Friday, October 16, 2020

Dr Death


493 deaths over 23 years is quite a record for a serial killer.

It’s the number of victims of the British Doctor Harold Shipman, in the years spanning 1975-98.

He was born in 1946 in Nottinghamshire, England and died in 2004 at HM Prison Wakefield, West Yorkshire by suicide.

I’ve never written poetry much but I did write a poem about the victim Kathleen Grundy who was the victim ‘too far’ and the one who brought about his downfall. She died on 24th June 1998 aged 84, and she was well known, being a former mayoress of Hyde. She had been well, but ‘was old’ so her death was largely accepted until her daughter got a copy of the will. The lawyer had faxed it through to her, as he was perplexed that a woman like Kathleen would leave such a badly typed legal document, and that the will the lawyer had drawn up to her wishes was now superseded by this rather unprofessional looking document.  The will had been changed totally. It was now all in the favour of her GP; Dr Harold Shipman.

The daughter and her husband tracked down those that had witnessed the signing of the will; it had taken place at the doctor’s surgery. They went to the police and that started a very big ball rolling.

It was a mere suspicion that Mrs Grundy may have come to an unnatural end, but there had been no post mortem her body needed to be exhumed so on the  1st august 1998 at 4 am  the small digger arrived at the cemetery.  Exhumations are always done during the hours of darkness.

It turns out that Harold Shipman was the last person to see Kathleen alive. He was also the first person on the scene after she had been found dead. And he signed the death certificate. He decided on the cause of death.

The exhumation was treated as a crime scene and soil samples were taken from above and below the coffin. The samples later showed too much diamorphine.

Shipman was arrested on 7 September 1998, and amongst his possessions was a Brother typewrite, with the exact uneven font that was apparent on the badly forged will.

It’s interesting that another GP in another practice had already been to the police as she was being asked to sign, to her mind, far too many cremation certificates for Dr Shipman’s practice.  That GP also noticed a pattern to these deaths; they died at home, they died in the afternoon, they died while fully clothed, they died and left their front doors open.  A detective did look into her concerns  but found nothing abnormal – when I said ‘look into’, he didn’t speak to Shipman, or any of the families of the twenty one patients on the list that the GP had compiled.

These twenty one deaths were reinvestigated after Kathleen Grundy’s case had come to light, and the female GP had been right- these victims had not been ill. They had merely been old. And they had been killed.

To many the idea that this plausible, family doctor – a very good doctor, very caring and competent- was a murderer was just unbelievable to most, especially his patients. A small injection in the arm, in their own home and the victims just slept away, elderly, mostly women, mostly on their at the time they died.

On January 31st 2000, he was convicted of killing 15 people and got a life sentence for each. The Shipman Enquiry  under Dame Janet Smith put the number of victims at about 250  but admitted that there may be many many more. Shipman himself committed suicide on 13th January 2004, a day before his 58th birthday.

So how did a quietly spoken English doctor become regarded as the most prolific serial killer in modern history and he is still the only British doctor known to be guilty of murdering his patients.

As a 17 year old, Shipman had witnessed his mother’s protracted painful death from lung cancer, and had also witnessed the GP coming into the house and  giving her injections of morphine – and he saw close up how it eased her pain.  While that explains a lot, the fact he was stealing jewellery from his patients and tampering with their wills, adjusting records after death to write up the degree of suffering they endured from diseases they didn’t have so he could account for the amount of morphine he had been ordered for his own use. He was an addict.

He started work as a GP in 1974 but as early as in 75 he was found guilty of forging prescriptions of pethidine to feed his own drug habit. He was given a fine of £600, and advised to attend a rehab centre to treat his addiction. You can see why the number of murders he committed is almost impossible to ascertain with any accuracy.

It would have been impossible for Shipman to get away with such crimes for that length of time in Scotland, as our cremation certificates would have passed through the hands of the same fiscal due to the geographic reasons and hopefully, the disparity in the numbers that particular GP’s surgery was processing compared to others, would have been noticed very quickly.

After Shipman there were a series of recommendations lwhich led to changes in medical procedures, and they include more monitoring of GPs by their peers which more or less ended the single GP practice, most are now  group practices and any rumours of a ‘Dr Death’ amongst them would be  heard and acted upon.

But there’s a common belief that Shipman murdered the elderly who were weak and frail. Nothing could be further from the truth, he killed the elderly who were fit and able, but society was very quick to believe that, somehow, their deaths were acceptable and beyond questions, simply because of their age, and that raises all kind of questions as how easily we disregard the elderly.


  1. Yeah, quit disregarding me, okay???

    Great (although I hesitate to use that word, given the subject matter) column, Caro, I'd never heard of this case before. Living in the U.S., news from small corners of the world rarely reaches us here, where everything is ever so much more important, don't you know? Plus, the victims were all old people, so...

  2. There've also been a number of nurses who were serial killers--in fact I knew one of them. The news came to me one day when another doctor said to me, "You remember that nurse, Don, who worked in our ICU years ago? Well, he was killing patients all along." I was stunned.

  3. I also didn't know about him. The number is mind-boggling.

  4. Thank you, Caro, for this gripping report of murders that were also previously unknown to me. And also—as an old lady myself – for your anti-ageist sentiments. I keep doing my best not to go bonkers every time a person’s age is given as an indication that he or she is very likely to be incompetent. I manage to keep my temper, mostly because I know that, although angry men are usually considered strong and powerful, angry women are pretty much universally dismissed as crazy bitches.