Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Harold Shipman, the World's Most Prolific Serial Killer

New Chapter - Frightening New Revelations

Although he used a bed sheet to commit suicide in his cell in Wakefield prison in 2004, a renewed inquiry into Dr. Harold Shipman's practice ended with a startling announcement on January 27, 2005 .   While he was already credited as one of the world's most prolific serial killers with an estimated 215 to 260 victims, whom he killed with lethal injections of diamorphine, people generally settled on the lower figure as the official toll.   It turns out, according to the BBC, that a British commission set up to scrutinize his entire medical career believes that the higher figure may be more accurate.   While the fatal physician, about to turn 58 when he died, can no longer be punished for his crimes, more families may now receive closure—albeit painful—as to how a loved one died.

The inquiry commission, writes journalist Annabel Crabb in London, had earlier published reports in 2002 to the effect that Shipman had begun his killing career after he had joined a general practice in Todmorden in 1974, but then investigators decided to examine 137 patient deaths prior to that time for suspicious circumstances.     Russell Jenkins for the writes that this new inquiry was inspired by reports from Sandra Whitehead.   She had been a student nurse in Pontefract General Hospital in West Yorkshire , a facility where Shipman had worked as a junior house officer (an interim position between leaving medical school and becoming a doctor) and where he then received his doctor's registration in 1971.   He remained there nearly three years.   After Shipman's suicide, Whitehead had reflected back over her three months there and recalled the high death rate, so she contacted the commission to voice her concerns.   "The realization," she was quoted in several sources as saying, "was like hitting a brick wall at 60 miles an hour."   She believed her colleague, who had used prescription drugs inappropriately, had been killing patients even then.

Dame Janet Smith
Dame Janet Smith

The commission, chaired by Dame Janet Smith, re-examined 137 patient deaths: 133 for which Shipman had signed a death certificate or cremation order, and four more around whom witnesses had indicated he was present.   The New Zealand Herald included the information that Dame Janet found Shipman present in at least one-third of the cases he had certified, compared to an average of 1.6 percent for other doctors.   That raised red flags, as did the fact that an unusually high percentage of the deaths had occurred between 6:00 P.M. and midnight.

It was initially believed that Shipman, who as a GP made house calls to the elderly (mostly women), had taken advantage of the easy pickings among such patients.   But that idea has proven to be erroneous.   While he certainly engaged in such behavior, it seems that he preyed on other types of patients as well.   The latest report confirmed, according to several media accounts, that Shipman appeared to have killed at least fifteen patients prior to 1975, and Leeds Today added another seven.   Timesonline mentions that Dame Janet was suspicious of about at least twenty-four deaths, and also indicates that she said that while there will never be definitive evidence in many cases, the actual figure could be as high as 284.  

The public was angry that he'd been allowed to practice for so long without anyone noticing what he was doing, so the inquiry was launched, in part, to answer this question.   Since healthcare serial killers (HCSKs) appear to have increased worldwide over the past two decades, people are demanding to know why vigilance has been so low and institutions have not been held accountable for hospital-based murders by practitioners.   Given these new findings, it was clear that new procedures had to be put into place — especially in light of yet another report that demanded investigation.

Preston Prison
Preston Prison

Although Shipman never publicly confessed, and in fact denied the truth of the allegations, John Harkin, an inmate at Preston Prison where Shipman was temporarily housed, said that the doctor confessed to killing as many as 508 patients.   Upon investigation, there proved to be no basis for that claim's accuracy.   A psychiatrist also described Shipman as a "classic necrophilliac," although there was no evidence that he had an erotic attraction to corpses.   Others believed that his motive was to exercise control, but Dame Janet had her own opinion.


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