The Cautionary Tale of Dr. Shipman

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Cautionary Tale of Dr. Shipman


Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review


THE rogue doctor, the Hippocratic saviour turned hypocritic slayer, is a mercifully rare medical phenomenon in this country. Of doctors who commit murder within the context and confines of their private lives, and for personal reasons, there has never been any shortage, uxoricides mostly, from Dr. Pritchard (Glasgow, 1865) through Dr. Crippen (1910) to Dr. Ruxton (1936) and Dr. Clements (1947).

To bring the matter closer in time, there was in the mid-1980s the case of the consultant surgeon whose invalid wife stood in the way of his preferential alliance with a distinctly more glamorous partner, and who conceived a plan to eliminate his wife with the help of a drug difficult, if not impossible, to detect. Doubtless he would have succeeded, had not chance intervened to expose his fell design. And in the late 1990s, a consultant obstetrician at a London teaching hospital bludgeoned his wife, who, although it was by no means certain that he knew it, was involved in an extra-marital dalliance. Relations had otherwise, it seems, become somewhat strained because of the husband's unreasonable parsimony.

Fortunately the practitioner who practises the killing skill within his healing art practice is a scarce patient risk. The series of recently exhumed patients murdered by their apparently caring general practitioner, Dr. Harold Frederick Shipman, at Hyde, Cheshire, raises the worrying question as to how we are able to safeguard ourselves from Dr. Cain; for what distinguishes Shipman's case is that his victims were individuals emotionally remote, albeit in the doctor-patient relationship, but scarcely, at least within the parameters of normalcy, presenting any powerful motivation to such excessive action, or reaction.

Shipman was convicted - on January 31st, 2000 - of the murder of 15 of his women patients, their ages ranging from 49 to 81 years. The police had actually prepared files on a further 23 deaths which they believed attributable to his ministrations, and it was felt that the final tally could be in excess of 140. The coroner, John Pollard, speculated that in the course of his thirty-year practice of medicine Shipman could well have despatched a thousand people. He was sentenced at Preston Crown Court to serve fifteen concurrent life sentences.

The facts which emerged from the investigation of Shipman and his background fail to supply any really satisfactory answer to the overwhelming question.

Born into a highly respectable but working class Nottingham family, encouraged by his parents, especially his much-beloved mother, he succeeded by conscientious plodding rather than any native brilliance in gaining a scholarship to a grammar school and making it on to Leeds University Medical School, where, again, he had to work very hard to pass his exams. As further handicap, while still a student he married a working class girl, who, aged seventeen, was already five months pregnant with their first child.

A severe early trauma was when, in 1963 at the age of seventeen, he lost his mother. She was only forty-three, and died after a long drawn-out battle with lung cancer. Her only relief from pain had been provided by the constant injection of morphine, the drug which he was later to inject to kill.

A subsequent trauma was when, fully qualified and working as GP in a medical practice at Todmordon, Yorkshire, he was found to have falsified more than 70 prescriptions in order to feed a pethidine addiction which he had developed. Such addictions are far from uncommon among doctors and he was treated with a leniency of understanding at the Halifax Magistrates' Court. Having, not very fairly, blamed his addiction on depression caused by bad relations with other doctors in the practice, he was fined [pounds]600, and underwent two years of psychiatric rehabilitation.

The next milestone in his rather dubious career was when, in 1992, after working for 15 years with the Donneybrook Medical Centre group practice, at Hyde, where, incidentally, he was regarded as a bit of a Dr. …

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