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Subject: Robert Kirschner, forensic pathologist

dead of cancer
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Date Posted: September 18, 2002 7:52:22 EDT

Dr. Robert H. Kirschner, a forensic pathologist whose work helped convict officials from the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda of genocide in cases heard by United Nations international criminal tribunals, died on Sunday in Chicago. He was 61.

The cause of death was complications of cancer, according to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where he worked.

Forensic evidence assembled from excavated grave sites by Dr. Kirschner in 1984 also contributed to murder convictions for members of the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, when about 12,000 people "disappeared."

"No one 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, a medical human rights watchdog group based in Boston with which Dr. Kirschner often worked.

Dr. Kirschner's examination in 1996 of four mass-grave sites near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were thought to have been slaughtered by Serbs, contributed to the 2001 conviction of Gen. Radislav Krstic by the International Tribunal in the Hague on charges of genocide.

General Krstic was sentenced to 46 years in prison. Two of his superiors, Radovan Karadzic, president of the breakaway Republika Srpska, and his top military officer, Gen. Ratko Mladic, face similar charges and remain at large.

In 1999 Clement Kayishema, the former prefect of Kibuye in Rwanda, was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the 1995 massacre of Tutsi civilians by members of the Hutu tribe; he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, sitting in Arusha, Tanzania.

Three years earlier, Dr. Kirschner helped develop the case against Mr. Kayishema through his investigation of a mass grave at Home St. Jean, a Roman Catholic missionary center in Kibuye Prefecture. The grave held about 450 bodies, many of them children.

In 1994 Dr. Kirschner used DNA testing to identify the biological parents of children from El Salvador who had been kidnapped by the army during that country's civil war, sent to orphanages in the United States and adopted by American families.

Robert Howard Kirschner was born on Oct. 30, 1940, in Philadelphia and attended Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., before obtaining his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1966.

He completed his residency training in pathology at the University of Chicago in 1971 and after two years of military service joined the faculty at Chicago in 1973 as an assistant professor of pathology. He was associated with the university for the rest of his life.

In the early 1970's, Dr. Kirschner's interest turned toward criminal pathology and investigating causes of death. In 1978 he began working for Cook County medical examiner's office as a forensic pathologist. The next year, while helping to identify the remains of the 273 people killed in the crash of American Airlines Flight 191, which occurred soon after takeoff from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, he met Clyde Snow, a renowned forensic anthropologist, who encouraged him to become involved with human rights investigations around the world.

From 1985 to 2000, Dr. Kirschner took part in 36 international missions to investigate suspected killings and human rights violations in many countries on behalf of organizations including Physicians for Human Rights, the Organization of American States, the United Nations and its international tribunals and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1987 and 1988, he went to Kenya to investigate deaths of prisoners in police custody. He also went to Israel to make sure independent autopsies were carried out on Palestinians who died in Israeli custody. In 1989 he investigated the killing of Jesuit priests in El Salvador as well as a case of death while in custody in South Korea.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, whom he met when they were medical students in Philadelphia, and who is also a faculty member at Chicago; their three sons, Joshua and Benjamin, of New York City, and Daniel, of Chicago; a brother, Richard, of Bethesda, Md.; and a sister, Joanne Oppenheimer of Springfield, Mass.

In a 1996 Associated Press interview, Dr. Kirschner said that dealing with bodies was not the terrifying part of his work. "It's more trying to contemplate what goes through someone's mind that allows them to do this kind of thing," he said.

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