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January 22, 1998

Cynthia Sutherland O'Nan

In the end, Cynthia Sutherland O'Nan left the world peacefully, her husband said.

An associate professor of English and women's studies who served on the Pitt faculty since 1966, O'Nan died at her Fox Chapel home Jan. 17.

She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer just over two years ago. In a June 30, 1997, profile, the Washington Post described her struggle against pain, nausea — and doctors intimidated by a Supreme Court decision that month which held that patients have no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. Pennsylvania is one of 44 states that criminalize assisted suicide.

In the article, O'Nan spoke frankly about her frustrated efforts to secure enough drugs to kill herself when her suffering grew intolerable. She spoke about coming to terms with having only months to live, about learning she was terminally ill at a time when her personal and professional lives had been happier than ever.

"Life is a gift," she told the Washington Post. "I don't take it from myself with anything like a flip attitude. But, my feeling is, I would damage people worse by hanging on and watching them watch my misery." Forbes Hospice nurses and counselors eased her suffering toward the end, according to her second husband, Lee O'Nan, whom she married 14 years ago. Given the laws against suicide, he was reluctant to say whether his wife succeeded in hastening her death. "It was peaceful," he said.

During her nearly 30 years at Pitt, O'Nan (who was known professionally as Cynthia Sutherland) taught literature and writing courses ranging from 18th-century literature to Shakespeare, children's literature and myth folktale, as well as women's studies courses. She helped to found the University's women's studies program.

Before joining the Pitt faculty as an assistant professor in 1968, O'Nan taught at Point Park College during 1967-68, Claremont Men's College (now Claremont McKenna College), 1966-67, and the University of Pennsylvania, 1965-66.

Born in Seattle, O'Nan grew up in Philadelphia and received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr (1956) and her M.A. (1959) and Ph.D. (1967) degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

She is survived by her husband; by her daughters Margaret and Elizabeth Matlack, of New York City, and Amelia Matlack, of Philadelphia; and her son Donald Matlack and granddaughters Rachel and Sonya, of Egg Harbor, N.J.

Contributions may be made to Forbes Hospice or a charity of one's choice.

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