Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Addicted to Killing

July 24, 2002

Harold Shipman
Harold Shipman (AP)

Until late July, 2002, Britain's worst serial killer was Victorian serial poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton, who murdered an estimated 21 people in the 1870s. Now that dubious distinction is claimed by Dr. Harold Shipman.

Officially, Dr. Harold Shipman murdered at least 215 of his patients — 171 women and 44 men ranging in age from 41 to 93.  After a year-long public inquiry, the 2,000-page report into his 23-year murder spree was released by High Court Judge Dame Janet Smith.  The records of nearly 500 patients of Shipman's who died while in his care between 1978 and 1998 were scrutinized in the investigation. 

Another investigation, conducted by University of Leicester professor Richard Baker determined that the real minimum number of Shipman victims was 236. Associated Press reported that Judge Janet Smith said "the full toll may be higher, citing a 'real suspicion' that Shipman had killed 45 more people for whom there was insufficient evidence to be certain. In another 38 cases, there was too little information to form any opinion on the cause of death."

Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, the 56-year-old former physician maintains his innocence, continuing to shroud the motives for his extraordinary crimes.  The official report speculated that the doctor was "addicted to killing" much like he was addicted to painkillers around the time the murders started.  Like other death angels such as Dr. Michael Swango, the American doctor who killed patients in both Africa and the U.S., there was no hint of a sexual interest in his victims. Rather, as South Manchester coroner John Pollard speculated, Shipman "simply enjoyed viewing the process of dying and enjoyed feeling the control over life and death." 

A fatal fascination with death, dying and drugs is consistent with the behavior of the 17-year-old Shipman who spent hours comforting Vera, his cancer-stricken dying mother. In the young man's mind, there was a powerful emotional connection between the visit of the family doctor and the relief that his injections of morphine brought to her suffering.  Is it just a coincidence that he began abusing painkillers himself and shortly after he began practicing medicine, he used a lethal injection of pain medication to murder his first victim?

Judge Smith found Shipman's "non-violent" killing almost incredible. "The way in which Shipman could kill, face the relatives and walk away unsuspected would be dismissed as fanciful if described in a work of fiction."  Even more incredible was that his murders of so many people did not arouse suspicion for decades, even though there were supposedly safeguards in place at that time.

Clearly new safeguards are needed and a number of them are now in the works in Britain.  For example, after he murdered a victim, Dr. Shipman would often arrange for the body to be cremated if the family did not object, thereby destroying evidence of his crime. Judge Smith points out that new pre-cremation procedures are needed to prevent future abuse.  Also, the system failed tragically when Shipman, after being convicted of drug abuse in 1975, was allowed to obtain enormous quantities of painkilling drugs. For example, in the name of a dying patient, Dr. Shipman obtained enough of the painkiller diamorphine to kill 360 people.

Is Shipman a one-off monster as some have suggested? There is growing evidence that he is not as rare as one hopes him to be.  Disguised in the aura of respectability that normally surrounds medical professionals, a number of monsters like Shipman have gradually been unmasked, but only after numerous deaths have taken place. These "angels of death" are not only doctors, but nurses, therapists, hospital workers and proprietors of care facilities for the sick and the elderly.  Dr. Michael Swango killed his patients because it gave him a thrill and a feeling of power; Beverley Allitt and Genene Jones, pediatric nurses, killed their young patients to get more attention for themselves; Dr. Marcel Petiot and Dr. H.H. Holmes killed for money; Dr. Josef Mengele killed for political beliefs, and so on. The medical profession clearly needs more oversight if the world is to rid itself of this problem.

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