Dr Harold Frederick Shipman


In the 1990s, the local GP, Dr Harold Frederick Shipman, became Britain's biggest serial killer.

Fred – or Freddy – was born to a working class family in Nottingham. He had a sister Pauline (who was 7 years older) and a brother Clive (4 years younger). He was a fairly clever child and an accomplished athlete, and passed his 11-plus examinations to go to High Pavement Grammar School. His mother, Vera, had a great influence on his life.

In June 1963, Vera died from lung cancer – her suffering was relieved by large doses of morphine.

In 1965, he left school and he went to study at Leeds University Medical School. He stayed in lodgings at Wetherby. He began to go out with farmer's daughter, Primrose May Oxtoby, of Wetherby, who was 3 years younger than him. She became pregnant, and they married in 1966.

In June 1970, he graduated after resitting his exams and received provisional registration with the General Medical Council. He became a junior houseman in surgery at Pontefract General Infirmary. He became Senior Houseman (medicine) in 1971. Later phases of the investigation suggested that it was here that Shipman began his murders.

In 1974, he became an Assistant General Practitioner and then General Practitioner Principal at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden. In 1975, he became addicted to pethidine – a morphine-like pain-killer – and forged a large number of prescriptions. His addiction reached the point where his veins collapsed. He suffered blackouts which he said were due to epilepsy. The receptionist at the Centre discovered entries in the drugs register which showed that he had been prescribing large amounts of pethidine in the names of several patients. He underwent treatment at The Retreat in York from October to December 1975.

At Halifax Magistrates Court in February 1976, he admitted 8 charges of drug abuse and forging prescriptions, and asked for a further 74 charges to be taken into account. He was find £600. He was dismissed from Todmorden. The General Medical Council did not strike him off nor even censure Shipman for his behaviour. He received psychiatric treatment for his addiction at the Royal Halifax Infirmary and then at The Retreat in York.

He subsequently worked as a clinical medical officer in South-West Durham. In 1977, he moved to work at the Donneybrook House group practice in Hyde, Greater Manchester. Shipman and Primrose – and their children Sarah, Christopher, David and Sam – lived in Mottram.

From 1992, he ran his own single-handed practice at The Surgery, Market Street in Hyde.

In 1998, a local GP raised concerns about the high number of deaths in Shipman's practice, but the police found nothing suspicious.

Local undertaker, Alan Massey, noticed that Shipman's patients were dying at an unusually high rate and that 90% had died fully-clothed. When he confronted Shipman, Massey was told that there was nothing to worry about and anyone could inspect his book of death certificates. Massey's daughter, Debbie Brambroffe, and Dr Susan Booth from a nearby practice – who had examined bodies in order to countersign cremation forms for Shipman's patients – found that most of Shipman's deaths were of females, living on their own, and who had died sitting fully-dressed in a chair. Dr Booth and a colleague alerted the Coroner and then the police, but Shipman's records were accepted because the cause of death and the treatment matched. During the investigation, it was found that, after the death of a patient, Shipman had gone back to the office and changed the patient's computer records to suggest that there were earlier symptoms which had contributed to the death. He was unaware that the computer logged the actual date on which the records were amended.

In September 1998, Shipman was arrested and charged with the murder of 81-year-old Mrs Kathleen Grundy. Mrs Grundy was an ex-mayoress and a wealthy widow who – although she had been fit and active – died suddenly on 24th June 1998. Shipman had been the last one to see her alive. Shipman had forged her will – leaving him all her estate worth around £386,000 – and he sent this to her solicitor after her death. Mrs Grundy's daughter, Angela Woodruff herself a solicitor, realised that the badly-typed will and the signature were forged and contacted the police and an investigation began. Mrs Grundy's body was exhumed and was found to contain high levels of morphine. Shipman falsely claimed that she was an addict and had amended his records to support this. During the investigation, Shipman said that he had called on Mrs Grundy to collect blood samples for a study on aging; he said that he had sent off the samples for analysis, but when it was proved that there was no such study he said that he had forgotten about the samples and then disposed of them when they were unsuitable for use. His record of drug abuse, addiction and prescription forgery were not mentioned at the trial.

On 31st January 2000, he was convicted at Preston Crown Court and sentenced to 15 life sentences for the murder of 15 patients and a 4-year sentence on one count of forging a will. The judge recommended that Shipman spend the remainder of his days in prison. Many of the murders were of elderly women who died when alone with Shipman and were caused by lethal injections of heroine. Many of the victims had been cremated. The witnesses revealed that Shipman frequently pretended to call an ambulance when the relatives called him to a death, but then he rang to cancel the ambulance when he saw that the patient was dead.

A total of 300 murders was estimated in January 2001, and the Secretary of State for Health announced that an independent inquiry would take place. In February 2001, an inquiry led by Judge Dame Janet Smith began looking into a further 459 mysterious deaths of Shipman's patients.

In July 2002, the inquiry concluded that Shipman killed a total of 215 patients – including the 15 for which he was imprisoned – and he was suspected of killing a further 45 people. A decision could not be reached in 38 other cases.

The oldest victim was 93-year-old Ann Cooper, and the youngest was 41-year-old Peter Lewis.

Shipman refused to cooperate with the inquiry. He was held at Frankland high-security prison in County Durham.

In June 2003, he was transferred to Wakefield prison. At 8:10 am on 13th January 2004, he was pronounced dead after being found hanging in his cell at Wakefield prison, having committed suicide

He died shortly before his 60th birthday. It was said that his wife would receive a tax-free lump sum of more than £100,000 and an annual pension of around £10,000. If he had died beyond the age of 60, she would have received only a half-pension of £5,000 a year and no lump sum. It was said that Shipman had talked about suicide to a probation officer and referred to his pension.

The Sixth Report of the Shipman Inquiry published in January 2005, suggested that Shipman may have killed many more patients while he trained as a doctor at Pontefract General Infirmary – including a 4-year-old child.

It has been suggested that the incidents may have started as experiments and escalated into murder

© Malcolm Bull 2021
Revised 18:29 / 15th May 2021 / 9420

Page Ref: MMS111

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