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Bloodlines: The Death of Chicago Dermatologist David Cornbleet

After dermatologist David Cornbleet was murdered in his Michigan Avenue office, his son, Jonathan, devoted himself to finding the killer. Now a shy and troubled young man—a former patient of Dr. Cornbleet’s—has confessed. But that man’s anguished father is arguing that a drug prescribed by the slain doctor may have contributed to the killing.

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Happier times: David and Jon Cornbleet pose with puppies, a gift from father to son.

 

By all accounts, the small 12th-floor complex of examination rooms where Dr. David Cornbleet practiced for nearly three decades bore the look and feel of an old country doctor’s office, a throwback to the days when patient records were scribbled on index cards and folders spilled from metal filing cabinets—a place redolent of camphor and rubbing alcohol. The floors were carpeted, the blinds metal. There was no computer.

As for the man who ran the practice, if you were casting the part of the kindly neighborhood doc, you could scarcely have done better than Cornbleet, who was 64 when he died. With his wire-rimmed glasses, silver-daubed hair, and friendly, thoughtful eyes, he knew most of his patients by their first names, and if he didn’t, he would by their next visit. Other dermatologists booked their appointments weeks in advance. Dr. Cornbleet always seemed able to squeeze in last-minute visits, particularly if the patient came to him with an emergency—a bride, say, with a wedding day blemish. He did so, his son says, by staying after hours, sometimes until 7 or 8 p.m. His rates were flexible, his payment terms generous. His father, Theodore Cornbleet, had been a dermatologist—had served, in fact, as head of dermatology at Cook County Hospital. The very office in which David Cornbleet practiced, in the 30 North Michigan Avenue building, had been passed along to him by the elder Cornbleet, as had the initialed blue lab coat David wore to all of his appointments.

David Cornbleet’s children, Jonathan and Jocelyn, also had ties to the office, helping out during school breaks when they were young, and later, after they were grown, going in on weekends to do their father’s paperwork. “Dad and I used to have father-daughter days,” recalls Jocelyn, 28, a Loop lawyer specializing in environmental and asbestos issues. “We’d go downtown to Marshall Field’s, to see the windows if it was Thanksgiving, then stop by the office.”

“My sister and I pretty much grew up there,” agrees Jon, a 33-year-old insurance salesman. “It was a very, very old-school office. It reminded me of the old-time barbershop. My father would ask patients about their husbands, their wives, their friends; about college, their dreams. It was more like a social hour with him. He spent an exorbitant amount of time with each person, mostly because he looked on them as friends as well as patients.”

Apropos of the doctor’s old-school approach, he worked by himself, choosing not to replace his long-term secretary when she retired years earlier. Instead, patients called or knocked on the door, an arrangement that made both daughter and son uneasy. “I never liked the fact that he worked alone,” the son told me.

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Photograph: Courtesy of Jonathan Cornbleet

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