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pages 97

John Bodkin Adams – a Killer Doctor  

The Trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams was David Holding’s sixth publication with Words Are Life/Scott Martin Productions, and the second in our Doctors of Death trilogy. 

The trilogy centres on the criminal trials of three English general medical practitioners who stood trial for murder during the 20th century. 

Dr John Bodkin Adams practised as a GP in Eastbourne from the 1920s to the 1950s, and was tried and acquitted for the murder of a patient in 1957. He was regarded by some as a serial killer, and provided the model which was later followed by the infamous Doctor Harold Shipman - the subject of our first volume ('The Last Temptation' by David Holding – book available on Amazon). 

Read about “one of the greatest murder trials of the century.” 

The author details the trial and looks into the legal principle of ‘double effect’ , inviting the reader to consider their own verdict based on all the evidence. The author’s legal experience and analytical thought processes are clearly in play throughout this fascinating book. 

Dr David Holding studied history at Manchester University before entering the teaching profession in the 1970s. He taught in both state and independent sectors. During this time, he continued historical research culminating in both a Master's degree and a Doctorate. Having previously studied law, David gained a Master of Law degree in Medical Law, which enabled him to transfer to teaching legal courses at university. Since retiring, David has concentrated his research and writing on various aspects of local history, legal trials, forensic science and medico-legal topics. 

Published by Words Are Life. Do support independent publishers! 

Review by Dr John Henry

In his Introduction, the author gives an excellent summary of the case against the doctor. Thus, from the beginning of the book, the reader can ‘attend’ the trial fully briefed. Holding then shows the progression of Dr Adams from a ‘hard working student to a position of some stature in Eastbourne society. Even without the drama of Bodkin Adams’ indictment, Holding’s description of Eastbourne from the 1920s to the 1950s is social history at its best. The reader is introduced to a small town, where in the 1920s doctors had some ‘standing’ in society. This was certainly the position attained by Adams, by the 1930s he was part of the upper set of wealthy and influential men. Holding balances this by showing that Adams did not ignore his panel patients long before the ‘welfare state’ came into being (working men paid into a fund created by Lloyd George in 1910, and were ‘panel patients). Having set the scene, Holding shows that the actions of the ‘kindly’, caring doctor were open to differing interpretations. Was he always acting in the best interests of his wealthier patients, or were there other motives? Was Dr Adams, a pillar of society, an avaricious GP, or a murderer? In posing these questions, David Holding takes the reader on a well-researched journey to a case that made legal history.


The Intrigue


"It’s a bit of intrigue as well. It’s a trial, but it’s really great because it sets what we call the double effect in law, where a doctor, as long as his purpose and his aim is to relieve suffering… and as a consequence the person dies… he hasn’t hastened it. So it’s not murder. His defence was fantastic. When you read it you’ll be spellbound… the Attorney General hadn’t mastered his brief and the Defence pulled a rabbit out of a hat. They were relying on the nurses’ memory of what happened… and they keep notes of everything they do. And suddenly they (the notes) had gone missing’. And this is where Harold MacMillan is involved as well. It’s really political…"

​“But what happened then, you see… the police had gathered the testimony from all these nurses… but the notes from the Defence Council contradicted what they’d said in the original statement. That proved the prosecution. But they’d lied. They said what the said to the police but those testimonies were false... the nurses went on like that for two days and it just collapsed… I think they’d been put under pressure by the Prosecution…"

About This Book


This work is the second of the Trilogy which centres of the criminal trials of three English general medical practitioners who stood trial for murder during the 20th century, the first in 1935 and the last in 1999. The subject of this particular work, Dr John Bodkin Adams, was an Irish doctor who practised as a GP in Eastbourne, Sussex from the early 1920s through to the late 1950s. He was tried and acquitted for the murder of one of his patients in 1957. However, he was regarded by some as a serial killer who, ironically, provided the model later followed by the infamous Dr Harold Shipman. Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients died under suspicious circumstances. The trial in 1957 was featured in headlines across the world, described at the time as “one of the greatest murder trials of the century”. The trial was also considered 'unique' in that the 'act of murder', had to be proved by expert medical evidence, there being no body available.

This trial had one important legal ramification in that it established the legal principle of “Double Effect”, whereby a doctor giving treatment with the aim of relieving pain and distress, may, as an unintentional result, shorten life, without being guilty of murder. This case and the inability of the prosecution to convict Adams was also known for suspected political interference from members of the Establishment. This work provides readers with intrigue, suspicion and courtroom drama, together with gossip and innuendo thrown in for good measure, all the ingredients of a classic murder story. This, and its accompanying works, approach the subject of murder in an innovative way. It begins with outlining the early background of the defendant, progressing to the criminal investigation, before finally culminating in the arrest, charge and trial itself. The author's intention in adopting this approach has been to involve readers from the outset rather than consider them to be mere 'passive' observers of an event. By the time the trial itself is reached, all the available evidence, including the trial transcript, is made available to the reader, to enable them to place themselves in the position of an actual member of the jury.


The work concludes by providing an overview of the relevant facts of the case before finally inviting the reader to consider their own verdict based on all the evidence. The overall aim of this, and the accompanying works, has been to allow readers to exercise their own judgement in both a practical and, hopefully, enjoyable way. By adopting this format, readers, and in particular, none-legal readers, will be able to appreciate the complexities inherent in both criminal investigations and criminal trials. It will also provide an overview into the often misunderstood and largely unseen working of the British Criminal Justice System.

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