Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Addiction and Attitude

Hard working, and enthusiastic, Shipman fitted well into the social matrix.

His senior partners saw him as a Godsend.  One, Dr. Michael Grieve, appreciated Fred's contribution in providing up-to-date information, as he was so recently out of medical school.

But his career in Todmorden came to a sudden halt when he began having blackouts.  His partners were devastated when he gave them the reason.  He suffered, he said, with epilepsy.  He used this inaccurate diagnosis as a cover-up.

The truth soon surfaced, when practice receptionist Marjorie Walker stumbled upon some disturbing entries in a druggist's controlled narcotics ledger. The records showed how Shipman had been prescribing large and frequent amounts of pethidine in the names of several patients.

Moreover, he'd written numerous prescriptions for the drug on behalf of the practice.  Although this was not unusual (drugs are kept on hand for emergencies and immediate treatments), the prescribed amounts were excessive.

Pethidine — a morphine-like analgesic — was initially thought to have no addictive properties.  Now, some sixty years after scientists first synthesized it, pethidine's non-addictive reputation is still hotly debated. 

Following the discovery of Shipman's over-prescribing, a covert investigation by the practice — including Dr. John Dacre — followed. To his alarm, he discovered many patients on the prescription list had neither required nor received the drug.

Dacre challenged Fred in a staff meeting, as one of his partners, Dr. Michael Grieve recalls:

"We were sat round with Fred sitting on one side and up comes John on the opposite and says, 'Now young Fred, can you explain this?'  And he puts before him evidence that he has been gleaning, showing that young Fred had been prescribing pethidine to patients and they'd never received the pethidine, and in fact the pethidine had found its way into Fred's very own veins."

Shipman's way of dealing with the problem was to provide an insight into his true personality. Realizing his career was on the line, he first begged for a second chance. 

When this was denied, he became enraged and stormed out, hurled a medical bag to the ground and threatened to resign. The partners were dumbfounded by this violent — and seemingly uncharacteristic — behavior.

Shortly afterwards, his wife Primrose stormed into the room where his peers were discussing the best way to dismiss him. Rudely, she informed the people at the meeting that her husband would never resign, proclaiming, "You'll have to force him out!"

She was right.  Ultimately he was forced out of the practice and into a drug re-hab center in 1975.

Two years later, his many convictions for drug offences, prescription fraud and forgery cost him a surprisingly low fine — just over 600 pounds sterling. Shipman's conviction for forgery is worth noting.  First, because his skill in this area was nothing less than pathetic; second, he failed to learn that his ineptitude in this area was readily exposed. 

Yet in spite of this early warning, some 22 years later he actually believed he could get away with faking signatures on a patently counterfeit will — that of his last victim, Katherine Grundy.

This lack of judgment — some say arrogance — set in motion the mechanism for his downfall.

As for the pethidine charges, the question remains:  Did he really self-inject the drugs (as he claimed) or had he already begun using them to kill unsuspecting patients?  This is currently under review.

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