Harold Shipman

Harold Shipman

Harold Shipman

Harold Shipman
Background information
Birth name: Harold Frederick Shipman
Born: 14 January 1946(1946-01-14)
Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England
Died: 13 January 2004 (aged 57)
HM Prison Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England
Cause of death: Suicide By Hanging
Number of victims: 250+
Span of killings: 1975–1998
Country: England, United Kingdom
Date apprehended: 7 September 1998

Harold Frederick “Fred” Shipman[1] (14 January 1946 – 13 January 2004) was a British convicted serial killer and former doctor. He is one of the most prolific known serial killers in history with 218 murders being positively ascribed to him, although the real number may be twice that.

On 31 January 2000, a jury found Shipman guilty of 15 murders. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and the judge recommended that he never be released. The whole life tariff was confirmed by the Home Secretary a little over two years later.

After his trial, the Shipman Inquiry, chaired by Dame Janet Smith, decided there was enough evidence to suggest Shipman had probably killed about 250 people, of whom 218 could be positively identified. About 80% of his victims were women. His youngest victim was Peter Lewis , a 41-year-old man.[2] Much of Britain’s legal structure concerning health care and medicine was reviewed and modified as a direct and indirect result of Shipman’s crimes, especially after the findings of the Shipman Inquiry, which began on 1 September 2000 and lasted almost two years. Shipman is the only British doctor found guilty of murdering his patients.[3]

Shipman died on 13 January 2004, after hanging himself in his cell at Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire.


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Early life and career

Shipman was born in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, the son of Vera and Harold Shipman, who was a council lorry driver.[4] His working class parents were secular Jews [4] Shipman was particularly close to his mother, who died during his teenage years.[4][5] Shipman graduated from Leeds School of Medicine in 1970, and started work at Pontefract General Infirmary in Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire. In 1974, he took his first position as a general practitioner (GP) in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. In 1975 he was caught forging prescriptions of pethidine for his own use. He was fined £600, and briefly attended a drug rehabilitation clinic in York. After a brief spell as medical officer for Hatfield College, Durham, and temporary work for the National Coal Board, he became a GP at the Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde, Cheshire, in 1977.

Shipman continued working as a GP in Hyde throughout the 1980s and founded his own surgery on Market Street in 1993, becoming a respected member of the community. In 1983, he was interviewed on the Granada television documentary World in Action on how the mentally ill should be treated in the community.[6]


In March 1998, Dr. Linda Reynolds of the Brooke Surgery in Hyde—prompted by Deborah Massey from Frank Massey and Son’s funeral parlour—expressed concerns to John Pollard, the coroner for the South Manchester District, about the high death rate among Shipman’s patients. In particular, she was concerned about the large number of cremation forms for elderly women that he had needed countersigned. She claimed Shipman was, either through negligence or intent, killing his patients.

The matter was brought to the attention of the police, who were unable to find sufficient evidence to bring charges; The Shipman Inquiry later blamed the police for assigning inexperienced officers to the case. Between 17 April 1998, when the police abandoned the investigation, and Shipman’s eventual arrest, he killed three more people.[7][8] His last victim was Kathleen Grundy, a former Mayor of Hyde, who was found dead at her home on 24 June 1998. Shipman was the last person to see her alive, and later signed her death certificate, recording “old age” as cause of death.

Grundy’s daughter, lawyer Angela Woodruff,
became concerned when solicitor Brian Burgess informed her that a will had been made, apparently by her mother (although there were doubts about its authenticity). The will excluded her and her children, but left £386,000 to Shipman. Burgess told Woodruff to report it, and went to the police, who began an investigation. Grundy’s body was exhumed, and when examined found to contain traces of diamorphine (heroin), often used for pain control in terminal cancer patients. Shipman was arrested on 7 September 1998, and was found to own a typewriter of the type used to make the forged will.[9]

The police then investigated other deaths Shipman had certified, and created a list of 15 specimen cases to investigate. They discovered a pattern of his administering lethal overdoses of diamorphine, signing patients’ death certificates, and then forging medical records indicating they had been in poor health.[10]

Prescription For Murder, a book by journalist Brian Masters, reports two theories on why Shipman forged the will. One is that he wanted to be caught because his life had got out of control, the other that he planned to retire at fifty-five and leave the country.

Trial and imprisonment

Shipman’s trial, presided over by Mr Justice Forbes, began on 5 October 1999. Shipman was charged with the murders of Marie West, Irene Turner, Lizzie Adams, Jean Lilley, Ivy Lomas, Muriel Grimshaw, Marie Quinn, Kathleen Wagstaff, Bianka Pomfret, Norah Nuttall, Pamela Hillier, Maureen Ward, Winifred Mellor, Joan Melia, and Kathleen Grundy, all of whom had died between 1995 and 1998.

On 31 January 2000, after six days of deliberation, the jury found Shipman guilty of killing 15 patients by lethal injections of diamorphine, and forging the will of Kathleen Grundy. The trial judge sentenced him to 15 consecutive life sentences and recommended that he never be released. Shipman also received four years for forging the will. Two years later, Home Secretary David Blunkett confirmed the judge’s recommendation that Shipman never be released, just months before British government ministers lost their power to set minimum terms for prisoners.

In February 2002, the General Medical Council formally struck Shipman off their register.

Shipman consistently denied his guilt, disputing the scientific evidence against him. He never made any statements about his actions. His defence tried, but failed, to have the count of murder of Mrs Grundy, where a clear motive was alleged, tried separately from the others, where no obvious motive was apparent.

Although many other cases could have been brought to court, the authorities concluded it would be hard to have a fair trial, in view of the enormous publicity surrounding the original trial. Also, given the sentences from the first trial, a further trial was unnecessary. The Shipman Inquiry concluded Shipman was probably responsible for about 250 deaths.[11] The Shipman Inquiry also suggested that he liked to use drugs recreationally.[12]

Despite the prosecutions of Dr John Bodkin Adams in 1957, Dr Leonard Arthur in 1981, and Dr Thomas Lodwig in 1990 (amongst others),[13] Shipman is the only doctor in British legal history to be found guilty of killing patients.[14] According to historian Pamela Cullen, Adams had also been a serial killer—potentially killing up to 165 of his patients between 1946 and 1956—but as he “was found not guilty, there was no impetus to examine the flaws in the system until the Shipman case. Had these issues been addressed earlier, it might have been more difficult for Shipman to commit his crimes.”[15] H. G. Kinnell, writing in the British Medical Journal, also speculates that Adams “possibly provided the role model for Shipman”.[16]


Shipman committed suicide by hanging in his cell at Wakefield Prison at 6:20 am on 13 January 2004, on the eve of his 58th birthday, and was pronounced dead at 8:10 am. A Prison Service statement indicated that Shipman had hung himself from the window bars of his cell using bed sheets.[17] Some British tabloids expressed joy at his suicide and encouraged other serial killers to follow his example; The Sun ran a celebratory front page headline, “Ship Ship hooray!”[18]

Some of the victims’ families, however, said they felt cheated,[19] as his suicide meant they would never have the satisfaction of Shipman’s confession, and answers as to why he committed his crimes. The then Home Secretary David Blunkett noted that celebration was tempting, saying: “You wake up and you receive a call telling you Shipman has topped himself and you think, is it too early to open a bottle? And then you discover that everybody’s very upset that he’s done it.”[20]

Shipman’s motive for suicide was never established, although he had reportedly told his probation officer that he was considering suicide so that his widow could receive a National Health Service (NHS) pension and lump sum, even though he had been stripped of his own pension.[21] His wife received a full NHS pension, which she would not have been entitled to if he had died after the age of 60.[22] FBI “profiler” John Douglas asserted that serial killers are usually obsessed with manipulation and control, and killing themselves in police custody, or committing “suicide by cop”, can be a final act of control.[23]

Shortly after Shipman’s death, Sir David Ramsbotham wrote an article in The Guardian newspaper, urging that whole life sentencing be replaced by indefinite sentencing. He said indefinite sentences would be better than whole life sentences because, while a prisoner might still never be released, they would always have the hope that they might.[24]


In January 2001, Chris Gregg, a senior West Yorkshire detective was selected to lead an investigation into 22 of the West Yorkshire deaths.[25] Following this a report into Shipman’s activities submitted in July 2002 concluded that he had killed at least 215 of his patients between 1975 and 1998, during which time he practiced in Todmorden, West Y
orkshire (1974–1975) and Hyde, Greater Manchester (1977–1998). Dame Janet Smith, the judge who submitted the report, admitted that many more suspicious deaths could not be definitively ascribed to him. Most of his victims were elderly women in good health.

In her sixth and final report, issued on 24 January 2005, Smith reported that she believed that Shipman had killed three patients, and she had serious suspicions about four further deaths, including that of a four-year-old girl, during the early stage of his medical career at Pontefract General Hospital, West Riding, Yorkshire. Smith concluded the probable number of Shipman’s victims between 1971 and 1998 was 250. In total, 459 people died while under his care, but it is uncertain how many of those were Shipman’s victims, as he was often the only doctor to certify a death.[26]

The Shipman Inquiry also recommended changes to the structure of the General Medical Council.[27]

The General Medical Council charged six doctors who signed cremation forms for Shipman’s victims with misconduct, claiming they should have noticed the pattern between Shipman’s home visits and his patients’ deaths. All these doctors were found not guilty. Shipman’s widow, Primrose Shipman, was called to give evidence about two of the deaths during the inquiry. She maintained her husband’s innocence both before and after the prosecution.

In October 2005, a similar hearing was held against two doctors who worked at Tameside General Hospital in 1994, who failed to detect that Shipman deliberately administered a “grossly excessive” dose of morphine.[28][29]

A 2005 inquiry into Shipman’s suicide found that it “could not have been predicted or prevented,” but that procedures should nonetheless be re-examined.[22]

In 2005, it came to light that Shipman might have stolen jewellery from his victims. Over £10,000 worth of jewellery had been found in his garage in 1998, and in March 2005, with Primrose Shipman pressing for it to be returned to her, police wrote to the families of Shipman’s victims asking them to identify the jewellery.[30][31]

Unidentified items were handed to the Assets Recovery Agency in May.[32] In August the investigation ended: 66 pieces were returned to Primrose Shipman and 33 pieces, which she confirmed were not hers, were auctioned. The proceeds of the auction went to Tameside Victim Support.[33][34] The only piece actually returned to a murdered patient’s family was a platinum-diamond ring, for which the family were able to provide a photograph as proof of ownership.

A memorial garden to Shipman’s victims, called the Garden of Tranquillity, opened in Hyde Park (Hyde) on 30 July 2005.[35]

Harold and Fred (They Make Ladies Dead) was a 2001 strip cartoon in Viz, also featuring serial killer Fred West. Extracts from the strip were subsequently merchandised as a coffee mug.

Shipman, a television dramatisation of the case, was made in 2002 and starred James Bolam in the title role.[36] The case was also referenced in an episode of the television series Diagnosis: Unknown called “Deadly Medicine” (Season 2, Episode 17, 2003).[37] Shipman’s activities also inspired D.A.W., an episode of the American TV series Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In it, the police investigate a physician who they discover has killed 200 of his patients.[38]

Both The Fall and Jonathan King have released songs about Shipman. The Fall’s song is, “What About Us?”, from the 2005 album Fall Heads Roll, asks the question “what about us, Shipman?”—implying Shipman should have handed out free drugs to the author (for recreational use).

King’s song became controversial when, six months after its release, it was reported to be in Shipman’s defence, urging listeners not to “fall for a media demon”.[39]

As of early 2009, families of the victims of Shipman are still attempting to seek compensation for the loss of their loved ones.[40]

In September 2009, it was announced that letters written by Shipman during his prison sentence were to be sold at auction.[41] However, following complaints from victim’s relatives and the media, the letters were removed from sale.

See also

  • John Bodkin Adams
  • Most prolific murderers by number of victims
  • Michael Swango — American surgeon and serial killer
  • Shipman (television film)


  1. ^ Harold Shipman: The killer doctor BBC News, 13 January 2004
  2. ^ The Shipman Inquiry
  3. ^ The Case of Dr. John Bodkin Adams
  4. ^ a b c Kaplan, Robert M. (2009). Medical Murder: Disturbing Cases of Doctors Who Kill. Allen & Unwin. pp. 59–60. ISBN1741756103. 
  5. ^ Herbert, Ian (2004-01-14). “How a humble GP perverted his medical skill to become Britain’s most prolific mass killer. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/how-a-humble-gp-perverted-his-medical-skill-to-become-britains-most-prolific-mass-killer-573066.html. Retrieved 2009-09-02. 
  6. ^ http://www.tamesideadvertiser.co.uk/news/shipman/uncovering/
  7. ^ Second Report – The Police Investigation of March 1998 (Cm 5853). The Shipman Inquiry. 14 July 2003. http://www.the-shipman-inquiry.org.uk/secondreport.asp. 
  8. ^ Shipman inquiry criticises police“. BBC News. 14 July 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/3064231.stm. 
  9. ^ The Shipman tapes I“. BBC News. 2000-01-31. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/uk/2000/the_shipman_murders/the_shipman_files/613286.stm. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  10. ^ UK Doctor ‘forged victim’s medical history’“. BBC News. 1999-11-08. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/510002.stm. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  11. ^ The Shipman Inquiry — Sixth Report — Conclusions
  12. ^ Shipman’s ‘reckless’ experiments“. BBC News. 27 January 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4212627.stm. 
  13. ^ Killing the Willing … And Others! Legal Aspects of Euthanasia and Related Topics
  14. ^ Strangerinblood.co.uk Dr Nigel Cox was convicted of attempted murder in 1992, in the death of Lillian Boyes.
  15. ^ Strangerinblood.co.uk
  16. ^ Kinnell HG (2000). “Serial homicide by doctors: Shipman in perspective“. BMJ 321 (7276): 1594–7. PMID 11124192. PMC 1119267. http://bmj.com/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=11124192. 
  17. ^ Harold Shipman found dead in cell“. BBC. 13 January 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3391871.stm. 
  18. ^ Ship Ship hooray!“. The Sun. 14 January 2004. http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2-2004021004,00.html. 
  19. ^ No mourning from Shipman families“. BBC News. 13 January 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/3392135.stm. 
  20. ^ Blunkett admits Shipman error“. BBC News. 16 January 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3404041.stm. 
  21. ^ Shipman leaves his wife £24,000“. BBC News. 8 April 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/3611019.stm. 
  22. ^ a b Shipman suicide ‘not preventable’“. BBC News. 2005-08-25. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4182730.stm. 
  23. ^ Douglas, John. Anatomy of a Motive
  24. ^ How do you protect the living dead?“. The Guardian. 14 January 2004. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1122572,00.html. 
  25. ^ How many more did Shipman kill?“. The Independent. 9 October 2001. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/how-many-more-did-shipman-kill-630689.html. Retrieved 19 September 2009. 
  26. ^ Shipman ‘killed early in career’“. BBC News. 27 January 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4210581.stm. 
  27. ^ Shipman report demands GMC reform“. BBC News. 9 December 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4081425.stm. 
  28. ^ Shipman doctors deny misconduct“. BBC News. 3 October 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4305366.stm. 
  29. ^ Shipman doctor ‘not good enough’“. BBC News. 11 October 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4331208.stm. 
  30. ^ Theft fears over ‘Shipman gems’“. BBC News. 17 March 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4357193.stm. 
  31. ^ Twenty make Shipman jewels claims“. BBC News. 15 April 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/manchester/4446593.stm. 
  32. ^ Shipman jewels not going to widow“. BBC News. 24 May 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4574147.stm. 
  33. ^ Shipman stole victim’s jewellery“. BBC News. 31 August 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4197812.stm. 
  34. ^ Shipman’s stolen gems found in his wife’s jewellery box“. The Guardian. 31 August 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/shipman/Story/0,,1559544,00.html. 
  35. ^ Garden tribute to Shipman victims“. BBC News. 30 July 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4731119.stm. 
  36. ^ Roger Bamford (Director). (2002). Shipman. [Television drama]. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0306943. 
  37. ^ Greg Francis (Director). (2003). Diagnosis: Unknown: Deadly Medicine. [Television series]. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0559329. 
  38. ^ Law & Order: Criminal Intent: D.A.W. episode (Season 3, Episode 20), TV.com. Accessed 19 September 2009.
  39. ^ BBC Article concerning Jonathan King’s song ‘The True Story of Harold Shipman [1]
  40. ^ Alexander Harris, the law firm who represented families of victims of Allitt and Shipman“. Alexander Harris. 2006-08-25. http://alexanderharris.co.uk/article/Nurse_convicted_of_murder_of_two_patients_by_lethal_injection_2588.asp. 
  41. ^ Shipman prison letters to be sold“. BBC. 27 September 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/8275479.stm. Retrieved 27 September 2009. 

External links

NAME Shipman, Harold Frederick
DATE OF BIRTH 14 January 1946
PLACE OF BIRTH Nottingham, England, United Kingdom
DATE OF DEATH 13 January 2004
PLACE OF DEATH Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom

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