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Dr. Nancy Jones, former Cook County medical examiner, dies

Former Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones. / Sun-Times file photo

Dr. Nancy Jones, the sometimes controversial pathologist who autopsied more than 10,000 bodies during more than 25 years with the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, died Wednesday after a year-long battle with cancer.

Dr. Jones lengthy career with the medical examiner’s office began while she was still in medical school, and ended amid a controversy over a backlog of corpses stored at the outdated county morgue, said Thomas Rudd, former Lake County Coroner and a friend of Dr. Jones.

Dr. Jones preferred to keep her workman-like schedule and never sought the spotlight that was at times thrust upon her once she became head of Cook County’s busy — and, at the time of her tenure, underfunded — morgue, said Rudd, who hired Dr. Jones occasionally after she retired from the county while under fire from President Toni Preckwinkle.

When Dr. Jones reached her conclusions, she seldom flinched when challenged on the witness stand or by politicians looking to score points, Rudd said, recalling Dr. Jones’ silence after then Mayor Richard M. Daley blasted Dr. Jones for ruling Daley’s friend, school board president Michael Scott had committed suicide in 2009 — a ruling that has not been challenged by other experts or police investigation of Scott’s death.

“When she is right, she is right, and she will not back down,” said Rudd, who was knocked off the ballot for re-election last year after clashing with State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim in several high profile cases.

“You do not need people who are wishy-washy to be your medical examiner,” Rudd said. “She was the consummate physician pathologist. She was a scientist. If you know what the results are, you stand with them.”

Dr. Jones was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year ago, and died Wednesday. She was 64.

Even at the morgue, Dr. Jones disposition was sunny, except when a detective might try to rush her through her work, Rudd said. And Dr. Jones, lectured widely to medical students and law enforcement groups, said McHenry County Coroner Dr. Anne Majewski, who was thrilled when Dr. Jones agreed to continue working for the office.

Dr. Jones became a mentor to Majewski, who had been an OB-Gyn before winning her first term as coroner.

“I had focused on the other end of the circle of life for my whole career, I liked to tell people,” Majewski said. “She had worked so many cases, you could run anything by her and she had some insight.”

In her off hours, Dr. Jones rode horses she stabled in Wisconsin, or tended to her dogs and cats, Majewski said.

The daughter of a mill-worker in tiny Aliquippa, Pa., Dr. Jones admitted in a Chicago Sun-Times profile that she had a small-town girl’s practicality even after living decades in Chicago. Dr. Jones conducted autopsies using a 10-inch Henckels carving knife, carpet needles and hardware store pliers rather than more costly medical instruments that often cost more and seldom worked better.

Her tenure as medical examiner came after pictures surfaced of bodies stacked up in the cooler at the morgue, and families complained about delays as they sought the remains of relatives. Dr. Jones resigned, and Preckwinkle appointed Dr. Stephen Cina as medical examiner, a move that was followed by increased funding for the office.

A spokeswoman for Preckwinkle on Wednesday offered “condolences for [Dr. Jones’] family and friends.”

Dr. Jones seemed intrigued by the science involved in being a forensic pathologist — she had never considered another specialty in medicine — and could talk about cases for hours, Rudd said.

“These are the best patients in the world,” she told Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, for a profile written shortly after she was promoted to lead the Medical Examiner’s office.

“If you come to me as a clinician, and I tell you to quit smoking, you don’t. I tell you to take your medicine, you don’t. It’s the living patients who don’t do what you tell them to.”

And after conducting thousands of autopsies, Dr. Jones had remained a spiritual person.

“I believe in God, very, very much,” she said.

“Doing autopsies on human beings, you see how intricate we are. The wonder of the human body. How well it meshes together, and how little it takes to stop a person’s existence. One little thing.”

Dr. Jones never married and had no children, but had family in Pennsylvania, Majewski said.