Harold Frederick Shipman was one of the most prolific serial killers the world has ever known, and the only doctor in the UK to ever be found guilty of killing patients. The son of a lorry driver, he was born in Nottingham, England, in 1946. Shipman was very close to his mother, who died of lung cancer when he was 17 years old. In the latter stages of her disease, a doctor would administer morphine to her at home. Eerily, his mother’s death occurred in a manner that was similar to what Shipman would later use in many of his murders.
Shipman graduated from Leeds School of Medicine in 1970. He met his wife while he was at Leeds; they married in 1966 and had 4 children. Shipman became a general practitioner in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, in 1974. Trouble began brewing early in his medical career. In 1975, he was discovered to be forging prescriptions of pethidine for personal use. He was taken to court, fined by magistrates, issued a warning by the General Medical Council, and briefly attended a drug rehabilitation clinic in York but was allowed to continue to practice medicine.
Shipman was obsessed with killing—and for him, the dirty deed was an easy task. He took advantage of his patients’ trust in him as a doctor. All his victims lived near Hyde, Greater Manchester, where Shipman ran a solo practice. All died unexpectedly on the same day Shipman saw them. Shipman would typically give his victims a lethal dose of morphine during a house visit and would return when he thought they were dead. He generally preyed upon elderly women who lived alone, as they were vulnerable and made easy targets. Most of his victims were in good health, which made many relatives suspicious about their premature deaths.
In 1998, a general practitioner in Hyde (prompted by employees at a funeral parlor who expressed concerns to a coroner about the high rate of death in Shipman’s patients) alerted authorities about her suspicions regarding Shipman; in particular, she was concerned about the large number of cremation forms that he countersigned for elderly women. The police were informed, but were unable to discover enough evidence to file charges. It was felt that no further action was needed, and the killing continued.
His final victim was Kathleen Grundy, who was a former Lady Mayor of Hyde. She was found dead at her home on June 24, 1998, only hours after Shipman visited her. Shipman was the last person to see her alive, and later signed her death certificate, recording “old age” as cause of death. Shipman had forged his patient’s will, which bequeathed her entire estate to him and left nothing for her own daughter or grandchild. The daughter found this to be very suspicious and alerted the authorities. Kathleen Grundy’s body was exhumed and an autopsy was performed. The toxicology report stated that death had occurred due to a fatal morphine dose and not “natural causes,” as had been claimed in the death certificate.
The police explored other deaths that Shipman had certified, and found 15 specimen cases that warranted investigation. They uncovered a pattern where he was administering lethal overdoses of diamorphine, signing the death certificates, and then forging medical records so that patients appeared to have been in failing health.
Shipman was arrested on September 7, 1998, and was found to own the same model typewriter as was used to create the forged will. In January 2000, after 6 days of deliberation, the jury found Shipman guilty of killing 15 patients by lethal injections of diamorphine, and forging the will of Kathleen Grundy. The trial judge sentenced him to 15 consecutive life sentences and recommended that he never be released. Shipman also received 4 years for forging the will.
Even though there were many other cases that could have been brought to court, it was concluded that a fair trial would be difficult due to the huge publicity surrounding the first trial. Plus, given the long sentences already handed down, a second trial was deemed unnecessary.
After the trial, “The Shipman Inquiry” was set up to investigate all the murders that Shipman had claimed. It concluded that Shipman had killed approximately 250 people between 1971 and 1998. It also reported serious suspicions that Shipman murdered a 4-year-old girl early in his medical career. A total of 459 people died while under Shipman’s care, but it is not clear how many of those were actual victims, as other doctors rarely certified his patients’ deaths.
Due to the findings of the Shipman Inquiry, which lasted almost 2 years, much of Britain’s legal structure concerning health care and medicine was reviewed and modified. His murders led to analysis of the function and strength of Britain’s General Medical Council, the role of revalidation, how the medical profession deals with sick doctors, the value of clinical governance, the problems of whistle-blowing, and the function of the coroners’ service.
Harold Shipman hanged himself from the window bars of his cell using bed sheets on January 13, 2004, the eve of his 58th birthday.
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