Joan Wood dies - Her life was never the same after Lisa McPherson case

The controversy made national news a year after McPherson died in December of 1995, after 17 days of care by church officials.


As reported in Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology, the autopsy results of McPherson showed that she had been so dehydrated at the time of her death she may have been without fluids for five to ten days. From the book:

"This was not a sudden death, but rather a chronic decline - for a week, said Wood, it would have been obvious that Lisa needed help. That no one had called 911 was negligent to such an extreme that Wood thought Lisa's death a homicide."


The state of Florida's case against the Church of Scientology was set for March of 2000. Before that, Reitman reports, the church produced "thousands of pages of documentation refuting the coroner's evidence."


The matter then came down to a specific protein known as ketone, which is usually found in someone who is severely malnourished, as Wood had maintained. But Wood's autopsy report found no evidence of ketones in McPherson's body. She then said that her death had been "accidental."


That reversal changed everything in the case, and in June of 2000, the state dropped all criminal charges against the Church of Scientology. At the end of the month, severely stressed, Wood resigned, and then checked into Morton Plant Hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown.


In 2005, Wood relinquished her medical license after the state Health Department leveled a complaint about her - as as Susan Taylor Martin for the Times reported, they claimed she "became an advocate for the Church of Scientology," a charge that both Wood and COS strongly denied.


From Taylor Martin's story:


"I think in their own way the church has a long history of attempting to pressure individuals, and they can leave you at your wit's end in terms of providing them mounds and mounds of paperwork," Wood said. "But no, no, no - the bottom line is that I made my decision based on all the facts I had available to me, not just the anatomic findings."


One of the lawyers who represented McPherson's estate in the wrongful death suit against the church said Wood was under "a great deal of pressure" over the case.


"I think a number of people were both surprised and shocked when she did change her initial finding," attorney Luke Lirot said Friday. "There was a significant amount of agreement that her original determination was accurate, and I think that original determination reflected adversely on the Church of Scientology. I think they brought a significant amount of pressure to bear on her, and I don't think anybody can conclude that didn't have some impact on the modification of the report."


The wrongful death suit was settled last year; the terms were kept confidential.


McCabe, the state attorney, said Friday he thinks Wood reversed herself on McPherson's death because the church "kept flooding her with information that raised questions in her own mind." However, he said, he never considered Wood an advocate for Scientology.


"She could certainly be strong-willed and advocate her position strongly but I never felt there was any improper bias or prejudice. We certainly had disagreements over time but I never had any questions about her competence."


Joan Wood died July 19 in Pinellas County at the age of 67. The cause of her death has not been reported.

  • Joan Wood

Former Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner Dr. Joan Wood's death was noted on page 8B of the St. Petersburg Times Metro section on Wednesday that takes up all of six paragraphs.

The brief obituary notes her involvement regarding the death of Lisa McPherson, the Scientology member whose controversial and tragic death in 1995 laid a black mark on the church, and ultimately, on Dr. Wood herself.

I was fresh to the Tampa Bay area in the spring of 2000 when I covered several days of the criminal trial of the state of Florida against the church, who were charged in November of 1998 with two felony counts in McPherson's death.

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