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OCME Remembers Dr Charles Hirsch

April 8, 2016
Dr. Charles Hirsch, the long-serving Chief Medical Examiner of New York City and a towering figure in the field of forensic pathology, passed away on Friday, April 8, 2016, at the age of 79.

Dr. Hirsch presided over the transformation of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) into a national leader in forensic pathology, and led the agency through the unprecedented task of identifying victims of the World Trade Center disaster.

Appointed by Mayor Ed Koch, Dr. Hirsch took the helm at OCME in 1989 and quickly established a reputation for technical excellence, uncompromising independence in investigations, and compassionate     
service to all families. Dr. Hirsch retired in 2013 after a tenure marked by innovation and expansion for OCME.

“The Office of Chief Medical Examiner mourns the passing of our beloved friend, colleague, and former leader, Dr. Charles Hirsch,” said Dr. Barbara Sampson, who served as his deputy and succeeded him as Chief Medical Examiner. “Dr. Hirsch served the City of New York for almost a quarter century, a steady presence and guide during some of the darkest hours. He will be remembered for his exquisite blend of professionalism and compassion, where he treated every citizen, no matter how anonymous or well known, with respect, dignity and dedication to getting the job done with scientific and medical excellence.”

Prior to his appointment at OCME, Dr. Hirsch served as Chief Medical Examiner of Suffolk County, New York, deputy coroner in Cleveland, and director of forensic pathology in Cincinnati. A native Chicagoan, he received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1958, and received his M.D. in 1962 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. Following fellowships in Neuropathology and Forensic Pathology in Baltimore, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps, based in Germany.

On 9/11, Dr. Hirsch raced to the World Trade Center with several OCME staff members, and was present when the North Tower collapsed. He was injured, and would only learn later that he had broken every rib, but he promptly returned to the office that same day, covered in soot. In the following days, weeks, and months, Dr. Hirsch led OCME through the process of investigating and identifying the victims of the largest homicide in U.S. history. The work to identify the 2,753 victims of the disaster continues to this day, just as he pledged to 9/11 families.

Concurrent with his time as Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Hirsch also served as chair of the department of forensic medicine at NYU School of Medicine. He participated in numerous medical societies and organizations, including the American Board of Pathology, where he served as President and was elected a Life Trustee.

Upon his retirement from OCME, the Charles S. Hirsch Center for Forensic Sciences in Manhattan was named in his honor. The state-of-the-art building houses a number of laboratories, including the largest and most advanced public DNA crime laboratory in North America. Visitors to the building are greeted with the inscription, “Science Serving Justice,” on the lobby wall, an apt summation of the work Dr. Hirsch championed every day.

Beyond this tribute in concrete and steel, the professional legacy of Dr. Hirsch lives in the nearly 100 forensic pathologists he trained at OCME. Many of these medical examiners serve today in New York City, and in jurisdictions throughout the United States.  

Dr. Hirsch frequently reminded employees that OCME serves families “during the worst and most stressful experiences of their lives – the aftermath of the unexpected death of a friend or relative.” While some cases investigated by the office garnered widespread attention, he never wavered from the focus of delivering factual answers to loved ones with the utmost sensitivity.

“What we do every day makes a difference, and we do it without public acclaim,” said Dr. Hirsch in remarks delivered at his retirement in 2013. “Herein lies the virtue and true gratification of our work.”