Dr. John E. Smialek, the state's chief medical examiner since 1986 and a national authority in forensic pathology, died yesterday of an apparent heart attack in his Baltimore office. He was 57.
Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said Dr. Smialek, an avid jogger with no known serious health troubles, collapsed about 2 p.m. as he was preparing slides for one of his frequent seminars for homicide detectives.
Stunned friends and colleagues praised Dr. Smialek as a consummate professional who remained committed to his job despite serving during the most violent chapter in Baltimore history.
"He was really a lovely guy, who was very into what he was doing," said retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe. "He did it to the best of his ability."
Arriving in Maryland after stints in Detroit and New Mexico, Dr. Smialek quickly established himself as an expert, teaching pathology courses at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, publishing numerous articles and making frequent trips to other states and countries to instruct on death investigation. He returned recently from a visit to Romania, Dr. Benjamin said.
Dr. Smialek's work in the field of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome drew particular notice. In 1993, he persuaded Baltimore police not to file charges in the death of infant twins in Hamilton, proving that the deaths were the result of a rare form of twins-related SIDS.
A serious man who avoided publicity, he was pressed into the limelight his first year in Maryland when he announced, on national television, that University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias had died of a cocaine overdose.
Judge Bothe said that what suited Dr. Smialek for the position was an unusually strong professional curiosity - and an abiding interest in the world of crime. He recently restored 18 dioramas depicting murder scenes that were made in the 1920s as instructional tools for police, she said.
"There's somewhat of a turnover in that field ... but he was a very enthusiastic holder of the position," Judge Bothe said.
That is not to say Dr. Smialek was immune to feelings of despair as Baltimore's homicides grew to record numbers in the early 1990s. In a 1993 interview with The Sun, he said it was impossible not to think of the families of the hundreds of homicide victims he was conducting autopsies on, and of the victims themselves.
"You can't help but become overwhelmed by the waste of life, especially young lives, that is occurring in our society," he said. The victims, he added, "are, almost of all of them, physically perfect specimens of good health - except for the little hole in their body."
Dr. Smialek seldom testified in court. But when he did, Judge Bothe said, he was extremely skilled at helping jurors understand the fine points of autopsy findings.
Word of his death was broadcast on Baltimore's central police paging system, and detectives recalled him as a professional who cared deeply about making the right call on cause of death. "Dr. Smialek was brilliant in what he did," said homicide Lt. Richard C. Fahlteich. "He did it because that's what he was supposed to do. He got awards all over the nation, yet he was still one of the guys."
Late yesterday, Dr. Benjamin added, a discussion was held about whether Dr. Smialek's colleagues should continue the seminar for homicide detectives. The answer was yes, Dr. Benjamin said.
"The presumption was he would have wanted it to continue," the secretary said. "This guy was good at his work, and he loved it."
Dr. Smialek, of Havre de Grace, was a native of Ontario and a University of Toronto graduate.
He is survived by his wife, Zoe Lambros; a son, Ted; and a daughter, Malinda.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.