The case of Dr John Bodkin Adams is a contentious one due to the fact that the general practitioner was never actually found guilty of murder or professional negligence. However, years after his own death, conflicting views remain about whether Bodkin Adams was guilty of murder or euthanasia. To some he is regarded as a forerunner of the medical mass murderer Dr Harold Shipman, while others believe that he simply carried out mercy killings at a time when painkillers were the only way to alleviate terminal suffering. Dr John Bodkin Adams was a general practitioner in the elegant Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne. An Irish loner, he was seemingly unconcerned about benefiting from gifts and legacies from his elderly, rich patients. The middle-aged doctor was not known to be an outstanding practitioner, but he was recognised as being compassionate and considerate, particularly to his elderly patients who trusted him. There were, however, other aspects about his ‘modus operandi’ that caused concern, mainly his tendency to use dangerous drugs and, as some critics have described, a pathological interest in his patients’ wills.
21/1/1899: Dr John Bodkin Adams born in Eastbourne 13/11/1949: Mrs Edith Morrell dies, supposedly of natural causes 23/7/1956: Gertrude Hullett dies 1/10/1956: Dr Adams arrested under suspicion of causing deaths March 1957: Trial takes place 15/4/1957: Dr Adams acquitted 4/7/1983: Dr Adams dies in Eastbourne.
Adams’ trial took place in March 1957. Sir Frederick Geoffrey Lawrence QC, who acted as Adams' defence, made a point that the charge was based mainly on testimonies from the nurses who had tended Mrs. Morrell.It transpired that Mrs Morell had been cared for on a 24-hour basis by a team of four nurses. The nurses testified that it had been Dr Bodkin Adams’s practice to inject his patients with grossly excessive doses of pain-killing drugs such as morphine and heroin. Despite been deeply shocked and suspicious of this behaviour they felt that as nurses there was little could they do.The situation looked bleak for Dr Adams until Lawrence cross-examined the first of the nurses who had given such damning evidence. Lawrence managed to procure from her the fact that all injections given to Mrs Morrell had been carefully recorded in a notebook, together with details of her condition at all stages during her illness. This procedure was standard practice for any terminally ill patient.When Lawrence produced not just one but eight notebooks, overlooked by police investigations, they proved to contain every detail of Mrs Morell’s treatment for several years before her death. The nurses themselves had also written in them and during examination of the notes it was discovered that their memories failed to correlate with their verbal evidence in court.Could it have been the case that these nurses had allowed themselves to be influenced by malicious gossip circulating in the town?Also in Adams’ favour was the fact that only one of the prosecution's two expert medical witnesses was prepared to say that murder had been committed. Lawrence was also able to demonstrate that he was not a reliable witness.Dr. Adams' defence had managed to prevent him being forced to appear in the witness stand and as a result no evidence from Gertrude Hullett's case, including the testimony of a nurse, was allowed to be produced in court. This particular nurse, who had worked with Adams while attending Hullett in July 1956, had allegedly remarked to him: 'You do realise, doctor, that you have killed her?'On 15 April 1957, it took the jury only 45 minutes to find Adams not guilty.
Despite the not guilty verdict, the police still thought Adams was guilty, not just of two murders, but the deaths of many patients. The press appeared to share this opinion. A Fleet Street journalist at the time is known to have said that word on the street was that Adams had killed so many, and seemed so likely to kill so many more, that the police had been obliged to prosecute even though their case was ‘not quite ready’.After the trial Adams resigned from the National Health Service. He was later convicted that same year for forging prescriptions, and ordered to pay a fine of £2,200. As a result he was struck off the Medical Register. Despite the bad press he received he successfully sued several newspapers for libel.Adams spent his remaining days in Eastbourne, in spite of his tarnished reputation with some still believing that he had murdered at least eight people. Others, notably patients and friends, remained convinced of his innocence.In 1961, he was reinstated as a general practitioner. On 4 July 1983, Adams died aged eighty-four. At the time of his death, his fortune was £402,970. He had been receiving legacies until his death.
The Key Figures
Dr John Bodkin Adams Edith Morell (alleged victim) Gertrude Hullett (alleged victim) Francis Camps: pathologist Sir Frederick Geoffrey Lawrence QC: Dr Adams’ defence counsel
Edith Alice Morrell was a patient of Dr Adams who had been partially paralysed after suffering a stroke. Adams supplied her with a cocktail of heroin and morphine to ease her discomfort, insomnia and symptoms of ‘cerebral irritation’ that was a condition of her illness.During the period of her palliative treatment, Mrs Morrell made several wills in which Adams received money and items of furniture. But in other wills he was omitted.However, three months before Morrell’s death on 13 November 1949, she added a clause to her will stating that Adams was to receive nothing. Despite this clause Dr Adams, who maintained that Morrell had died from natural causes, still received a small amount of money, cutlery and a Rolls Royce.The second alleged victim of Dr Adams did not occur until seven years after Mrs Morrell had died. Gertrude Hullett was another patient of Dr Adams who fell ill and then into unconsciousness. Despite not even being dead, Dr Adams called a local pathologist, Francis Camps, to make an appointment for an autopsy. When Camps realised that Hullett was still alive he accused Adams of ‘extreme incompetence’.On 23 July 1956, Gertrude Hullett died and Adams recorded the cause of death as having been the result of a brain haemorrhage. An official investigation however, arrived at the conclusion that she had committed suicide. Camps argued that she had been poisoned with sleeping pills. Like Mrs Morrell before her, Hullett left several valuable items to Dr Adams including a Rolls Royce.Gossip surrounding Adams began circulating around the close-knit seaside community. Whether there was truth in the allegations that Adams was an ‘angel of death’ preying on vulnerable wealthy widows or was an ‘angel of mercy’ kindly alleviating suffering, was up for conjecture.It appears that the death of Hullett in 1956 precipitated a state of affairs that was to bring Adams to the attention of the authorities.
The gossip in the town finally led the police to investigate and they arrested Adams on suspicion of murder. The general rumours that swept the genteel seaside resort were that Adams’ bedside manner was to persuade a wealthy widow to write a will which left him money before administering a lethal concoction of drugs.Accusations and hearsay had reached such a peak that the local police had little choice but to undertake enquiries. At the same time the press got hold of the story and almost in a ‘trial by media’ manner helped reinforce the view that Adams was a GP with a sinister agenda. One headline ‘Inquiry into 400 wills’ no doubt helped fuel the view that Adams was a potential killer.The police investigated for several months during 1956. Then on 1 October of that year they confronted Dr Adams with their suspicions concerning the death of Mrs Morrell. In his defence Adams argued that his ill patient, suffering terribly from pain, wanted to die. He argued that it wasn’t a crime to ease the suffering of the terminally ill. But it was the legacies left in the patients wills that caused the police to remain suspicious over Adams' motivations.