Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Harold Shipman, the World's Most Prolific Serial Killer

Prescription for Death

During the trial, Shipman had claimed he never carried morphine, therefore he could not have killed any of his patients. But the family of Molly Dudley (another victim) disproved this assertion. 

Although Shipman was not charged with Molly's death in the original trial, he had admitted to giving her morphine. 

Daughter-in-law Joyce Dudley received a call from Shipman telling her, "I'm afraid your mother-in-law has only got about half an hour left to live." Molly was dead when by the time her son Jeffrey and his wife arrived.  Shipman told them she had died from a heart attack. 

Joyce Dudley stated, "And this is when he said to me and Jeff that he 'gave her a shot of morphine' for the pain."

This proved Dr. Shipman did carry morphine.  Just how he amassed enough of the drug to kill so many would soon be revealed. Shipman told many outrageous stories — but few as ludicrous as his morphine-related tales.  He had, he said, prescribed 2000 milligrams of morphine to patient Frank Crompton, who had prostate cancer. Although Mr. Crompton was not in pain, Shipman said he wanted to have it on hand in case pain developed later. 

He said the patient had told him he "didn't want to be a drug addict. So he broke them (the ampoules) and put them in the rubbish. We talked about it again and Mr Crompton agreed to keep them in the house. So, Shipman said, he got him another supply.  Of course, since the patient had died, it was impossible to prove Shipman had confiscated both batches.

In another example, Shipman's staff told how he had confused them regarding drug entries. He explained away some missing morphine with the excuse he was merely giving it to a colleague who had loaned him some for a prior patient emergency.

But the doctor vastly overrated the gullibility of the court with one ridiculous story:  He said a supply of diamorphine (the medical term for heroin) must have been put through a slot in his office door, because he found it lying on the office doormat when he arrived at work.

Prosecution counsel Richard Henriques sarcastically dismissed this nonsense, referring to Dr. Shipman's "magic mat" where restricted drugs could simply materialize overnight.

In most instances, Shipman got his morphine through patients who had never needed it in the first place, or he confiscated unused supplies from patients who had died. Detective Superintendent Bernard Postles explained:

"What he tended to do is overprescribe to individuals who legitimately required diamorphine, certainly in the days just prior to them dying.  What he would do then is go along to the home, offer to dispose of any excess that was left at the house, and he would take that away.

One man who narrowly escaped being an unwitting supplier is Jim King.  In 1996 he was incorrectly diagnosed as having cancer.  Shipman treated him with masive doses of morphine.  Jim King told how "he kept saying to us 'well you can take as much morphine as you wish,' because of course it didn't really matter, I was dying anyway."

When Jim's condition worsened, Shipman made a house call.  He diagnosed pneumonia and said he needed to give an injection. Jim looked at his wife, who seemed wary.  Perhaps her unease was prompted because both King's aunt and father had died following Shipman visits. 

She remembers how the doctor "asked me if I wanted him to give him an injection and I said no.  I said can we write out a prescription for him.  He kept being a little bit persistent about it and I kept telling him no, no, I don't want it.  He was a bit arrogant about it, a kind of snotty attitude towards me, a little bit…"

So, King probably cheated death — and the doctor out of more morphine.

The Kings learned later that Shipman had killed their relatives.

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