JFK Assassination Medical Evidence
There is no consensus about the exact nature of President Kennedy's injuries. The autopsy was carried out poorly, some photographs appear to have gone missing, and the autopsy report was rewritten after Oswald's murder.
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The medical evidence is the single most complex aspect of the JFK assassination, and is the source of many of the contradictions and ambiguities that have allowed the case to drag on for so long.
Most of these contradictions and ambiguities are due to the nature of the autopsy, which appears at first sight to have been carried out to a scandalous level of incompetence. The most fundamental aspects of the medical evidence are the nature, size and location of President Kennedy’s wounds, none of which were documented to a reasonable degree of precision.
Problems with the Medical Evidence
Contradictory Testimony from the Doctors
The doctors who treated President Kennedy in Dallas, and the pathologists who conducted the autopsy at Bethesda, were interviewed many times over the years by a variety of people with a variety of agendas. Inevitably, inconsistencies and contradictions arose in their testimony.
Photographs of President Kennedy’s Autopsy
There were problems also with the surviving photographic record of the autopsy:
- The photographs, or at least those that are publicly available, fail to provide clear and unambiguous views of any of Kennedy’s wounds. In particular, they do not allow a definitive description of the wounds to the head.
- The photographs do not match the recollections of the photographers and the pathologists. Both groups of participants recalled injuries that are not depicted in the existing photographs, and remembered ordering or taking photographs that appear no longer to exist.
Other Problems with the Autopsy
The photographic record is not the only element of the autopsy that has attracted suspicions of foul play:
- One of the pathologists admitted under oath that he and his colleagues were ordered not to perform a dissection of the back and throat wounds, an elementary procedure that would have confirmed or denied the possibility of both wounds having been caused by one bullet.
- The autopsy report was rewritten after Oswald’s murder, when it became clear that the contents of the report would not be questioned in court. Some of the contemporaneous notes upon which the revised report depends no longer exist.
Interpreting the Medical Evidence
The most comprehensive and readable overviews of the medical evidence can be found in two articles in James Fetzer, ed., Murder in Dealey Plaza: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then About The Death of JFK (Catfeet Press, 2000; ISBN 0–8126–9422–8):
- Gary L. Aguilar, ‘The Converging Medical Case for Conspiracy in the Death of JFK’ (pp.175–217);
- David W. Mantik, ‘Paradoxes of the JFK Assassination: The Medical Evidence Decoded’ (pp.219–297).
Fetzer’s collection includes some unreliable material, especially concerning the authenticity of the Zapruder film, but these two articles are credible and informative.
Harold Weisberg, Never Again (Carroll and Graf, 1995; ISBN 0–7867–0206–0), is the most reliable book–length treatment. The most complete account of the serious problems with President Kennedy’s autopsy is in Gerald McKnight, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why (University Press of Kansas, 2005; ISBN 978–0–7006–1390–8), pp.153–180.
The most complete online resource is Gary Aguilar and Kathy Cunningham, ‘How Five Investigations into JFK’s Medical/Autopsy Evidence Got it Wrong’ at history–matters.com.
Medical Controversy: JFK’s Head Wound
One of the medical paradoxes is the apparent contrast between the accounts of the doctors in Dallas and those at the autopsy. The House Select Committee on Assassinations stated that, of the 26 witnesses at the autopsy who had given evidence, none agreed with the Dallas consensus of a large wound situated toward the back of President Kennedy’s head, which implied a shot from the front.
David Lifton’s Best Evidence
This discrepancy gave rise to one of the most implausible and, perhaps not coincidentally, heavily–publicised pro–conspiracy books: David Lifton, Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Macmillan, 1981; ISBN 0–88184–438–1). Lifton’s over–imaginative solution was that the president’s body had been surgically altered between its departure from Dallas and its arrival at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland, for the autopsy.
What the Witnesses Actually Said
The autopsy witnesses’ testimony had been classified by the HSCA in 1978. When the evidence was finally released to the public, 30 years after the assassination, it turned out that:
- rather than 26 autopsy witnesses testifying against the wound at the rear of the head, the HSCA had taken evidence from only 12;
- those 12 witnesses at the autopsy had actually agreed with the earliest, incorrupt evidence of the witnesses in Dallas: the wound extended into the back of the head.
The HSCA had simply lied, and the theory of bodily alteration was unnecessary.
Arguments Against David Lifton’s Best Evidence
Roger Feinman’s unpublished but widely circulated manuscript, Between the Signal and the Noise, makes a strong case against Lifton’s notion of forgery to the president’s corpse; it is sometimes petty, but includes useful background information. Among Feinman’s objections to Lifton’s theories:
- The apparent discrepancies between the medical witnesses at Parkland and at Bethesda can be explained without having to assume foul play.
- Lifton proposes that all the shots were fired from the front. The only wound that was caused by a bullet whose trajectory is beyond dispute was the wound to Governor Connally’s torso: a bullet entered his back and came out of his chest. Lifton fails to deal with this fundamental contradiction.
- The body was supposedly altered in order to fool the pathologists into believing that all the shots came from behind, but there is good evidence that the pathologists were already aware that Kennedy’s throat wound was the result of a shot from in front.
- The wound in Kennedy’s back was supposedly constructed to implicate Oswald, but its location exonerates him.
- Feinman takes Lifton’s notion that the alteration of the body was an integral part of the plot, and points out the enormous extra complexity and potential for disaster that the notion entails. For example, rather than hiring snipers to shoot President Kennedy only from in front, and hiring surgeons to construct wounds in his back and head to mimic shots from behind, and hiring teams to kidnap the corpse and transport it to and from some unnamed location, all of which Lifton proposes, why not simply hire a sniper to shoot him from behind in the first place?
Implausible and Unnecessary Conspiracy Theories
Lifton was not the first or the last writer to suggest that Kennedy’s body had been tampered with. Feinman points out that this type of thinking causes more harm than good:
- the invention of implausible and unnecessary conspiracies to resolve conflicts in the evidence does not bring an explanation for the assassination any closer;
- and propagandists for the lone–nut invention can point to the relative credibility of their beliefs when compared to the absurd theories of those such as Lifton, who also claims that the Zapruder film is a forgery.
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