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Derek Humphry

Derek Humphry
Journalist, Author & Euthanasia Campaigner

"The right to choose to die when in advanced terminal or hopeless illness is the ultimate civil liberty." -- Derek Humphry


Derek Humphry is a journalist and author who has spent the last thirty years campaigning for lawful physician-assisted dying to be an option for the terminally and hopelessly ill. He started this campaign in 1975 after the death of his first wife, Jean, from bone cancer which had become so painful and distressing that she took her own life with his help.

Born on April 29, 1930, in Bath, England, of a British father and an Irish mother, he was raised on the Mendip Hills in Somerset. His education was slender because of a broken home followed by the 1939-45 war when most English schools were in chaos. He attended perhaps a dozen different schools, leaving at age 15 intent on pursuing a career in journalism.

His first job was as an editorial messenger boy in the London office of the Yorkshire Post, a large provincial newspaper. After a year he secured a post as a cub reporter on the Bristol Evening World until being drafted into the British Army at 18. He served for two years as an infantryman in the army of occupation in Germany and Austria (1948-50).

Not long after rejoining the Evening World, he left to become a junior reporter on the Manchester Evening News, which was the largest evening newspaper in the United Kingdom. He worked as a general news reporter for this journal from 1951 to 1955, when he transferred to the Daily Mail, a national newspaper, as a news reporter. Later he became assistant news editor (city editor) but in 1961 decided to return to provincial journalism as deputy editor of The Luton News . Two years later he was made chief editor of the Havering Recorder, a provincial tabloid in an area of outer London which contains the Ford of Europe motor works and headquarters.

After a disagreement in 1966 with the owners over editorial policy, he resigned and joined the London Sunday Times as a writer. He says of this particular period of his journalistic career: "I was fortunate enough to be involved in the golden era of Sunday Times journalism when it led the world in investigative and advocacy journalism. I joined an extremely talented team, led by a brilliant editor, Harold Evans." Derek Humphry specialized in writing about the problems of race relations, immigration, prison conditions and police brutality and corruption. For ten years he was on the revolving team of specialists who reported the civil war in Northern Ireland -- no Times journalist was kept in Ulster for more than a couple of weeks at a time because of the stress.

Using the excess of material which he had gathered for his newspaper, Humphry wrote Because They're Black in 1971. It was an attempt to explain the way of life of black immigrants to the white population. (Several chapters were contributed by Gus John, a black activist.) Published as a Penguin Special paperback, it ran through several editions and won them the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for its contribution to racial harmony in Britain.


He followed up this book with another attacking the British police for being racist. Entitled Police Power and Black People, it received enormous media attention and became required reading in many colleges, but sold few copies. His next book was Passports and Politics, an account of the forced emigration from Uganda to Britain of thousands of Asians who fell foul of President Idi Amin. This exodus caused an upsurge of racial hatred in Britain, which Humphry documents.

Combining with BBC reporter David Tindall, Humphry co-wrote a biography of a black Muslim leader in Britain, Michael X, who modeled himself on the American Malcolm X. But the British version was totally corrupt, ended up being executed for murder, and the book (published 1977) was therefore called False Messiah.

In 1978 the era of great journalism at the Sunday Times was drawing to a close because of industrial unrest amongst the printers, and a change of ownership. Humphry decided to make a drastic change, accepting a job offer to become a special feature writer on the Los Angeles Times. This same year he was to publish the book which was to radically alter his life and career, Jean's Way.

In 1975 he had helped his first wife, Jean, to take her life when the pain and indignity of inoperable bone cancer became too much for her. Encouraged by his second wife, an American, Ann Wickett, he wrote a simple account of Jean's life and manner of death, with no holds barred. Despite his established position as a journalist and author, he had difficulty finding a publisher for such an unusual book. But when it appeared in March, 1978, it caused a sensation worldwide. Within a week the translation rights into most major languages were snapped up and there four Hollywood offers to make the book into a movie. The book ran through sixteen editions.

The police asked Humphry if the book was true, because assisting a suicide in Britain for any reason carries with it a penalty of up to fourteen years in prison. Humphry admitted his guilt but refused to name the physician who had supplied him with the drugs. After six months of inquiries, the Director of Public Prosecutions in London announced that there would not be a prosecution. Soon after Humphry was in California working for his new newspaper and planning other books. (The movie of Jean's Way was never made.)


But the publication of Jean's Way in America in 1979 started events which led to Humphry founding theHemlock Society in 1980. So many people approached him for help similar to that which he had given his first wife that Humphry realized the need for an organization to campaign for a change in the law, but which would also give information about methods and means to those dying in the meantime. With the help of Ann Wickett, Gerald A Larue and Richard S Scott, he planned and announced the Hemlock Society and became its only employee, working out of the garage in his back garden in Santa Monica. Funding for the new group came from the royalties of Jean's Way.

The next year he published the world's first public book (there had been two British pamphlets previously, privately circulated) describing how a patient could end his or her life. For the first six months Let Me Die Before I Wake was sold only to members but after trade and library pressure to release it publicly, it was put on the open market in 1982. This paperback sold a steady 25,000 copies for the next ten years and was the foundation of Hemlock's reputation and income. In 1986 Humphry and Ann Wickett published (Harper & Row) a thorough history of euthanasia entitled, The Right to Die. It became a widely-used reference book.

As executive director of Hemlock (also president 1988-90), Humphry gradually built up the organization until it had some 50,000 members and 90 chapters in America. Hemlock provided substantial financial backing to the ballot initiative campaigns for physician-assisted suicide in California (1988), Washington (1991), California (1992) and Oregon (1994). Only the Oregon initiative succeeded, and that was to be bogged down in the courts by challenges from the pro-life movement.

The marriage of Ann Wickett and Derek Humphry broke up in 1989 and she sued for divorce. There were no children of this marriage. (Jean and Derek had had three sons, the youngest one adopted.) In early 1991 Humphry married Gretchen Crocker, youngest daughter of a Oregon farming family. Later that year Ann Wickett committed suicide during a recurrence of the depressions to which she was prone.


In 1991 Humphry hit the headlines and the bestseller lists with his startling book, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide. There were calls for it to be banned but this is not possible under the US constitution. Attempts to ban the book in Australia and New Zealand failed, but Final Exit remains banned in France. In 1992, temporarily burned out, Humphry decided to call its quits at the Hemlock Society in order to concentrate on writing, research and lecturing. The next year he formed ERGO (Euthanasia Research & Guidance Organization) a small nonprofit group as the base for his low-key operations. Still the books flowed: Dying With Dignity: Understanding Euthanasia (1993) and Lawful Exit: The Limits of Freedom for Help in Dying (1994). Sales of these last two books were modest compared to the nearly one million copies of Final Exit sold.

Final Exit Digital Edition eBook

When Humphry started Hemlock, and for its first ten years of existence, the Society's credo embraced assisted dying (preferably medical) for the terminally ill and the hopelessly ill, such as patients with advanced ALS or MS, or extreme old age with severe health problems. But as Hemlock became more involved in state politics in its drive to change the law to secure physician-assisted suicide, it dropped the other illnesses and spoke only for "the advanced terminally ill." While recognizing this as necessary political expediency, Humphry stays firm in his belief that many more persons also deserve assisted dying. This conviction keeps him on the 'radical left' of the movement. But he remains convinced that it is never, nor should it in the future, be any part of the right-to-die movements role to advance assisted dying for the mentally disturbed, including the depressed, nor for the disabled or the handicapped.

Today (2010) Humphry operates from an office in the garden of his wooden, two-bedroom home in the hills overlooking Eugene, Oregon. He devotes himself to helping dying patients and families with information and advice about all euthanasia matters, briefing the print news media, and appearing on radio and television locally and nationwide.

Derek Humphry -- activist history:

• Staff writer with Daily Mail UK, London Sunday Times and Los Angeles Times. Published four nonfiction books. 'Because They're Black' won the Martin Luther King award.

• Wrote 'Jean's Way' about helping his terminally ill wife to die. International prominence of 1978 book prefigured thinking on right-to-die from solely euthanasia towards doctor-assisted dying and self-deliverance.

• Started Hemlock Society USA 1980 to campaign for legal and ethical choices in dying.

• Announced in 1985 the first model law in USA permitting assisted dying: "The Humane and Dignified Death Act".

• Led citizen ballot initiative teams 1986 in California and Washington state to enable this Act. Both failed narrowly.

• Published 'Final Exit' guide book 1991. Remained on New York Times bestseller list for 18 weeks. Still the 'gold standard' in how-to books 27 years later. Also in eBook and audio formats. Translated into 12 languages.

• Quit Hemlock Society after 12 years as CEO and founded the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization (ERGO) in 1993. Still at ERGO 2019.

• Launched team which passed the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, 1994 -- the first such law in US enabling doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill adults. Oregon law took effect 1998.

• Co-founded the Final Exit Network 2004 when the Hemlock Society was merged out of existence. Currently chairperson of F.E.N. advisory board.

• 2017 published fifth book on assisted dying -- 'Good Life, Good Death'. Memoir of his life.

• 2018 speaking engagements in San Diego, Las Vegas, Florence (Ore) and Seattle. Age 88.


1945-46Yorkshire Post, LondonEditorial messenger
1946-51Evening World, BristolCub reporter
1951-55Manchester Evening NewsJunior reporter
1955-61 Daily Mail, LondonReporter
1961-63The Luton News, UKDeputy Editor
1963-67Havering Recorder, UKEditor in chief
1967-78Sunday Times, LondonWriter
1978-79Los Angeles TimesWriter
1979-81Sunday Times, LondonFeature writer
1986-88Euthanasia ReviewEditor
1982-92Hemlock Quarterly Editor


1971Because They're BlackPenguin, London
1972Police Power & Black PeoplePanther, London
1974Passports & PoliticsPenguin, London
1977False MessiahHart, Davis, London
1976The Cricket ConspiracyNCCL, London
1978Jean's WayQuartet, London
1981Let Me Die Before I Wake Hemlock, Los Angeles
1986The Right to DieHarper & Row, New York
1991Final ExitHemlock, Oregon
1992Dying With DignityBirch Lane Press, New York
1993Lawful ExitNorris Lane Press, Oregon
1998Freedom to Die (with Mary Clement)St. Martin's Press, New York
2017Good Life, Good DeathSkyhorse Books, New York

A Selection of Magazine Articles about or involving Derek Humphry

1990 (Mar 12) People
1991 (Aug.26) Newsweek
1991 (Aug.19) Time
1991 (Aug 30) Entertainment Weekly
1991 (Sept 30) U.S.News & World Report
1991 (Dec.8) New York Times Magazine
1992 (Aug.) The PLAYBOY Interview
1992 (Sept.) The Bulletin, Australia
1994 (April) Harper's
1994 (Nov.1) The Oregonian
1995 (May 22) The New Yorker
1995 (May 5) The Congressional Quarterly Researcher
1997 (April) Esquire



Derek Humphry has appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows throughout the English-speaking world talking about (in the 1970s) race and civil liberties, and (in the 1980s and 90s) voluntary euthanasia. He has appeared on such television shows as 6O Minutes, Donahue (3 times), Face the Nation, Nightline (3 times), all three national breakfast television shows, and many others. ("I've lost count," he says.)

For a independent biography of Derek Humphry, see Current Biography published by the H W Wilson Company, New York. Also see Who's Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and Who's Who in Writers, Editors and Poets. Most books about the right to die make references to his work.

To purchase any book on `right-to-die' by Derek Humphry visit the ERGO Bookstore.

The above material may be downloaded and photocopied for scholastic or research purposes only. It may not be reproduced in any printed book or journal form without the written permission of Derek Humphry. © Derek Humphry, 1995.