Blog by David Holding, author of Doctors in the Dock and The Last Temptation.
Harold Shipman was an English doctor who killed an estimated 250 patients while working as a junior hospital doctor in the 1970s and later as a general practitioner until 1998. Whatever the complexity of his actual motives, when Shipman administered massive doses of diamorphine, he clearly intended to cause harm. Reviewing all the surviving material makes it possible to outline the key events in Shipman’s medical career, to estimate the total number of patients he killed. One fact that is clear is that he began killing patients early in his career and continued until his eventual arrest in 1998.
The first of his killings occurred in 1972 while he was a junior hospital doctor. By 1974, he had become a partner at a GP practice in Todmorden in West Yorkshire. Then by 1976, it was concluded that he had killed one patient and was suspected of a further six killings. A detailed investigation into the deaths of these patients was undertaken by the Shipman Inquiry which followed his trial. In 1977, Shipman took up another GP practice in Hyde, Greater Manchester. It was during 1978 that he killed at least four more patients, and was suspected of a further five killings. From 1978 until he left the practice in 1992, he continued in his killings spree, totalling at least a further 71. Then in 1992, he moved into a single-handed GP practice, again in Hyde. Here he was able to accelerate the rate of killing so that by 1997, he was killing at a rate of one patient every ten days.
It was estimated that by March 1998, Shipman had murdered more than 240 people, his last killing in June of that year, prior to eventual arrest in September 1998. While a hospital doctor, Shipman appears initially to have killed patients ‘occasionally and opportunistically’. However, as a GP he found that he could murder relatively freely and effortlessly. He could obtain supplies of diamorphine easily and also gain access to his patient’s homes by ‘self-invitation’.
The Shipman Inquiry revealed how all or most health service and civil systems monitoring a doctor’s activities during the period of Shipman’s work, were totally inadequate and failed dramatically in Shipman’s case. It was these system failures that allowed murder in the same way, by the same means, and by the same man, to become repeated and established over a period of some 26 years. Sadly, it took the deaths of 250 patients to bring about a long-needed reform of these systems of regulation and monitoring to ensure patients' safety.