‘This Whole Thing Was Hidden’: A Medical Examiner Reflects On Chicago’s 1995 Heat Wave

Former Cook County medical examiner Edmund Donoghue’s reports on the 1995 heat wave fatalities helped bring public attention to the severity of the crisis. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Former Cook County medical examiner Edmund Donoghue’s reports on the 1995 heat wave fatalities helped bring public attention to the severity of the crisis. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

‘This Whole Thing Was Hidden’: A Medical Examiner Reflects On Chicago’s 1995 Heat Wave

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

When Chicago was hit with sweltering temperatures in July of 1995, local officials were slow to react to a heat wave that would go on to claim more than 700 lives.

The city was underprepared: The mayor was out of town, politicians downplayed the threat and a lack of air-conditioned public spaces in poor neighborhoods meant people were stuck at home in dangerous conditions.

As the death count climbed, then-Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Edmund Donoghue helped sound the alarm. Twenty-five years later, Reset spoke with him about that fatal summer, and how it changed the city.

On the first signs of trouble

Dr. Edmund Donoghue: I got a call from our investigator. He said, ‘Dr. Donoghue, I just want to give you a heads up. There are 40 cases on the list for tomorrow for the medical examiner’s office.’ Now, in the history of the medical examiner’s office, we never had more than 37 cases. So he and I both realized that something very unusual was happening. I asked the investigator what he thought was occurring, and he replied he thought that the people were dying of the heat. And I knew we were going to need extra help.

On what became an all-hands-on-deck situation

medical employees load bodies into refrigerated trucks
Because the Cook County morgue refrigerator was full, Donoghue’s team loaded bodies into refrigerated trucks in the parking lot. Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times

Donoghue: The first thing I did is I called the chief autopsy technician … and I asked him if he would have all of the autopsy technicians come in the following morning. Then I called all my forensic pathologists — the ones who weren’t scheduled to work on Saturday — and I asked them to come in. And then I called my chief investigator … and asked him to come in immediately to supervise the investigation and the paperwork so that we would be ready to work the following day.

We were in a state of the art building, … but what was lacking was our body storage. We had a refrigerator that would hold 300 bodies, but there was a tendency to run full. So what we needed was refrigerated trucks and we were able to get those. … About 5 o’clock that evening, a number of refrigerated trucks pulled into my parking lot, and I breathed a sigh of relief because I knew it was possible that we were going to be able to complete our mission at that point in the first weekend.

On communication and coordination with government officials

Donoghue: We had not talked to [then-Cook County Board president] John Stroger. We had talked to people in the county building because we needed resources. … Part of the story is that Mayor Daley was not informed, I guess, until Saturday night or Sunday morning. And I think that was a systemic problem in the city of Chicago, that the mayor was out of town. Somebody had to be in charge, but whoever was in charge wasn’t given the permission to make important decisions, especially about expenditure of funds for overtime and additional ambulances and things like that that would have been useful.

On why he started delivering public reports

Donoghue: I honestly was just doing my job. We had been giving heat death reports since 1982 to the press. Anytime it got warm, the media would call up and we would tell them the number of deaths for the day. So there was really nothing unusual about that. We didn’t have any press conferences. In fact, we were not allowed to have press conferences. So I actually talked individually to any reporters who cared to talk about it.

On the pushback from Mayor Daley

Donoghue: We had worked with the mayor when he was in the state’s attorney’s office, and we knew him to be a true professional, so we were surprised at this reaction. But as I think about it, this was really a new concept for almost everyone, that heat could cause death in such large numbers. People who lived in air-conditioned spaces didn’t see any evidence that there was a problem, and that’s because this whole thing was hidden. People who understood it were the people who lived in the same conditions, and also the people who had to handle it, like police, fire, ambulance people, funeral directors, physicians.

Chicago police carry a body bag
Chicago police remove the body of a heat-related death victim on July 18, 1995. Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times

I noted when Mayor Daley was being critical that nobody was joining in and saying, ‘Yeah, the mayor was right,’ so I was happy about that.The other thing that sustained me is we were quite confident about what we were doing here, and we knew that we would be sustained in a review, and that helped. I had grown up in Chicago, and I knew that you couldn’t fight with the mayor of Chicago. So, we didn’t fight with the mayor of Chicago. We just continued to report the facts as they were.

On how the heat wave changed the city

Donoghue: 1995 preceded the 1996 Democratic Convention, and as a result of the heat wave, I think we had a lot of training exercises with the city agencies about how things were going to be handled if anything would come up during the Democratic National Convention. That relationship continued on for many years. I don’t know what’s going on these days, but there were benefits that came out of training with each other and making a plan.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.