Dr. Joseph Davis, 1924-2013

Dr. Joseph Davis, long-time Miami-Dade medical examiner, dies

 

ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

For a tribute to Joe Davis, the December 2011 issue of Academic Forensic Pathology created a graphic showing how many forensic pathologists “descended’’ from the legendary Miami-Dade County medical examiner.

It looks like a bicycle wheel with scores of spokes radiating from the axle, and from some of those, secondary and tertiary spokes, 130 in all.

As word of Davis’ death at his Tallahassee home Tuesday began to spread, “descendants’’ from around the world reached out to each other to share memories of their mentor and teacher.

“I read one from New Zealand on the National Association of Medical Examiners list serve,’’ said Dr. Bruce Hyma, who now runs the office that Davis ran from 1957-1996, then briefly in 2000. “That’s the legacy of this man, his humbleness, his kindness, his down-to-earth approach to an area of medicine that’s very complex and can be perplexing — and nothing like what you see on TV.’’

Hyma, who took the job in 2001, called Davis “one of the pioneers in forensic pathology,’’ a description that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez echoed.

Davis “was a dedicated public servant and a pioneer in a profession that very few people have the fortitude or knowledge to take on,’’ Gimenez said in a statement.

Joseph Harrison Davis, born April 16, 1924 in New York City, was 88. Susan Towson, one of his seven children — six of them daughters — said he “died peacefully in his sleep’’ at the small home he built for himself on Lake Bradford after the death of his wife, Rose Marie Lorentzen Davis, in 2001.

They’d been married since 1952.

Joe Davis was a veteran of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Public Health Service, collector of antique firearms and historic cannon replicas, a devout Lutheran, active Rotarian, classical-music lover, outdoorsman, and the proud grandfather/great-grandfather of 36.

In April 1988, the county named a new, state-of-the-art medical examiner’s office in his honor: the Dr. Joseph H. Davis Center for Forensic Pathology.

In addition to performing an estimated 10,000 autopsies, Davis was a crusader — for highway and swimming-pool safety, against smoking and pesticides.

Hyma said he insisted that students and subordinates treat the dead with respect, and deal kindly with bereaved families “on the worst day of their lives.’’

Daughter Susan recalled that “death was talked about at the dinner table. We knew what he did and why he did it: He was speaking for the dead.”

Davis served on the 12 -member House Select Committee on Assassinations, established in 1976 to investigate the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, as president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the Dade Citizens Safety Council, and co-wrote Florida’s medical examiner law.

Davis lectured and wrote on a wide range of topic, including the deadly effects of man-of-war stings, peanut butter as a choking hazard, drowning, self-immolations, carbon monoxide poisoning, auto-erotic asphyxiation, rape and cocaine psychosis.

He consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — and on the sudden death of Elvis Presley. Davis autopsied his share of the famous and notorious, some whose deaths spurred wild speculation and controversy. But on a slab at the morgue, they were all equal.

“Around here, a death is a death. We treat them all the same,” Davis told a reporter in 1997, as he worked part time in retirement.

Moments earlier, the body of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace, shot to death on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, had been sent from the morgue to a funeral home.

Other famous cases included the deaths of 103 passengers and crew in the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in the Everglades in 1972.

His busiest time was the post-Mariel/ “Cocaine Cowboys’’ era of the 1980s, when homicides regularly topped 600 annually. Davis had to rent refrigerated meat trucks as backup morgues, and railed publicly against the carnage.

He placed the blame squarely on Colombian drug criminals and a certain element of Mariel refugees.

“These guys are spaced out,’’ Davis said in a 1981 television interview. “They are psychologically totally not even human. They’re animals — not even animals. That’s an insult to the animal kingdom.’’

In the first half of the year, his office had already received bodies 2,035 bodies, 374 of them homicides.

“I don’t see any relief in sight unless the federal govenrment comes in and moves out all the undesirable illegal aliens and cracks down on all the Colombian drug homicides,’’ Davis said. “And that would only be temporary.’’

He refused to back down after being called a bigot.

“I will not apologize for feeling very deeply that members of both of those groups have engaged in an orgy of killing the likes of the old roving bands of pirates and corsairs,’’ Davis told a Miami Herald columnist. “...Where is the sense of outrage...? We who deal with what’s happening are seeing the destruction of a community by people who shouldn’t be here in the first place.’’

His sort of candor and courage earned Davis deep respect from law enforcement.

Former Miami homicide detective Jerry Green said Davis had “a huge amount of patience and everyday smarts and common sense. And he was incorruptible.”

Retired Miami homicide investigator Mike Gonzalez called Davis “the greatest medical examiner who ever lived,’’ always curious, friendly, eager to learn and teach.

In one case, he went looking for the body of a woman reportedly dumped near Key Biscayne — and found it after Davis noticed some land crabs.

“Joe was following them around,’’ Gonzalez said. “Here comes a land crab with a finger bone with two rings.’’

Retired Miami-Dade homicide detective Greg Smith recalled Davis’s razor-sharp institutional memory.

“He was a meticulous keeper of record, and he developed these policies and procedures that have been used in medical examiners’ offices all over the country," Smith said.

Tony Monheim, another retired homicide investigator from Miami-Dade, said that Davis “knew something about everything...With him, you knew you were going to get an education on the medical forensics of the case, but also the Civil War, JFK. He was a true Renaissance man, so far ahead of his time.’’

Prosecutors remembered Davis as a compelling and persuasive figure who could easily guide a jury through the complicated science of forensic pathology.

David Waksman, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor, noted that Davis “probably trained the bulk of forensic pathologists in America.’’

“He often knew more law than the lawyers using him as a witness,” said Ed Carhart, a former homicide prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

But Davis was also known for his integrity, willing to testify for defendants if that’s what the truth demanded.

“Joe was the kind of person who would call it the way he saw it, regardless of the implications,” said Jim Woodard, another former homicide prosecutor.

Davis grew up in the upscale New York City suburb of Scarsdale, where according to his daughter, he regularly blew up chemistry sets in the basement.

He attended Lehigh University before enlisting in the army during World War II. The army sent him to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Princeton University and the Long Island College of Medicine. The Public Health Service deployed him to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the early 1950s. He worked in public health laboratories in Washington and Louisiana.

In 1956, he became assistant medical examiner in Miami-Dade under Dr. Stanley H. Durlacher.

“The office initially opened at noon of March 15, 1956 in a former funeral home ambulance garage until an existing former laboratory animal building could be altered,’’ Davis wrote in a memoir.

In that setting, “the most important piece of scientific equipment was a fly swatter,’’ he once said.

Less than a year later, Durlacher died unexpectedly, and after briefly serving as acting medical examiner, Davis won the post permanently.

“Routine forensic pathology practice is not difficult to grasp,’’ Davis wrote, but he had to “learn how to cope with complex cases, to operate an office, to integrate my services into the needs of police, prosecutor, courts, families, funeral homes, fellow physicians in clinical practice and the public at large...It became apparent that no single approach works for the infinite number of variables that permeate all sudden unexpected death investigations.’’

Few knew Davis better than Norman Kassoff, who was a “brand new homicide investigator’’ when he met Davis in the ’50s, and went on to become the medical examiner’s director of operations.

“He was the type of a manager who ‘walked the ship,’ but he was very active in...thinking of prevention. Because of Joe, the code for swimming pool wiring was changed. He changed the way water was evacuated from pools because children were drowning.

“In the very early days of the interstate system, metal barriers were impaling drivers in accidents; he got them replaced with water and sand barriers, and got car companies to take away sharp points in the center of steering wheels.’’

Davis would always tell new doctors: “Our only purpose is to help a family by identifying their loved one and getting them back to the family...He was very good at dealing with grief.’’

Kassoff is helping plan an upcoming memorial service for Davis, which will take place in a large public space because, he anticipates, hundreds will want to pay their respects.

A Herald reporter once asked Davis: “How do you view death?’’

He replied: “With wonderment. How do you reach a point where scientific knowledge and theology blend? You wonder what’s beyond.”

“Do you think of it often?’’ the reporter asked.

“No,’’ Joe Davis said.

In addition to daughter Susan, Davis is survived by daughters Barbara Davis, Margene Kuerstiener, Cathy Eby, Frankie Ferguson and Budgie Malinski; and son Joseph Harrison Davis Jr.

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