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Medical examiner to retire after 3 decades Fought with Daley over death toll during 1995 heat wave

Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by ANNIE SWEENEY AND STEVE PATTERSON

The first sign of trouble for Dr. Edmund Donoghue, chief medical examiner in Cook County, during the 1995 heat wave came in a Friday night phone call from the office.

There were 45 names on the examination list for the following day -- twice as many as the daily average. And it was only 9 p.m.

The next day, in fact, there were 85 bodies scheduled to be autopsied at the Robert J. Stein Institute at 2121 W. Harrison. The next day was 100; the next day 110.

Before the heat wave finished, more than 700 people succumbed to the heat in the county. It was one of several major investigations Donoghue oversaw during his nearly 30-year career.

Donoghue, 61, announced Monday that he will leave at the end of the year. He said he's eligible for retirement, and retiring "seemed the right thing to do."

During his career, Donoghue also played a key role in informing the public about the cyanide-laced Tylenol that killed seven people in 1982, and the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 just outside O'Hare Airport in 1979. In that case, Donoghue helped identify the 273 victims.

The heat wave was notable in part because it forced Donoghue into the public spotlight when the mayor challenged his numbers of heat deaths.

An official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control later endorsed Donoghue's methodology.

"I don't think anybody realized how dangerous it could be. Once we did and once people accepted the fact that people were dying, they quickly changed the plan and they began to think about how we could prevent these deaths," Donoghue said.

Today, the city has an entirely different response to heat that includes a massive public awareness campaign to ensure people get to cooling centers.

"We were very busy over here,'' Donoghue said of the disagreement with the mayor. "We didn't have time to worry about what the mayor was thinking.''

Donoghue was appointed chief in 1993 after the retirement of Robert J. Stein. Donoghue knew he wanted to work in forensic pathology since walking into a sophomore class in 1967 at Marquette Medical School, now the Medical College of Wisconsin, and being handed a syllabus on the topic.

Over the years, he has enjoyed a job that many outsiders may regard as gruesome -- examining those who died suspicious or violent deaths to determine the cause and manner of death. And he's enjoyed informing the public when there are broader health threats.

Feds probing office for clout

Replacing Donoghue will be among the first appointments from new Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and will be among the moves providing an insight as to the type of government he'll run. The medical examiner's office was one of many offices that was a patronage dumping ground for Stroger's father, former Board President John Stroger.

The office of the medical examiner also was recently caught up in the ongoing federal investigation into Cook County hiring. A federal subpoena seeking hiring records dating to 1997 was served at the office in October -- although Donoghue said this had nothing to do with his decision to retire.

Donoghue's replacement also could be faced with having to make 10 percent cuts to the $8.6 million budget, something that worries him.

"I am really very concerned they will not leave the department with the resources we need,'' he said.

Donoghue, who is from the North Side and is married with three grown children, is considering taking a private job in forensic pathology. His current salary is $213,000.



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