Britain's most prolific serial killer took the lives of at least 218 of his patients over three decades of murder. But what drove this colourless, insignificant man to such deeds? Did his murderous spree spring from the death of his mother while as a boy?
We mostly accept - even hope - that our final hours will be attended by a doctor to ease our passage into death both physically and emotionally. The revelation in 2000 that Dr. Harold Shipman had in fact killed an incredible 218 of his own patients was thus a profound shock to the system, and prompted far-reaching reforms to the legal structure of the medical sector.
Early life and Career
Shipman was born into a normal background in Nottingham as the son of alorry driver.His parents were also devout Methodists and Shipman is said to have been particularly close to his mother, who died of cancer when Shipman was in his late teens. In what might be considered a significant coincidence she died at home of cancer in 1963 and the young Shipman witnessed her decline, and the administration of morphine by the doctor who treated her. Later in life, administrating overdoses of morphine to elderly ladies was his preferred method of killing.
He attended Leeds School of Medicine and on graduation began working on Pontefract General Infirmary in 1970, where he worked until he became a GP at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden in 1974.
Investigations later showed that even during this brief spell at Todmorden, Shipman signed 22 death certificates and was present at death in 40% of the cases. Statistically this is incredible: studies carried out for the Shipman Enquiry show that the national average for GPs to be present at death is somewhere around 0.8%. Recollections and documentation of his time in Todmorden is understandably partial at this remove, but it seems that even here at this early stage he was indulging in his peculiar dark whims.
In what could latterly be seen as a warning that Shipman was not the most dutiful of doctors in other ways, he was caught in 1975 forging pethidine (a strong painkiller most commonly used in childbirth) prescriptions for his personal use. Fined £600 and made to attend drug rehabilitation in York, he drifted through a couple of temporary positions before returning to general practice at the Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde in 1977.
He stayed at Donneybrook throughout until he left to found his own surgery on Market Street in Hyde in 1993.
In 1998 a fellow doctor - Dr. Linda Roberts from the Brooke Surgery (also in Hyde) - noticed that Shipman seemed to be submitting more cremation forms for her countersignature than might be expected. This also tallied with what she felt was a high death rate among Shipman's patients. She took her concerns to the coroner for South Manchester and in turn the matter was brought to the attention of the police.
Their initial investigations failed to turn up sufficient evidence to bring charges and on 17th April 1998, the officers dropped the case. Later, the Shipman Enquiry would find that the officers assigned to the case were too inexperienced for such a subtle and technical case. Between the case being dropped and the 24th June, Shipman killed his final 3 victims - the last one of whom finally undid him.
Perhaps driven by greed, or aware of police attention, Shipman killed Kathleen Grundy at her home and signed her death certificate - recording her cause of death as "old age." Not only that, but he forged a will in her name, leaving her estate to him rather than her children. Whether he was intending to flee the country or was subconsciously wanting to be captured, the forged will quickly brought the police back to his door. Grundy's daughter brought the matter to the police's attention and this time more attention was paid to the hitherto unremarkable doctor.
Grundy's body was exhumed and found to contain traces of diamorphine - essentially a form of heroin given as a form of painkiller to some patients in the terminal stages of cancer. In sufficient quantities, diamorphine can cause death in itself.
With this new evidence, police arrested Shipman on the 7th September 1998. In his possession was found the typewriter used to create the forged will. With so many death certificates having been signed by the doctor over the preceding decades, the police decided to prosecute him for a sample of 15 cases. In each case, he was found to have administered a lethal dose of diamorphine and then forged death certificates to exaggerate the ill health of his victims.
Imprisonment and Suicide
Shipman, described by most who met him as a colourless - even boring - figure took his own life in Wakefield Prison on the 13th January 2004.
"The banality of evil." Shipman was described as uncharismatic - and even boring - by those who investigated him or came to know him during his incarceration.
Harold Shipman - Serial Killer - Doctor Death
Channel 5 Documentary about Shipman
Further reading and recommended books
Killer Shipman 'murdered 250 patients' Killer GP Harold Shipman killed a total of about 250 patients over a 27-year period stretching back to 1971. The final report into his crimes examined his actions during his time training as a student doctor at Pontefract General Infirmary. [Daily Mail]