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.