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Harold Shipman

The most prolific practitioner of Medical Murder since World War II was British physician Harold Shipman, who also holds the 20th-century record for serial murder in Europe. Official records show that 500 patients died in Shipman’s care between 1977 and 1998, with at least 215 of those deaths now presumed to be homicides.  Investigators admit that the full tally of Shipman’s victims may never be known.

Harold Shipman—more commonly known as “Fred”—was the middle child of a working-class family, born on June 14, 1946. Classmates recall him as an academic plodder and accomplished athlete whose superior attitude kept him from forging close friendships. Shipman failed his first entry exam at Leeds University, but succeeded on his second try and maintained adequate grades to earn a medical degree. Contemporaries at Leeds remember Shipman as “pretentious” and “a bit strange,” a loner who brought his sister to school dances in place of a date. At age 19, he surprised acquaintances by embarking on a romance with Primrose Oxtoby, three years his junior. She was barely 17, and five months pregnant, when they wed in 1966. Shipman’s daughter was born in March 1967, followed by a son in 1971.

In March 1974, Shipman joined a medical practice in Todmorden, Yorkshire. While polite and cheerful with his colleagues and patients, Shipman was frequently rude to subordinates on staff, whom he belittled and dismissed as “stupid.” In summer 1975, Shipman suffered a series of blackouts, medically inexplicable until a partner in the practice discovered that Shipman had consumed huge doses of pethidine—“thousands and thousands of ampoules”—which he charged to the practice. His subterfuge was uncovered on September 25, 1975, and his partners fired Shipman on the spot, provoking a furious outburst. Shipman entered a drug rehab center, emerging in early 1976 to plead guilty on eight charges of forging prescriptions. The court dismissed 67 identical counts and fined him £600. In retrospect, authorities would question whether Shipman really used the vast amount of pethidine, a powerful narcotic, himself, or whether some was used to murder patients in his care. The question is still unresolved.

Despite his recent scandal, Dr. Shipman found work as a children’s physician for the South West Durham Health Authority on September 12, 1977. Eighteen days later, he left that post to join a new medical practice, Donneybrook House, in Hyde. He bought a modest home in Mottram and sired two more sons, born in March 1979 and April 1982. Once again, partners and patients found Shipman cheerful enough, while staff members complained of his rudeness and sarcasm. In 1992, Shipman surprised his Donneybrook colleagues by quitting the practice to set up shop alone, absconding with 3,000 patients in the process. The betrayal proved doubly galling when Shipman opened his new office within yards of the Donneybrook center.

Many patients who followed Shipman to his new address were older women, who admired Shipman for his dedication, long hours, frequent house calls—and his generosity with drug prescriptions. Over time, Shipman ranked among the Tameside district’s top five doctors (out of 104 in practice) with respect to numbers of prescriptions issued. During his last six years in practice, patients cheerfully donated £19,200 to purchase new equipment for his office, confident that Shipman would employ the tools in their best interest. Naturally, some of his patients died from time to time. Who could expect a man of medicine to save them all?

One such patient was Kathleen Grundy, who died under Shipman’s care on June 24, 1998, eight days short of her 82nd birthday. Her death was not entirely unexpected, at that age, but her will took Grundy’s children by surprise. Crudely typed on cheap paper, it read:

All my estate, money and house to my doctor. My family are not in need and I want to reward him for all the care he has given me and the people of Hyde. He is sensible enough to handle any problems this may give him. My doctor is H. F. Shipman.

While Grundy’s affluent family truly did not need the £386,402 inheritance, they were suspicious of the will and her scrawled signature. Police shared those suspicions, heightened when a note arrived at her attorney’s office, typed with the same machine on identical paper. It read: “I understand she lodged a will with you as I as a friend typed it out for her.” The note bore no return address, and it was signed “S. Smith,” a name unknown to Grundy’s family and friends.

The witnesses to Mrs. Grundy’s will were soon identified as two of Dr. Shipman’s patients. Both had signed the document—folded to hide its text—while waiting in his office for appointments, on June 9, 1998. Further investigation led to Shipman’s arrest on suspicion of murder, on September 7, 1998. Over the next three months, 17 of Shipman’s former patients were exhumed for autopsy. All were women between the ages of 49 and 82 who had died in Shipman’s care between April 1993 and June 1998. Post mortem examination revealed that 15 of the 18 suspected victims had died from overdoses of morphine. Shipman’s trial on those charges convened at Preston, in northwestern England, on October 6, 1999. On January 31, 2000, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of Sarah Ashworth (April 17, 1993), Marie West  (March 6, 1995), Lizzie Adams (February 28, 1997), Jean Lilley (April 25, 1997), Ivy Lomas (May 29, 1997), Muriel Grimshaw (July 14, 1997), Marie Quinn (November 24, 1997), Kathleen Wagstaff (December 9, 1997), Bianka Pomfret (December 10, 1997), Norah Nuttall (January 26, 1998), Pamela Hillier (February 9, 1998), Maureen Ward (February 18, 1998), Winifred Mellor (May 11, 1998), Joan Melia (June 12, 1998), and Kathleen Grundy.

That grim tally was only the tip of the iceberg, however. By the time he went to trial in 1999, police were speculating publicly that Shipman might have murdered 75 to 100 patients. Old colleagues from Todmorden chimed in with accusations that their death rate during Shipman’s tenure had numbered 30 to 40 above average, while Shipman’s signature appeared on 22 death certificates. In July 2000, when Britain’s High Court banned a secret government inquiry on Shipman’s case in favor of public hearings, detectives suggested that “Dr. Death” may have claimed 192 lives.

That inquiry examined 800 deaths and expected to report conclusions in 500 separate cases. In May 2001, police said they had conclusive evidence of 23 murders beyond the original 15, while speculating that Shipman murdered at least 297 victims and perhaps as many as 345. Relatives of one dead patient reported that her engagement ring was stolen, while another lost cash and her dentures. (With regard to the missing teeth, Shipman remarked, “She’s probably swallowed them.”) Patient Kenneth Smith, lost in December 1996, had begun calling Shipman the “Angel of Death” three weeks earlier, after neighbor Tommy Cheetham died in Shipman’s care.

On July 19, 2002, High Court judge Dame Janet Smith declared that Dr. Shipman had murdered no less than 215 of his patients over a 23-year period; another 200 deaths were deemed “highly suspicious,” while Smith harbored “real suspicion” in 45 outstanding cases. Of the 215 confirmed victims, 171 were women and 44 were men, ranging in age from 47 to 93 years. Officially, his first victim was Eva Lyons, killed at Todmorden in March 1975, but police harbored dark suspicions in the deaths of 62-year-old Robert Lingard and 84-year-old Elizabeth Pearce, who died at Todmorden within a five-hour span on January 21, 1975. Judge Smith charged that Shipman had murdered 71 patients at Donneybrook House and 143 while working alone in Hyde, during the period 1992–98. Smith called her report “as complete and accurate an account of Shipman’s criminality as I believe it will be ever be possible for anyone other than Shipman himself to give.”

No new charges were filed in the cases identified by Judge Smith, but it hardly mattered. At 6:20 A.M. on January 13, 2004, jailers found Shipman hanged in his cell at Wakefield Prison. Death was formally pronounced at 8:10 A.M., and the incident was recorded as a suicide. Kathleen Wood, daughter of 83-year-old victim Bessie Baddeley, spoke for most Shipman survivors when she told reporters, “I am not sorry he has gone, but it brings it all back and it stirs it all up for us again.” Three months later, on April 12, Judge Smith announced that her inquiry would resume in order to decide if Shipman had murdered any victims between 1970 and 1974 when he was a resident at Pontefract General Infirmary. In August 2004, Smith recommended creation of a “drugs inspectorate” to monitor the quantity of drugs prescribed and stored by British doctors and pharmacists. No progress had been made in that direction when this volume went to press.