The Deadly Doctor: The Poisonous Pattern That Gave Harold Shipman Away

It’s clear that the Hippocratic Oath meant nothing to Dr. Harold Shipman – he did not work for the well-being of patients and most certainly took the role of God when deciding their fate. This deadly doctor killed approximately 250 of his very own patients over a period of twenty-three years between 1975 and 1998.

Over this period of time, not only did patients return to Dr. Shipman but they also loved him to death (pun intended) until, of course, many of them ended up actually dead at his hands. The question remains, how did Dr. Death get away with his crimes for so many years? And, indeed, what finally gave him away after amassing a body count that should have, in theory, roused suspicion far sooner?

The man

As his mother’s favourite, Harold Shipman developed a sense of superiority over his peers and people in general from a young age. At aged seventeen, he watched his beloved mother pass away from terminal lung cancer. In her last days, he watched the sweet respite that the morphine administered to her would provide — something that would gain significance later in life.

Once he’d qualified as a doctor, he joined a medical practice in a small Yorkshire town. While sometimes described as rude and condescending by his colleagues, he was also hard-working and enthusiastic — the senior doctors loved him. However, the dream would end when they discovered that the young doctor was addicted to pethidine (a morphine-like painkiller) which he would prescribe for himself under his patients’ names.

A measly £600 pound fine was all Dr. Shipman had to pay for his forgery, fraud and drug offences.

His next job was at the Donneybrook Medical Center in the north of England. Here, he was able to carry out his role as a dedicated and diligent doctor. It was also here that he is suspected of starting his two decade long killing spree.


The monster

Dr. Shipman’s victims were generally older women who lived alone, and they all adored the “good” doctor. Oddly, when his victims were found, they usually were sitting upright in a chair, fully clothed.

Dr. Death’s modus operandi was to inject his patients with lethal doses of morphine. His use of this drug has always been considered strange as it widely known that this can be detected in the body centuries after death — did the doctor want to be found out?

What would come to light later in the investigations was that Dr. Shipman would alter the patient’s medical records to match the cause of death he had assigned them. He was always adamant that no further investigation was necessary, even when relatives raised questions. Quite suspiciously, he always tried to convince them to cremate their beloved’s remains.


The miss

A pattern was beginning to form, and it was this pattern that made a local funeral director feel uneasy. Alan Massey noted that not only were Dr. Shipman’s patients dying at an alarmingly high rate, but, as you might have already suspected, they were found in a bizarrely similar state. According to Massey:

“Anybody can die in a chair, but there’s no set pattern, and Dr. Shipman’s always seem to be the same, or very similar. Could be sat in a chair, could be laid on the settee, but I would say 90% was always fully clothed. There was never anything in the house that I saw that indicated the person had been ill. It just seems the person, where they were, had died. There was something that didn’t quite fit.”

However, after confronting Dr. Shipman, his worries were put to rest by the calmness with which the doctor answered his questions — even offering proof that there was nothing amiss.

However, Massey’s daughter, Debbie Brambroffe — also a funeral director — was not so readily appeased. She found an ally in Dr. Susan Booth who was also concerned about the high number of patients that died under Dr. Shipman. As a result, a covert operation was launched to investigate him — his records were thoroughly examined and soon enough, the doctor was cleared from suspicion.

What they did not know then was that the medical records has been forged.


The mistake

Dr. Harold Shipman’s morphine reign was to end after the death of his final victim — Kathleen Grundy. Her sudden death came as a shock to all as she was fit and active at the age of eighty one.

When concerned friends visited her home to check up on her after she failed to turn up at an event, they found her lying on a sofa, fully dressed, and dead. They immediately called Dr. Shipman who pronounced her dead.

The doctor told the daughter, Angela Woodruff, that a post-mortem was unnecessary because he had seen her shortly before her death.

Soon after her mother’s burial, Woodruff received a strange phone call from a solicitor claiming to have a copy of Grundy’s will. This is where it can be argued that Dr. Shipman’s arrogance and sense of invincibility got the better of him. The will was faked — this much was obvious. It was poorly typed and even more poorly written. A hefty £386,000 had also been left to Dr. Shipman. And, now comes the clincher, as a lawyer, Woodruff had done her mother’s will herself.

Grundy was convinced that Dr. Shipman had killed her mother and forger her will for financial gain.

Horrific in itself, what would be uncovered in the upcoming investigation would reveal a new level of horror.

Grundy’s body was exhumed and toxicological tests confirmed that a morphine overdose was the cause of death. The dose was administered three hours before she died, exactly when Dr. Shipman had paid her a visit.

A search of his house revealed even more incriminating evidence: a typewriter clearly used to forge the will and other documents, medical records and jewellry that didn’t belong to the doctor.

It was after this that the investigators that the scope of what Dr. Shipman had done went far beyond one death. In the end, he was convicted of the murders of just fifteen of his patients by lethal injection.


The motive

He is the only doctor in British history to be found guilty of murdering his patients. His motivation for doing so, however, remains unclear. What makes it even more challenging is the fact that Dr. Shipman professed his innocence until his suicide in 2004.

Some experts say that he hated older women, citing them as a drain on the health system — this is based on comments he is thought to have made. Another theory stands that he wanted to keep reliving his mother’s last days, in some sort of masochistic act.

There were no signs of violence, no sexual undercurrents and no financial motivation (save for the final victim). Perhaps we will never know what motivated Dr. Death to commit his crimes.

Your turn: Do you have a theory about what motivated Dr. Shipman? Have any other stories about deadly doctors you would like to share? Tell us in the comments!



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