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The Dark and Twisted Tale of Harold Shipman

Harold Shipman, general practitioner turned serial killer, was someone patients thought they could trust, until they couldn’t…

Tale of Harold Shipman

You may or may not have heard of the prolific serial killer, Harold Shipman. BBC documentary, The Shipman Files, has retold the tale of these sickening crimes, striking fear into the hearts of us all.

Both before and since Harold’s deranged crimes, numerous other medical professionals have used their job to take their victims. From lethal mistakes during surgery, to mishandled abortions, to dodgy diagnoses, the crimes of a select few nurses and doctors certainly capture our imagination.

With the immense trust we put in our doctors and nurses, it’s certainly a scary thought that such things could happen. So, what exactly was Harold Shipman guilty of? This article will discuss his crimes and motives, and look into how he managed to get away with such negligence.

Harold Shipman Biography

Harold Shipman was born in Nottinghamshire in 1946, into a working-class family. During his young years, his mother was dying of cancer, so was administered regular morphine injections. This fuelled his interest in medicine and, as a bright child, he had no trouble receiving his medical degree in 1970.

Soon after, he became a general practitioner in Lancashire. But, in 1975, it was discovered that he had written several fraudulent prescriptions for pethedine, an opiate he had become addicted to. Because of this, he was forced out of his practice into rehabilitation, and was fined.

After this, he became a GP in Manchester, and soon his terrible work began…

How Did Shipman Get Caught Out for His Medical Negligence?

In 1998, Dr Linda Reynolds of the surgery Shipman worked at expressed concerns to the coroner about the high rates of death amongst Shipman’s patients. Specifically, she’d noted a large number of cremation forms for elderly women that he had needed signed off. It was also deemed curious that the victims appeared to exhibit similar poses in death; fully clothed and usually sitting up or reclining on a settee.

No sufficient evidence was found by police, so the case was closed off. Later, others became suspicious about the elderly patients who appeared in good health and died after receiving care from Shipman.

His last victim – the straw which broke the camel’s back – was Kathleen Grundy, who was found dead in her home in 1998. Shipman was the last person to see her alive, and had signed off her death certificate as old age.

However, her daughter, Angela Woodruff, became suspicious after Grundy’s solicitor expressed concerns over the authenticity of the Will. The Will excluded Woodruff, but bequeathed £386,000 to Shipman.

Woodruff went to the police, and a more thorough investigation began. Grundy's body was exhumed, and traces of diamorphine (heroin), were found. This is often used as pain medication for terminal cancer patients, but Shipman claimed Grundy had been an addict.

To prove this, Shipman had shown police his medical notes, but an examination of his computer showed that he had written these notes up after her death. He was soon arrested, and the investigation continued, showing a pattern of behaviour.

Overall, he was responsible for the deaths of 15 women by lethal injections of diamorphine. He then signed the patient’s death certificates, and falsified their medical records to demonstrate poor health.

Tale of Harold Shipman

How Many People Did Harold Shipman Kill?

These 15 deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. Although we aren’t sure of the exact numbers, at the end of 1996 there were 67 excess deaths in females aged 65. This compared to 119 deaths in 1998, showing the extent of the problem.

During the trial, it became apparent that he had a clear lack of compassion for family members of the deceased. His disregard for their wishes, and reluctance to revive patients, was bad enough.

However, he was also reported to have pretended to call the emergency services in the presence of relatives, cancelling the call when the patient was discovered to be dead. Telephone records showed that no actual calls were made, so this was all false behaviour.

After his trial, he was officially committed for the deaths of these 15 women, as well as the forgery of the Will and medical records. He later committed suicide in his cell by hanging himself.

In order to get a full sense of his crimes, a government inquiry was carried out. In 2005, the report declared an estimated 250 deaths at the hands of Shipman, beginning in 1971.

Many of these deaths occurred due to the lethal injection, and were later recorded by him as “death of natural causes”. It was also revealed that Shipman would hoard drugs, and prescribe morphine to patients unnecessarily, or overprescribe them. He would then visit the homes of the deceased to collect unused drugs “for disposal”, but we can assume he hoarded them further.

What Were Harold Shipman’s Motives?

For a number of medical serial killers, motives are never quite clear. Whether it’s an arrogance and genuine belief of medical prowess gone wrong, psychopathic tendencies, vigilante-ism, or putting patient’s out of their misery, we simply don’t know.

For Shipman, some think he was seeking revenge for the death of his own mother. Others believe he might have been practicing euthanasia, removing older people from the population to reduce the burden on the NHS.

Alternatively, others believe it was sheer arrogance and pleasure derived from the killings; clear traits of a psychopath. For starters, his unsympathetic demeanour and clear telling of lies throughout the trial did nothing to win over the jury. It seemed clear that he revelled in the knowledge that his job provided him with power over life and death.

Tale of Harold Shipman

How Did Harold Shipman Get Away with Such Medical Negligence?

The real question many of us ask about cases like these are how could all this have happened right under the NHS’ nose? The medical community have life and death in their hands, and how they choose to use this responsibility is up to them. Unfortunately, there are a few who opt for death.

There are actually tens of cases, across centuries, of medical professionals abusing their powers. A list of doctor or nurse serial killers shows that these aren’t isolated cases, and brings forth the question of how these crimes could go under the radar for so long.

In the case of Harold Shipman, it poses troubling questions over the adequacy of procedures for certifying sudden death. In other cases, like the horrific and recent crimes of Christopher Duntsch who mutilated patients during spinal surgeries, it makes us question how state jurisdiction is flawed.

These cases occur decades ago, but it’s clear that an overhaul in hospital record keeping, statistics, and jurisdictions may be required to put a stop to these rare, but troubling, cases.

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