Hemlock Society Of Florida, Inc. – A History
1980: Former British journalist Derek Humphry and his wife, Ann Wickett, founded the Hemlock Society in California. 1988: The Society relocated its office to Eugene, Oregon, where it remained until the early 1990s when it moved to Denver, Colorado.
In England, Humphry had helped his first wife, Jean, hasten her painful death from cancer. (This story is told in Mr. Humphry’s book, Jean’s Way.) He hoped to promote dignity and autonomy in dying through his writing. He chose to live in the United States because of its Constitution’s freedom-of-speech clause. Other countries lacked this protection.
The name ‘Hemlock’ was selected in the light of the suicide of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who had to choose between a sentence of death or exile; after debate with colleagues, and unable to bear the loneliness of exile, he chose suicide by a drink laced with the hemlock plant. It was Socrates’ careful consideration of his choices that inspired the American organization.
Hemlock attracted widespread, growing interest and local groups nationwide began meeting to discuss end-of-life issues.
1987: The first Florida chapter, Suncoast Hemlock, was organized by Nan and Walt Billings, Sue Mueller and like-minded Sarasota friends. Nan liaisoned with the Hemlock Society in Denver (often referred to as “National”) and helped organize chapters in Clearwater, Fort Myers, Naples, Sun City Center, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Melbourne. Representatives from all these grass-roots groups gathered periodically to share information and coordinate activities. In April 1994, these groups unified and incorporated as the Hemlock Society of Florida, Inc.
Nan Billings served as its first president, until January 1996. Mary Bennett Hudson (Fort Lauderdale) succeeded her and served until January 2002 when the Board elected Donna Klamm, of West Melbourne. Donna continues as president today.
1997: In order to fund legislative efforts to defeat old laws against choice in dying, National Hemlock formed a separate 501(c)(4) membership corporation to which members paid their non-tax-deductible dues. The Hemlock / Florida Board followed suit by establishing the Patients Rights Organization of Florida, Inc. (PRO-FL) with the same tax designation and membership dues responsibility.
Presidents of PRO-FL were attorney John Lees (Melbourne) followed in April 1998 by Dr. Cecil McIver, succeeded by Mary Bennett Hudson.
1998: Hemlock USA started the Caring Friends Program. All over the United States trained volunteers counseled terminally ill people on how to hasten death, if that was their wish.
2000: PRO-FL officially changed its name to the Hemlock Society of Florida, Inc. Everything else about it (tax designation, membership dues) remained the same. Simultaneously, the (existing) Hemlock Society of Florida became the Hemlock Foundation of Florida, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to charitable and educational purposes and funded by members’ tax-deductible donations instead of dues. Both these corporations have since comprised the Florida state chapters and remain so for our independent organization today.
2004: New leadership at the national level disliked the name “Hemlock” so they began a search for a new name. After extensive deliberation and research, the national office became End-of-Life Choices. State chapters were urged to do likewise. We became End-of-Life Choices Florida.
2005: In January, End-of-Life Choices (“National”) merged with the Oregon-based organization, Compassion in Dying. This merger eventually culminated in Compassion & Choices (C&C), which now occupies the former Denver office of Hemlock USA.
Some chapters changed their names again to Compassion and Choices New York etc. Other chapters closed, became dormant, remained End-of- Life Choices, or in several cases, retained the original Hemlock name. The Florida organization decided not to sign on as an affiliate of Compassion & Choices and changed its name back to the Hemlock Society of Florida. The Hemlock Society of Florida set out to remain an independent right-to-die organization
Several former Hemlock national board members formed a new national group named Final Exit Network. The main thrust of this organization is to counsel terminally ill individuals who wish to self-deliver.
2006: January: The Hemlock Society of Florida Inc. continues as an independent advocate for dignity and freedom of choice at the end of life. The Hemlock Society of San Diego and Hemlock of Illinois also continue as local chapters and retain the Hemlock name.
2010: February: Ben Wilcox is hired as the Executive Director of the Hemlock Society of Florida, the first paid staff for the organization. Wilcox is working with the Hemlock Society of Florida state board to redesign Hemlock’s website, increase its membership and fundraising and raise its visibility as a longtime principled and respected advocate for the right-to-die with dignity. He is also developing legislation to be introduced in the Florida legislature to give Floridians the choice to hasten their own death under appropriate medical circumstances.