Thursday, 04 January 2024 04:08

JFK: What the Doctors Saw - An Important Addition, and a Missed Opportunity

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Dr. Gary Aguilar examines and evaluates the evidence in the Paramount Plus special exposing the deceptions surrounding the false claims of the House Select Committee on the exit hole in the rear of Kennedy’s skull.

Paramount Plus’ new documentary, JFK: What the Doctors Saw, is a valuable contribution to the story of the assassination. It features interviews conducted during the past six years with the trauma surgeons who tried to save President John F. Kennedy’s life after he was shot in Dallas on 11/22/63. It will inevitably expand and enliven the never-ending controversy about whether Lee Harvey Oswald, alone, could have inflicted the wounds these doctors saw. On film, they make a compelling case that the answer is no.

Whether one agrees with them or not, one can simply not watch them without concluding that these are sincere, highly experienced surgeons with no axe to grind, speaking truthfully about what they witnessed on perhaps the most dramatic day in their long and distinguished careers. Importantly, what they emphasize on film is something they’ve always said, right from the day Kennedy was assassinated: JFK arrived in Parkland Hospital’s Trauma Room One with a large, rearward skull wound.

The House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late ‘70s, and Warren Commission defenders ever since, maintain that the Dallas doctors were mistaken. JFK’s actual head wound they say was where it appears in the autopsy photographs, on the right side of his skull toward the front, not the rear. It’s a question that is at the very heart of the question of conspiracy.

Unfortunately, the film’s great value is somewhat diminished by the theory that JFK underwent a secret surgical procedure before the official autopsy began at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Douglas Horne, an Assassinations Records Review Board (ARRB) investigator, said on film that he believed that Commander James Humes, MD, JFK’s chief pathologist, had surreptitiously removed JFK’s brain to extract bullet evidence of a shot from the front. He then, says Horne, put Kennedy’s picked-over brain back into his shattered brain case, only to remove it again later during the official autopsy which Horne described as a “charade.” His extraordinary claim is made without extraordinary evidence, and so will persuade few and be dismissed by this author.

That aside, there is much to recommend this work, especially the fact that the seven featured Parkland doctors have been consistent in their descriptions of JFK’s wounds for nearly 60 years. They still think Kennedy’s throat wound was probably an entrance wound, but never opined as to where that bullet might have gone. However, they seemed willing to consider the more likely possibility: that it was an exit wound for a shot that struck from behind. For while bullet fragments were found in front of JFK from a likely back-to-front trajectory, there is no evidence a bullet or fragments popped out behind Kennedy, nor any signs - X-ray or otherwise - that a bullet was retained anywhere in JFK’s chest or abdomen from a shot in front. The Parkland crew were less equivocal about JFK’s fatal head wound.

As documented by the trauma surgeons in hospital notes written on the day of the murder and published by the Warren Commission, the Dallas crew still says there was major damage to right rear portion of JFK’s head. Kennedy’s autopsy photographs show no such wound. On film Doug Horne offered a possible explanation. “Everything changed as soon as JFK’s body left Parkland Hospital,” he said, reprising the claim first made by author David Lifton in his book, Best Evidence. As regards Kennedy’s head injury at least, new information shows that things don’t appear to have changed all that much between Dallas and the autopsy room at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

In the 1990s, The Assassinations Records Review Board released suppressed interviews with witnesses at JFK’s autopsy that the House Select Committee had conducted in the late 1970s.Their descriptions of Kennedy’s skull injuries are strikingly similar to what the Parkland doctors said on the day of the assassination, as well as in interviews over the past 60 years and again in the documentary.

By way of background, the following sampling of quotes are taken from notes written by the trauma surgeons who attended Kennedy on 11.22.63 and published in the Warren Report[1]:

  • Kemp Clark, MD, professor of neurosurgery: "There was a large wound in the right occipito-parietal region…There was considerable loss of scalp and bone tissue. Both cerebral and cerebellar tissue was extruding from the wound." (WR, p. 518) And, "a large 3 x3 cm remnant of cerebral tissue present…there was a smaller amount of cerebellar tissue present also…There was a large wound beginning in the right occiput extending into the parietal region…Much of the skull appeared gone at the brief examination…" (WR p. 524-525)
  • Malcolm Perry, MD: p. 521: "A large wound of the right posterior cranium was noted…" (WR p. 521)
  • Charles Baxter, MD: "…the temporal and occipital bones were missing and the brain was lying on the table." (WR p. 523)
  • Marion Thomas Jenkins, MD, the professor of anesthesiology who held JFK’s head in his hands during the resuscitation effort: "There was a great laceration on the right side of the head (temporal and occipital), causing a great defect in the skull plate so that there was herniation and laceration of great areas of the brain, even to the extent that the cerebellum had protruded from the wound." (WR p. 529-530)

Paramount Plus had the Dallas doctors reaffirming those observations, but it said nothing about what the autopsy witnesses had reported. Given Doug Horne’s remark, viewers were thus left to assume everything had changed. But it hadn’t.

In formerly suppressed witness interviews that were not available to David Lifton when he wrote Best Evidence, but were to Doug Horne, the HSCA reported the following:

  • Bethesda lab technologist James Jenkins told the HSCA that, “he saw a head wound in the ‘…middle temporal region back to the occipital.’[2]
  • In an affidavit prepared for the HSCA, FBI agent James Sibert wrote that, "The head wound was in the upper back of the head … a large head wound in the upper back of the head…”[3]
  • The HSCA’s Andy Purdy interviewed Tom Robinson, the mortician who prepared John Kennedy's remains for burial.: "Approximately where was (the skull) wound located?" Purdy asked. "Directly behind the back of his head," Robinson answered. Purdy: "Approximately between the ears or higher up?" Robinson, "No, I would say pretty much between them.”
  • Jan Gail Rudnicki, Dr. Boswell's lab assistant on the night of the autopsy, told the HSCA’s Mark Flanagan, the “back-right quadrant of the head was missing.”[4]
  • When first asked, John Ebersole, MD, the attending radiologist who took JFK's autopsy X-rays, told the HSCA, “The back of the head was missing,” Hethen waffled after being shown the autopsy photographs.[5]
  • Regarding the Commanding officer of the military District of Washington, D. C., Philip C. Wehle, the HSCA reported that, “(Wehle) noted that the wound was in the back of the head so he would not see it because the President was lying face up.”[6] (emphasis added throughout)

Besides these clear statements, several autopsy witnesses drew diagrams of President Kennedy’s wounds for the HSCA. (Figures 1 and 2)

aguilar1Fig. 1. Left — Diagrams of JFK’s wounds prepared for the HSCA by autopsy technician, James Curtis Jenkins.[7] Right — Diagrams of JFK’s wounds prepared for the HSCA by autopsy witness, FBI agent James Sibert.[8]

aguilar2Fig. 2. Left — Diagrams of JFK’s wounds prepared for the HSCA by Tom Robinson, the mortician who prepared Kennedy’s body for burial.[9] Right — Diagrams of JFK’s wounds prepared for the HSCA by autopsy witness, FBI agent Francis O’Neill, Jr.[10]
[These and other, similar accounts are further elaborated upon in the 2003 on-line essay: “HOW FIVE INVESTIGATIONS INTO JFK’S MEDICAL/AUTOPSY EVIDENCE GOT IT WRONG.[11]]

In neglecting the autopsy witnesses, the program missed a great opportunity – a long known, underreported HSCA scandal that the producer, Jacque Lueth, knew all about from repeated, personal conversations with me over the past several years. (Ms. Lueth told me she wanted to present this material on film but was blocked by others involved in the documentary.) Only when the ARRB released the accounts of the autopsy witnesses in the late 90s did we discover that the Select Committee had misled the public about what they had said in the 1970s. It had everything to do with the heart of Paramount’s documentary: JFK: What the Doctors Saw.

Confronting the conflict between autopsy photos that show no damage to the rear of JFK’s skull and the Parkland doctors who said damage was in the rear, theHSCA reported it had resolved the problem. “Critics of the Warren Commission’s medical evidence findings have found (sic) on the observations recorded by the Parkland Hospital doctors,” they wrote. “They believe it is unlikely that trained medical personnel could be so consistently in error regarding the nature of the wound, even though their recollections were not based on careful examinations of the wounds…In disagreement with the observations of the Parkland doctors are the 26 people present at the autopsy.All of those interviewed who attended the autopsy corroborated the general location of the wounds as depicted in the photographs;none had differing accounts … Further, if the Parkland doctors are correct, then the autopsy personnel are either lying or mistaken. It did not seem plausible to theCommittee that 26 persons would by lying or, if they were, that they could provide such a consistent account of the wounds almost 15 years later. Second, it is less likely that the autopsy personnel would be mistaken in their general observations, given their detailed and thorough examination of the body…it appears more probable that the observations of the Parkland doctors are incorrect.” (7HSCA37-9. Emphasis added.[12])


This was clearly false. The autopsy witnesses had described a rearward skull defect to the HSCA verbally, in writing, and by sketch diagram. The HSCA, however, reported that the autopsy witnesses had refuted the Dallas witnesses whom, in fact, they had actually corroborated. There is an additional aspect of this that might have also been worth a few moments of film.

At the one hour, 18-minute mark, the program showed a clip of the HSCA’s Andy Purdy declaring that the ‘Dallas doctors are wrong; these recollections afterward are faulty.’ As noted above, it was Purdy who was wrong, as the doctors’ ‘recollections afterward’ closely aligned with what Parkland’s experts documented on the day of the murder as per the Warren Report. They also snugly fit with the suppressed claims of the autopsy witnesses whom Purdy had himself interviewed, and whose diagrams he had signed (See Figs. 1 & 2). Though arguing that the public has been misled, Paramount Plus missed a perfect opportunity to both expose the government’s false claim, while debunking one of the government officials whom they had on film pushing that claim, Andy Purdy.

There is another, evidence-based problem for those who argue that Parkland got it all wrong. Research has shown that experienced, credible witnesses working in their usual environment, simply do not make mistakes of this nature. Furthermore, how could a different group of credible witnesses at a multi-hour autopsy at a different location have made the same error as the Texans? Though witness claims are often disparaged as unreliable, the reigning authority on eyewitness testimony, Elizabeth Loftus, has reported that there are circumstances in which their reliability tends to be high.[13] She based her conclusions on evidence from a 1971 study. In a Harvard Law Review paper[14] Marshall, Marquis and Oskamp reported that, when test subjects were asked about “salient” details of a complex and novel film clip scene they were shown, their accuracy rate was high: 78% to 98%. Even when a detail was not considered salient, as judged by the witnesses themselves, they were still accurate 60% of the time.

Loftus has identified the factors that tend to degrade witness accuracy, most of which are relevant to the Kennedy case. Principal among them are poor lighting, short duration of an event, or a long duration between the event and when a witness is asked questions about it, the unimportance of the event to the witness, the perceived threat of violence during the event, witness stress or drug/alcohol influence, and the absence of specialized training on the witness’s part. Absent these factors, Loftus’s work shows that witnesses are very reliable.[15]

JFK’s skull damage would certainly have been considered a “salient detail” to the senior trauma surgeons in Trauma Room I, as well as the witnesses in the morgue. Negligible adverse circumstances were present in either location that would explain how both groups of witnesses might have erred. They were working as highly trained experts in their usual capacity, in their usual circumstances, and in their usual setting. Moreover, both groups had no reason to dissemble, and more than ample time and opportunity to make accurate observations, many of which were recorded immediately. Though the overwhelming odds are that they were right, Warren Commission loyalists are constrained to insist they were nearly 100% wrong, and somehow wrong in the same way. Their case hinges on the official autopsy photographs, which are regarded as unimpeachable proof the Parkland doctors were wrong. Presumably, they also prove that the autopsy witnesses were unimpeachably wrong, too: they show no damage to the right rear portion of JFK’s head.

For Warren Commission skeptics, however,this documentary, combined with evidence declassified by the ARRB, offer reasons to believe the Dallas doctors and the autopsy witnesses were probably right.

First, the extant autopsy photos may not tell the whole story. We learned from ARRB releases and other evidence that all three of JFK’s pathologists, both autopsy photographers, and the two government employees who developed Kennedy’s autopsy photographs have claimed, sometimes under oath, that photos they either took, or later saw after development, are missing.[16] Assuming they had no reason to lie, it’s likely the photographic record is incomplete. Among the pictures that may well be missing is an image (or images) of the full extent of Kennedy’s skull wound taken from his injured, right side. (Interestingly, in the official collection there is one of uninjured, left side of JFK’s head.)

Autopsist J. Thornton Boswell’s face sheet diagram, prepared on the night of the post mortem, specifies that 17-cm of JFK’s skull was missing. No autopsy photograph captures such a huge defect. It strains credulity to think that the surgical team tasked with documenting JFK’s cause of death would have neglected to take such an image. In fact, as documented elsewhere, autopsy witnesses say such an image, or images, were taken.[17]

Second, in the documentary Dr. McClelland said that the image of the back of Kennedy’s head does not show the wound he saw. He pointed out that a hand is holding JFK’s torn scalp over the rearward wound that he saw. (Figure 3)

aguilar4Fig, 3: Bootleg copy of an autopsy photo from JFK’s autopsy in the correct orientation, with JFK lying on his left side. A hand appears to be holding the scalp forward over the back of the President’s head, over what Dr. McClelland said was a large rearward skull defect.

In a similar vein, Kenneth Salyer, MD said he thought that the autopsy photos appeared to have been tampered with, and that they had replaced the scalp over an area that was wide open (1 hr., 20 min. mark).

Near the end of the film Dr. Salyer made a suggestion that some of us skeptics have long believed plausibly explains why the Parkland doctors and autopsy witnesses said JFK’s wound was right-rearward. A flap of JFK’s scalp had fallen backward, Salyer said, and it “bunched up” at the base of Kennedy’s occiput.

Since the autopsy report documented that there were large scalp tears, and since JFK was lying face-up on the Parkland gurney, as well as on the autopsy table, it only makes sense that gravity would have drawn a torn flap downward to reveal what was present, a rearward skull defect described by both Parkland and Bethesda witnesses. It would jibe with Dr. Boswell’s 11/22/63 “face sheet” diagram specifying that 17-cm of President Kennedy’s skull was missing. (Figure 4) It would also fit with the anatomical ARRB sketch of Dr. Boswell’s depiction showing a massive skull defect. (Figure 5)

aguilar5Figure 4. J. Thornton Boswell, MD’s “face sheet” diagram prepared during the autopsy on the night of JFK’s assassination at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Note the number “17” with arrows pointing fore and aft. Under oath, Dr. Boswell later explained that when examined, the President’s skull defect measured 17-cm.

aguilar6Fig, 5. These diagrams are two-dimensional drawings prepared by the ARRB to depict JFK’s skull damage. They are based on markings made on a three-dimensional human skull model by J. Thornton Boswell, MD. Note that these diagrams reasonably match the face sheet diagram prepared on the night of the autopsy that documented 17-cm of Kennedy’s skull was missing . The images show what most skeptics believe: that Kennedy’s skull damage extended from the so-called “frontal bone” anteriorly well into the occipital bone posteriorly. A truly massive, fatal wound.

Despite its imperfections, including the omission of evidence such as the above that would have reinforced its case against the Warren Commission’s trustworthiness, JFK: What the Doctors Saw is a valuable, first-hand account by credible witnesses, a real contribution to the medical evidence in the Kennedy case.

At a minimum it confirms the widely held view that the government has not told the public the whole truth about the Kennedy case. It also adds to existing evidence from JFK’s X-rays, from the Zapruder film, from Dealey Plaza witnesses, etc. that have chipped away at the official version of Kennedy’s murder. It’s inescapable that the President’s mortal head wound was far larger than the 13-cm defect specified in the official autopsy report,[18] and much different than what can be gleaned from the extant file of autopsy photographs. Simply, by the most credible accounts imaginable, it’s too large and too different to be explained by a single shot fired from Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged perch, “above and behind.”

[1] Warren Report. >

[2] HSCA interview with Curtis Jenkins, Jim Kelly and Andy Purdy, 8-29-77. JFK Collection, RG 233, Document #002193, p.4. Also reproduced inARRB Medical Document #65, see p.4 and diagram on p. 16.

[3] HSCA rec # 002191. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #85, see p. 3 anddiagram on p. 9.

[4] HSCA rec. # 180-10105-10397, agency file number # 014461, p. 2.)


[6] HSCA record # 10010042, agency file # 002086, p. 2.






[12] 7HSCA37-39

[13] Loftus, Elizabeth F.Eyewitness Testimony. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 25 – 26.

[14] Marshall, Marquis and Oskamp, Vol.84:1620 - 1643, 1971.

[15] E Loftus, JM Doyle.Eyewitness Testimony: Civil and Criminal, Second Edition. Charlottesville:The Michie Company, 1992


[17] See “Questions Arise about JFK’s Autopsy Photographs.”


Last modified on Friday, 05 January 2024 14:16
Gary Aguilar

Gary L. Aguilar, MD, is one of the few physicians outside the government ever permitted to examine the still-restricted photographs and X-rays taken during President Kennedy’s autopsy.  He has published widely on the medical evidence in professional journals, books and on-line.  He has  lectured before academic medical, academic medico-legal, and non-professional public audiences on the subject. He is currently Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, U.C. San Francisco, and the head of ophthalmology and the Vice Chief of Staff at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco.

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