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Henry Siegel Papers on alleged tubocurarine poisonings 1964-1985
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Biography

Historical Note

On May 18, 1976, Dr. Mario E. Jascalevich wad indicted for five murders. Two of Jascalevich's colleagues at Riverdell Hospital in Oradell, N.J. - Dr. Stanley Harris, a surgeon, and Dr. Allan Lans, an osteopathic physician - suspected him of murdering their patients with curare. In January 1976 a series of articles about a "Doctor X" suspected of murdering patients at Riverdell Hospital appeared in the New York Times, and the Bergen County Prosecutor's office reopened its case. A month prior to the case being officially reopened, however, New York Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Baden supplied an affidavit with the Superior Court in Bergen County stating that at least a score of patients who died at Riverdell in 1966 succumbed from other reasons than those stated on death certificates. A Superior Court judge signed the order in January 1976, granting the prosecutor's office the right to exhume the bodies of five patients, all entered Riverdell Hospital between December 1965 and September 1966 for routine surgical procedures and succumbed days afterward. A little more than year later, the state's forensic experts began using radioimmunoassay (RIA) and high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) on the tissue specimens. In the fall of 1977, the defense received from Dr. Baden and his expert in toxicology Dr. Dal Cortivo samples of tissues and embalming fluids of the alleged murder victims. On February 28, 1978, a panel of 18 jurors was chosen for what was to become one of the longest criminal trials (34 weeks) in the nation's history. The defense contended that RIA and HPLC were relatively new procedures and could not be used to detect curare in human tissue.

The major question addressed by the defense was that of the long-term stability of curare under the conditions to which the bodies were subjected between 1966 and 1976. It was contended that the RIA was not specific enough and "could only rise suspicions that something is there but it might not be there." Tests for the stability of curare found that both embalming fluids and tissue juices (from the patients) had destructive effects on this compound. Defense witnesses testified that curare could not survive in embalmed bodies for 10 years. On October 24, 1978 Jascalevich was acquitted of all murder charges.

Henry Siegel, physician and pathologist, was medical examiner for Westchester County, N.Y.