He Earned the Nickname Dr. Death: The Story of Harold Shipman


Harold ShipmanPhoto byNikki Young/Canva

Harold “Fred” Shipman was an English doctor who is believed to be the most prolific serial killer in modern history. His unethical actions would earn him the nickname, Dr. Death, but what would compel a medical professional sworn to protect life to turn on his patients?

Who is Harold Ship?

Harold Shipman was born on January 14th, 1946 in Nottingham, England. He was the second born of three children to Harold Frederick Shipman, who worked as a truck driver, and Vera Britain. He was known as “Fred”, as his middle name was Frederick. They were definitely a middle-class working family. They made enough money to not have to struggle, but the father worked really hard to provide for the family.

In school, he did really well. He played rugby. He excelled as a distance runner and in his final year at school, he served as vice-captain of the athletics team. He was highly focused on his academics and high achievements, and he just didn’t have much time or desire to have friends.

It was said that Fred’s mother favoured him over his other two siblings, and this kind of left him with the feeling that he was better than other people. Because of this kind of attitude, he really did have difficulty making new friends as a child and there was a bit of tension between the siblings overall. He was just extremely close to his mom who had really high hopes for him. His sister had left home at 15 years old and his younger brother didn’t appear to be as bright as Fred, so she put much of her focus on Fred.

Unfortunately, when he was 17 years old, his mother passed away from terminal lung cancer. He actually spent a lot of time watching the doctor care for his mother, giving her morphine when she was in pain and seeing how it would calm and relax her as she struggled to live. It’s said that this is why he decided to go to medical school and become a doctor.

Before enrolling in medical school, on November 5th, 1966, Shipman married a young woman named Primrose. He was 19 years old at the time they were married, while she was only 17 and five months pregnant with their first child. They would go on to have four children altogether.

In 1970, he was admitted to Leeds University Medical School for training. Two years later, having failed his entrance exams the first time around, he took his first position as a general practitioner. And initially, he thrived as a family practitioner. Unfortunately, within the first year of his practice, he became addicted to the painkiller, Pethidine. He was caught forging prescriptions for large amounts of the drug and he was forced to leave the practice when one of his medical colleagues caught him in 1975.

This came with a small slap on the wrist. He entered a drug rehab program. He received a small fine and a conviction for forgery, but somehow he was still able to continue practicing medicine afterwards. In 1977, two years after he was caught prescribing himself drugs, he became a General Practitioner at Donnybrook Medical Centre and he worked there until 1993 when he established his own surgery practice.

Harold ShipmanPhoto byBiography

Overall, he seemed like he was well-liked by his colleagues. He was seen to be a very esteemed individual in the community. Things around the practice seemed normal, typical, and quiet. And while there may have been a whisper here and there regarding his past, nobody had any idea of what kind of horror was really happening.

Among those whispers was Debra Massey, who was the Director at the Frank Massey and Sons Funeral Parlor, and John Pollard, a local. They had noticed a high death rate among Shipman’s patients, particularly the number of elderly women who were being quickly cremated. In March of 1998, Linda Reynolds, another local General Practitioner, in conjunction with the funeral director and the coroner, brought the matter to the attention of the police. This would be referred to as a failed investigation.

It only took police about an hour to look into things and come back and say there was no evidence to back up their information and that they should be careful when saying such things about such a pillar of the community as Shipman. This was such a huge mistake on the part of the police and because nothing was done at this time, Shipman would carry on. In fact, he would go on to kill three more patients.

After this initial complaint, his final victim would be Kathleen Grundy — and her daughter, Angela Woodruff, was the one to put an end to it all. Kathleen was a wealthy 81-year-old widow who was found dead in her home on June 24th, 1998, following an earlier visit by Shipman. Of course, Shipman went on to say that an autopsy of Kathleen was not required, and so according to her wishes, she was buried.

However, Kathleen’s daughter, Angela, who was a lawyer, found a huge red flag that started the investigation. Again, it was Angela who was responsible for handling her mother’s affairs after her death. When she learned that there was a will created that left the bulk of her mother’s estate to Dr. Shipman and excluded her and her children, it was a huge cause for concern. He was her doctor, but the two were not close and there would be no reason for Dr. Shipman to be the beneficiary.

Upon closer review, the will appeared to be forged, and apparently, it was a terrible forgery. It was at this time, that Angela knew something more sinister was at play, and she believed that Shipman had potentially murdered her mother and forged a will. She contacted the police and after they spoke with a local undertaker, they heard all of the stories that had been already told (yet ignored) with regard to the high number of deaths amongst Shipman’s patients — and the high number of cremations.

Luckily, the body of Kathleen was not cremated yet and a post-mortem revealed that she had died of a morphine overdose administered within three hours of her death, precisely within the timeframe of Shipman’s visit to her.

Shipman argued that Kathleen was actually an 81-year-old morphine addict. He claimed to have evidence. He showed them comments he had written documenting her supposed drug use in his medical journal. However, an examination of his computer showed that they were written after her death. He also claimed that he had never seen Kathleen’s will, but in fact, his fingerprint was found on it. So as you can imagine, shit was about to hit the fan for sure.

His home was raided. The police took all of his medical records, an odd collection of jewelry that didn’t appear to be his and an old typewriter, which later proved to be used to forge the will. And what was his excuse? Kathleen had borrowed the typewriter and used it to write up her will — isn’t that convenient?

The police then investigated other deaths that Shipman had certified. They discovered a pattern of his administering lethal doses of morphine, signing patients' death certificates, falsifying medical records to indicate that they had been in poor health, then having them cremated immediately, if possible, to avoid detection.

Upon talking to families of former patients of Shipman, there were many of the same red flags. Although their family members were elderly, they did appear to be in good health when they died suddenly after seeing Dr. Shipman. But the community stood behind Dr. Shipman. He was a doctor for many people who lived there and they thought he was a respectable doctor who cared for them. Honestly, it kind of made me think of my own elderly family members and the love and trust that they have for their doctors.

These are some of the most vulnerable people in our world, and they often listen and go along with whatever the doctor is telling them because, in their eyes, the doctor knows what is best. It’s probable the very reason he chose to target the elderly specifically — because many people wouldn’t have noticed the red flags due to them being elderly and closer in age to dying naturally.

While many serial killers need to find creative ways to dispose of their bodies, he actually had the medical field dispose of the bodies for him. Think about it. They would come in, carry them out to the morgue, cremate them, bury them, and it mostly went unnoticed. It’s incredibly sad.

The way in which many of his victims were found is also really sad. Most of them were discovered by their family members. They were fully clothed sitting up in their chairs in their living rooms or sitting up on their bed as if they had just died suddenly. In the medical notes, Dr. Shipman would often claim that they had heart conditions that caused them to have heart attacks, but this wasn’t the case.

Dr. Shipman Goes to Trial

Following extensive investigations, which included numerous exhumations and autopsies, the police charged Shipman with 15 individual counts of murder, as well as one count of forgery. They suspected that there were so many more cases, but they only brought forward those that they were confident they had enough evidence to prove.

The prosecution asserted that Shipman had killed the 15 patients because he enjoyed playing God and having control over life and death. They dismissed any of his claims that he had been acting compassionately, as none of his victims were suffering a terminal illness.

And of course, Shipman consistently denied his guilt in court, disputing the scientific evidence against him. He never made any public statements about his actions. His wife, Primrose, steadfastly maintained her husband’s innocence even after he was convicted.

Thankfully the jury saw him for who he truly was. He was found to have a total lack of compassion, an absolute disregard for the wishes of relatives and reluctance to attempt to revive these patients. He would actually pretend to call the emergency services in front of the relatives, then cancel the call. When the patient was discovered to be dead, telephone records showed that no actual calls were made.

Harold ShipmanPhoto byTheFamousPeople.com

A jury unanimously found Shipman guilty on all charges — 15 counts of murder and one of forgery. On the afternoon of January 31st, 2000, the judge passed down 15 life sentences as well as a four-year sentence for forgery, which he commuted to a whole life sentence effectively removing any possibility of parole.

A clinical audit was conducted by a professor who examined the number and pattern of deaths in Shipman's practice and compared them with those of other practitioners. The audit went on to estimate that Shipman may have been responsible for the deaths of at least 236 patients over a 24-year period. In fact, he may have taken his first victim within months of obtaining his license to practice medicine.

The first victim was likely 67-year-old Margaret Thompson, who died in March 1971 while recovering from a stroke. Deaths prior to 1975, unfortunately, were never proven. Shipman remained in prison throughout these investigations, of course, maintaining his innocence the entire time and was staunchly defended by his wife, Primrose and his family.

Eventually, he was moved to Wakefield prison in June 2003 — and this would be his final resting place. On January 13th, 2004, Shipman was discovered hanging in his prison cell at Wakefield, having used bedsheets tied to the window bars of his cell. This happened on the eve of his 58th birthday, and while many celebrated, some of the victim's families said they felt cheated. They would never know the full extent of what he did or why he did that.

Shipman’s motive for suicide was never established, though he reportedly told his probation officer that he was considering suicide to assure his wife’s financial security. After he was stripped of his pension, Primrose received a full pension that she would have otherwise not received if he had lived past 60.

Shipman is the only doctor in the history of British medicine found guilty of murdering his patients. As of early 2009, families of over 200 of Shipman’s victims were still seeking compensation for the loss of their relatives.

The Shipman case brought about some big changes to standard medical procedures in Britain. Many doctors reported changes in their dispensing practices. Death certification practices were altered as well. The largest change was the movement from single-doctor general practice to multiple-doctor general practices to ensure more safeguarding and monitoring of doctors’ decisions.




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