Whether Mass Murder or Air Crash, Chicago's Medical Examiner Has a Grisly, Indispensable Job

updated 08/20/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Cook County Morgue is a grim two-story building in the shadow of the vast County Hospital complex on Chicago's West Side. Through its halls have passed the mortal remains of John Dillinger, the seven St. Valentine's Day massacre victims, the eight nurses stabbed by Richard Speck, the 29 young men discovered murdered in Norwood Park last year. Ordinarily, plane crash victims would also be brought there, but the American Airlines DC-10 disaster on May 25 claimed so many lives—274—that the bodies were kept in a hangar at the airport. The man in charge of such investigations in and out of the morgue is the county medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stein. On his office wall hangs a Latin motto: "Let conversation cease, let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living."

Stein, 63, has held the $65,000-a-year post since the county voted in 1976 to establish it. He had earlier spent 20 years as a consultant to the coroner, and now has a staff of 100 with jurisdiction over all accidental, violent or unexplained deaths occurring in Cook County. That means 15,000 bodies a year.

On one recent day the toll included a 27-year-old man who OD'd; an unidentified person listed as "unknown, decomposed and burned body found in vacant lot"; an elderly woman asphyxiated in a fire; an 18-month-old child scalded to death. The inventory alone would seem enervating, but Stein himself performs 500 autopsies a year. More surprising, he maintains both his enthusiasm and his sensitivity.

Born in Russia, raised in Brooklyn and educated at Innsbruck University in Austria, he points out that his work is more than simply ascertaining the cause of violent death. "What we do here," he explains, "is for the living. I don't want to be known as a doctor of death. I think of myself as a teacher. Everything we do involves societal medicine, man and his environment."

Nothing has tested Stein and his staff like the DC-10 crash. He was in Denver and returned to O'Hare (on a DC-10) four hours after the accident. "We never really saw a whole person," he says. "It was total, utter destruction."

The effort to identify victims began immediately. Stein vividly recalls one woman whose "face came through the impact almost eerily intact. It looked like a death mask." But dental records were needed in most cases, plus medical histories of operations, diseases and congenital defects.

"One man was identified," Stein recalls, "because one leg was shorter than the other and we found that he had had polio as a child. Another was identified by his lung that healed after tuberculosis, a woman by her intrauterine device."

As of now, 244 definite IDs have been made. The unidentified bodies were buried in Los Angeles, in separate coffins, in June. Throughout the grisly task, Stein frequently reminded his staff—and himself—that "these are human beings we are working on, people who had lived and loved." A devout Jew, one day he spontaneously asked that a silent prayer be said in the office at 3:04 p.m.—the hour of the crash.

Unabashedly, Stein says he "loves" his work. "I'd be bored to death as a surgeon." He lives in Highland Park, a northern suburb, with his wife, Elisabeth. They have been married for 27 years and have two grown children. "Family and dignity, that's what life's all about," Stein says.

Medical examiners rarely escape criticism—the firing of the acting New York City ME last week, for example, has touched off a bitter controversy—and Stein has gotten his share. Local newspapers argued that he should have autopsied Mayor Richard J. Daley when he died, apparently of a stroke, in 1976. ("It was clearly natural causes," Stein says.) More recently he came under fire for identifying only 14 of the bodies buried under contractor John Wayne Gacy's home in suburban Norwood Park. Stein says that because of the homosexual overtones of the murders, some relatives are embarrassed about coming forward. "It's rubbish," Stein says of his critics.

He never takes his problems home. After a day that begins at 4 a.m. with calisthenics and dry cereal, he is in bed at 9:30 each night. He says he sleeps like a baby.

From Our Partners