The name Harold Frederick Shipman may not ring a bell, but his nickname certainly gives you a hint as to why he has gone down in history. Harold Frederick Shipman is better known as Dr. Death. Dr. Death has been the inspiration for serial killers in television shows, movies, and other stories about a trusted doctor who wields his power against vulnerable citizens, playing God and ending their lives. The true story of Dr. Death is just as haunting, if not more so, than any doctor in a drama. He is one of the United Kingdom’s most prolific serial killers - and his victim count may have reached over 200 people in over 20 years.
The Life of Harold Shipman
January 16, 1946 in England. His father, also named Harold, gave Shipman the nickname of “Fred.” The nickname stuck through his early life. He lived in a middle-class neighborhood, although his mother was desperate to get out into “higher” society. There are not many signs that point to his later reputation as a prolific serial killer - he was an aggressive athlete, but he didn’t have a habit of harming animals or wetting the bed like other serial killers.
One traumatic incident that may have shaped Shipman’s life was the death of his mother. After she was diagnosed with cancer, Shipman was her caretaker. He carefully observed as doctors gave her painkillers and other treatments to ease her symptoms and pain. She died in 1963, when Shipman was only 17 years old. The memories of her treatments clearly stuck with Shipman throughout his later life - although where Shipman’s mother found relief from morphine and other painkillers, Shipman’s victims found the end of their lives.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Harold Shipman graduated from grammar school and pursued an education in medicine. At Leeds University, Shipman met his future wife, Primrose. The couple would go onto having four children, with the first being conceived before the couple was even married.
In college, Shipman also started to dabble in various controlled substances. He even injected himself with morphine to see what his mother went through during her cancer treatments. With access to various opiate treatments through his medical study, Shipman’s curiosity turned into addiction. He moved from morphine to Demerol, and this addiction lasted as he started his career in medicine. Shipman would frequently prescribe the drug to his patients, but keep some for himself when the medicine was delivered. If patients, colleagues, or members of society suspected Shipman’s addiction, they didn’t really show it - Shipman had a great reputation in the early days of his career. Ironically, he was known to save many lives.
This reputation encouraged many people to trust Shipman for various ailments and health issues. Even if he was slightly “experimenting” with opiate or amphetamine prescriptions, they put their faith in the doctor and tried them out. This was going so well for so long that it’s hard to tell whether Shipman’s first victim was actually a victim, or just a case of a failed experiment. It’s also hard to tell whether or not Shipman himself would have considered this case to be a “murder.” Whether Shipman’s first murder was in 1971 or 1994, we may never know. What we do know is that over 450 people died while under the care of Shipman. Due to his prestige and trustworthy reputation in the field, he wasn’t caught until 1998.
During his time at his first practice, Shipman was having health issues of his own. He was depressed, and allegedly not happy to be a junior practitioner for so many years when he was so well-liked and esteemed by his colleagues and patients. He may have still been dealing with grief - it had been 10 years since his mother’s passing. Around that time, his addiction to painkillers produced some long-term effects, including blackouts. Doctors diagnosed him with epilepsy, not knowing the drugs that he was taking in secret. The secret to his health issues was revealed only after employees at the practice where Shipman worked started noticing strange trends in how drugs were prescribed to patients.
Demerol, also known as pethidine, was not a commonly prescribed painkiller. Doctors may recommend it during childbirth, but not for weight loss or other everyday uses. With all of these odd prescriptions tied back to Shipman, he was caught in 1975. Shipman was released from his practice and fined £600. Once that was paid off, however, he got a new job as a general practitioner at the Donneybrook Medical Centre and continued on with his career. He was only out of work for less than two years. Had he already committed medical murder by that time? We’re not sure. But we do know that if Shipman’s killings didn’t start before his time at Donneybrook, they started at Donneybrook.
Who Did He Kill?
We know that Shipman’s victims were largely elderly people. While they may have been in perfect health at the time of Shipman’s home visits, many would die within minutes of Shipman leaving their home.
Many of his victims may have been patients at the Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde, England. Shipman worked there for over 15 years, eventually opening his own practice in 1993. It is here where he conducted the murders for which he’d be convicted later. But let’s look at some of the alleged victims that Shipman may have murdered in the late 1970s and 1980s:
- 80-year-old Rose Ann Adshead received a visit from Dr. Shipman in 1988 as she was in the late stages of terminal cancer. She died an hour after he left.
- 70-year old Winifred Arrowsmith received a routine visit from Dr. Shipman in 1984. She died shortly after while in her home.
- 80-year-old Ethel Bennett called Dr. Shipman because she had a wheezy chest in 1988. By the end of the day, she was dead.
- 74-year old May Brookes called Dr. Shipman in 1985 to take a look at her hip - she had arthritis. She was dead by the end of the day.
- 75-year-old Annie Coulthard received an injection from Dr. Shipman in 1981 and died within the hour.
The list goes on and on. None of these deaths were investigated, although there are periods when Shipman may have believed that he was going to get caught and held back from killing his patients. But like many serial killers, the urge to kill people may have been an “addiction” of sorts, not unlike Shipman’s addiction to painkillers.
In 1992, Shipman started his own practice. Leaving Donneybrook was Shipman’s choice, and he took over 200 of his previous practices’ patients with him. His colleagues didn’t take too kindly to this, but his patients absolutely adored him. Shipman was arrogant, and the love of his patients and validation he had received from news media certainly didn’t deflate his ego. Shipman believed he was the best doctor in England.
While establishing his own practice, Shipman worked overtime and charmed all of his patients - until he killed them, of course. The families of victims knew that their loved ones had enjoyed visits with their doctor, but they also knew that his demeanor was not so warm and friendly after the patient was already dead. Shipman even told the family of one victim, “Well, I don't believe in keeping them going." If he wasn’t making strange comments like that, he would be asking for their items. Shipman allegedly asked the family members of victims if he could keep the victims’ prized possessions, or even their pets. His requests were often denied.
In addition to working overtime, Shipman also murdered overtime while he had his own practice. Estimates suggest that he killed over 140 patients between the time he started his own practice and the time that he was convicted.
How Did He Get Caught?
Occasionally, doctors in nearby practices would raise their eyebrows at how often Shipman was in the homes with patients who quickly perished. But this reputation and arrogance always blocked these colleagues from investigating the matter further. That is, until the death of Shipman’s last victim, Kathleen Grundy. Grundy was killed in June 1998 - just two months after a short investigation into his practice had been closed.
Grundy was 81 years old and a patient of Shipman’s. She was the former mayor of the town, rich, and very popular. But that didn’t stop Shipman from plotting to kill her. In 1998, he called Grundy in to do some bloodwork and sign some paperwork. Little did Grundy know, the paperwork she was signing was actually a forged will. The will gave her estate, an amount of over £350,000, to Shipman.
Grundy died on June 24, 1998. On her death certificate, Shipman had listed that she died of natural causes. This was odd, especially because she was dressed up to go out on the town for lunch when she died. Leaving your entire estate to your doctor, rather than your children or spouse, is also odd. But there was more to this story that raised eyebrows. In Shipman’s records, he noted multiple instances in the past year or two where he visited Grundy and believed she had a drug addiction. No one who knew Grundy had suspected that she had ever abused drugs - and their feelings were validated when it was discovered that Shipman had made these entries on the day after her death. Why was he just making notes then about a drug problem that allegedly had persisted for years prior?
All of this came to a head when it was discovered that Grundy’s new will and a correspondence sent to a ward who was not familiar with Grundy regarding the new will were both written on the same typewriter. Was this all a forgery, or a forgery and a murder? Investigators would find out the answer in August 1998, after Grundy’s daughter came to the local police with her suspicions. An autopsy showed that Kathleen Grundy was given a lethal dose of diamorphine.
Perhaps hesitantly, police saw the results of the autopsy and began to investigate Shipman. Quickly, they found that Shipman owned the same typewriter that was used to forge the will and note to the ward. Accusations and evidence snowballed from there, as investigators found that many death certificates didn’t match medical records or what Shipman had told regarding certain victims.
On September 7, 1998, Harold Shipman was arrested and sent to jail. He never confessed to any of his killings, even throughout his trial. Shipman was charged with 15 counts of murder for the administering of a lethal dose of diamorphine. After being found guilty in 2000, Shipman became the first British doctor in history to be found guilty of murdering his patients.
Four years later, Shipman hung himself in his jail cell. He never confessed.
Why Did He Kill?
Since Shipman has passed away and he never admitted to any serial killings, we may never know exactly how many people he killed. It was not easy for investigators to determine who was killed by Shipman and who couldn’t be saved. They looked at a few factors: the health of the patient at the time of the visit, the timing between the patient’s death and Shipman’s visit, and also the way that the patient was positioned at the time of their death. A lot of victims were oddly sitting up when they were discovered to be dead.
Why did he kill? There isn’t just one reason. One could easily say that Shipman’s “experiments” had gone awry, and in trying to relieve his victims’ pain (much like a doctor did to his mother so many years ago) he sent them over the edge. Others might simply claim that he was a madman. His addiction to drugs may also have played a role in his killings. Even though this information could help psychologists and mental health professionals understand the motivation behind serial killings, we will just never know.
What we do know is that Harold Shipman’s story is haunting, and one that will continue to live on through movies and television shows that he inspired.