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Dr Death: Unbelievable facts about Harold Shipman's crimes

A doctor's case with a stethoscope hanging out of it
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He was a trusted and adored family GP, a man who had looked after thousands of patients and built a career that spanned decades. However, he was also one of the UK’s most prolific serial killers. A man who killed without motive and whose victim count could run into the hundreds.

These are some of the most unbelievable facts about Harold Shipman, the doctor and murderer whose prolific crimes earned him the moniker ‘Dr Death.’

His mother’s death may have influenced his homicidal impulses

Shipman’s mother, Vera, died of lung cancer in 1963 when she was only 43 and he was a teenager. Experts think that watching doctors administer pain-alleviating drugs like morphine to his mother was what influenced him in his future actions. He started medical school two years later.

He was a blackout addict

The full extent of Shipman’s crimes might not have been uncovered until the 1990s, but he faced conviction decades before. In the early 1970s, when he first started working as a GP, he was battling an addiction to painkillers so severe, that he had regular blackouts. His colleagues, who had seen him collapse several times, thought he was suffering from epilepsy.

During this time, he made out false prescriptions to himself so he could procure more of the drugs, forging the signatures of those who worked at a nursing home, so he was able to obtain more. He was so debilitated, his wife, Primrose, often had to drive him to house calls. He was fired from the surgery he was working at and given a hefty fine when his addiction was revealed, but he did not lose his medical licence. Instead, he went to rehab and was later able to continue his medical career.

His first crime might have remained undetected

In 2001, an inquiry was held into the deaths of many of Shipman’s patients to try to uncover the full scale of his crimes. One case was that of Edith Roberts, who died in 1975 when Shipman was deep in his addiction. While at the time her family were shocked by the 67-year-old’s death (seemingly, of cardiac arrest), they were reassured by how peaceful it had seemed: Roberts was found sitting in bed, her book still in her hands. However, after Shipman’s crimes came out, they questioned whether it was ‘too peaceful’, and she is now considered to be one of his victims.

His victims were not ill

Although Shipman claimed his victims suffered from underlying health issues, this was often untrue. His final victim, Kathleen Grundy—whose will he altered to leave everything to him—was otherwise healthy. Her sudden death shocked her daughter, Angela Woodruff, but Shipman managed to convince her no autopsy was needed. It was the altered will that led Woodruff to contact the police— and brought Shipman’s crimes to an end.

He changed his patients’ records

After killing his patients, Shipman went back into their records and altered them to show false pre-existing conditions that explained their sudden deaths. 73-year-old Winifred Mellor was given a fake history of heart disease, altered only minutes after she was murdered.

Edith Roberts’ family were shocked to hear that Shipman had altered her cremation certificate. He claimed that the family were aware of her heart condition and that the death was expected. However, none of this was true.

He killed with impunity

Shipman killed his victims in the same way: with a lethal injection of diamorphine. Many systemic failures within the medical profession meant he was able to get away with it. He ran his practice, without the oversight of partners. He was able to stash copious amounts of morphine, by overordering for terminally ill patients, which he would take after their deaths. He altered records to hide his crimes. And was able to get other doctors to co-sign cremation certificates that did not require them to view the body or talk to relatives—things that might have alerted them to Shipman’s crimes.

By abusing the system, he managed to hide decades of murder. Fundamental changes have since been made.

His victims included the young

While 80% of Shipman's victims were elderly women, this is not true of all of them. Peter Lewis was only 41 when he was murdered. However, Shipman’s youngest known victim was only a child: four-year-old Susie Garfitt, who he murdered while her mother was out of the room making a cup of tea.

He could have been stopped earlier

Local undertakers noticed that Shipman had an alarmingly high death rate of patients, as did a neighbouring GP practice, which recorded the deaths at almost 10 times that of their patients. There was also the fact that many of his patients’ deaths seemed to share similarities: they often happened in the middle of the afternoon, while they were at home alone, often with the patients sitting up, in a chair or bed, fully clothed. He was reported to the local coroner, who alerted the Greater Manchester police.

Taxi driver John Shaw also alerted the police, after noticing the healthy women he drove to Shipman’s surgery then later died. But the investigation was handled badly.

Neither Shipman nor his patients’ relatives, were contacted and even basic checks, like determining if he had a criminal record, were not carried out. No one realised Shipman had a history of forging documents so the medical records he had altered failed to draw attention. Three more patients died at his hands before he was finally caught.

His motive remains unclear

Was it all a response to the early trauma of his mother’s death? Was he tending to the elderly in a bid to relieve the pressure on the NHS? Was the ability to play God with his patients’ lives too intoxicating? Was he addicted to murder? Decades after Shipman’s crimes were uncovered, we still do not know why he did it.