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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

Dr. Werner Spitz, R.I.P.

Updated: Apr 18

Dr. Werner Spitz — the renowned former Detroit-area medical examiner who used his expertise in forensic pathology to weigh in on some of the significant cases of the last century, from President John F. Kennedy's death to the Oakland County, Michigan, child murders — was remembered as a pioneer Monday.

His son, Jonathan Spitz, who lives in Washington state, said his father was recently hospitalized after a brief illness, and then moved to a rehab facility. After a few days there, he was placed in "a hospice situation," Jonathan Spitz said. He said his father "passed peacefully" Sunday, surrounded by his family. He was 97.

Spitz served as the chief medical examiner in Wayne County, Michigan, in the 70s and 80s, and later served as the Macomb County medical examiner. Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic said Spitz was a "very charismatic character," and he trained many forensic pathologists over the years.

"There's no question, his contribution is gargantuan, it's tremendous ― and immeasurable for the times to come, too," he said.

Werner Spitz was born in Germany in 1926 to a Jewish family, and they moved to Mandatory Palestine ― now Israel ― ahead of World War II. He started attending medical school in Switzerland, but finished his medical degree in Israel. He later immigrated to the U.S. in 1959.

Werner Spitz went on serve as the deputy chief medical examiner in Baltimore and as the chief medical examiner in Wayne County, where he instituted reforms at the county's morgue, according to The Detroit News' archives. He decreed that bodies were to remain in the facility no longer than 24 hours, and he hired additional staff and trained them to run the morgue more efficiently.

While at Wayne County, Spitz built an international reputation by testifying at high-profile trials and congressional investigations. He testified in investigations into the Mary Jo Kopechne drowning, the Oakland County child murders, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Skid Row Murder trial in Los Angeles.

In fact, he was often called to consult on nearly every high-profile murder, from the death of Caylee Anthony, the two-year-old Florida toddler who disappeared, to JonBenet Ramsey. In 1995, Time Magazine profiled him, calling him a "medical detective."

During his career, he also co-wrote a textbook that's been "kind of the seminal text in forensic pathology" for decades, said Jonathan Spitz. He added that his father would rewrite the book periodically, so it's in its fifth edition.

"Professionally, he was a pioneer," Jonathan Spitz said. "He was a leader, a thought leader in that field ― he and few others who were called whenever there was a case anywhere in the country."

He said his father enjoyed the fact that "he was the opinion sought after." After he retired from the Macomb County Medical Examiner's office, he continued to work in private practice.

Jonathan Spitz said his father had three kids and ten grandkids.

"In addition to his professional work, he had a ... full family that he was involved in and engaged with, and enjoyed their company all the way through his life as well," he said.

Daniel Spitz, his son who is also a former Macomb County medical examiner, said his father loved taking his family out to eat.

He "just loved to go and have a good meal and, you know, tell his stories that people all loved to hear," he said.


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