized for his work on the detection and prevention of child abuse. He was a founder of Cook County’s Child Death and Serious Injury Review team, a member of the advisory board of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and a member of the board of directors of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. He also served on the editorial boards of three journals devoted to forensic medicine and child abuse.

    Kirschner is survived by his father, Walter Kirschner, 91, of Philadelphia; his brother, Richard, 70, of Bethesda, Md.; his sister, Joanne Oppenheimer, 58, of Springfield, Mass.; his wife, Barbara Kirschner, Professor in Pediatrics and Medicine at Chicago; three children: Joshua, 33, of New York; Daniel, 30, of Chicago; and Benjamin, 26, of New York; and one grandchild, Alanna.

    A memorial service at the University is planned for later this fall.

    In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the Robert Kirschner Human Rights Fund, c/o Human Rights Program at the University, or to K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation.