Who was Harold Shipman? ‘Doctor Death’ who murdered 250 patients over 2 decades
When you think of serial killers, the image that comes to mind is of the creepy loner hatching plans in their bedroom while collecting a raft of dangerous weapons with which to inflict their horror.
But the UK’s most prolific serial killer was nothing of the sort – instead, the GP Harold Shipman, known after his crime spree as ‘Doctor Death’, was a respected married man with children who practised medicine right in the heart of his local community.
He was able to take the lives of up to 250 of his most vulnerable patients, who would have relied on his expert training and experience to make them feel better.
Instead, Shipman made them suffer – and he wasn’t caught for over two decades.
Who was Harold Shipman?
Shipman was a GP practising at the Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde, near Manchester, and later at his own practice, who became the first (and only) doctor in British history to be convicted of murdering his patients.
He was a drug addict who was caught forging his own prescriptions for pethidine in 1975 – but remarkably wasn’t struck off. Instead he was handed a £600 fine and briefly attended rehab.
Former West Yorkshire detective George McKeating, who was working on the drug squad in 1975, revealed how the ‘cocky’ GP thought he could outsmart the cops by admitting to his drug use and disappearing into rehab.
"He had a huge ego and got more confident and cocky the more we talked to him. I let him rave on," George told the Sun .
"He admitted the drugs were for his own use and made up some feeble excuse about being overworked. He had track marks up his arms.
"He was doing this stuff on a daily basis. So much so that the veins on his arms were collapsing and he had to find another place to inject — so he injected it into his penis."
Although his killing spree lasted more than 30 years, Shipman was only ever convicted in court of 15 murders and was handed a life sentence in 2000.
But a two-year public inquiry that looked into all of the deaths signed off by Doctor Death found Shipman had taken the lives of at least 218 more – and estimated his total body count was 250.
He would target elderly women and before murdering them would steal their jewellery. Some £10,000 worth of pinched pieces was discovered after his arrest stashed in his garage, and in 2005 – five years after he took his own life – his wife Primrose asked the police to return it all to her.
How did Harold Shipman murder his patients?
Shipman’s modus operandi was to inject patients with lethal doses of diamorphine, a prescribed painkiller that is twice as potent as morphine.
His victims would be injected with six times the normal amount of the drug and would stop breathing within minutes of it being administered.
Without a supply of oxygen, their brains would be starved and they would quickly die.
Shipman would then sign off their death certificates and pin the blame on ‘old age’ or a similar cause of death – and as the majority of his victims were elderly, his crimes went undetected for years.
How was Harold Shipman caught?
Dr Linda Reynolds raised the alarm in March 1998 when she became suspicious of her colleague’s elevated death rates, which didn’t tally with her own experience – especially in patients who didn’t seem unwell when they died.
Alarm bells rang when Shipman claimed his elderly patients would leave his door open during appointments – which turned out to be a lie.
Dr Reynolds sadly died of cancer weeks after Shipman’s conviction, but her husband told a 2005 inquiry that she had "agonised" over her decision to flag her concerns to the coroner.
"She passed comment on the fact that there seems to be a large number of forms to be signed, and certainly I think quite early on she just had a sort of feeling that he seemed to have a higher death rate compared to the one in her former practice," he revealed.
"I think it was almost a last minute decision on her part [to report her concerns]. I mean, I think she just…the burden of it became intolerable and that she had to do something. So she went into the surgery, took a deep breath, and did it."
Her brave action sparked the first probe into Shipman’s activities, which would fail thanks to inexperienced police officers. Three more patients would be killed between the initial investigation and his eventual arrest, conviction and death.
Shipman was found handed in his Wakefield Prison cell on January 13 2004, a day before his 58th birthday.
*Harold Shipman: Doctor Death airs Thursday April 26 at 9pm on ITV.
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