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Dr. Harold Shipman
14 January 1946 – 13 January 2004

Harold Frederick "Fred" Shipman was a British general practitioner and convicted serial killer. He is the most prolific known serial killer in British history. 236 murders are ascribed to him, though the real number may be much higher.


On 31 January 2000, a jury found Shipman guilty of 15 murders. The judge sentenced him to life imprisonment and recommended he never be released. The whole life tariff was confirmed by the Home Secretary more than 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 around 250 people, of whom 218 could positively be identified. About 80 percent of them were women. His youngest victim was Peter Lewis, a 41-year-old man.

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.

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

Early life

As a child, he attended Whitemoor Primary School in Nottingham, then New College Nottingham. Known as Fred, he was reportedly a confident and clever child, adored by his mother Vera who reportedly favoured him over her other two children. She ruled his life, telling him what to wear and who his friends should be. She died in 1963 from lung cancer at the age of 43. Harold was then 17. He had played a strong supportive role during his mother's illness, isolating himself from his contemporaries. He subsequently attended Leeds School of Medicine in 1964, at which time he met his future wife, Primrose May Oxtoby. They married on 5 November 1966. She gave birth to their first child, Sarah, in March 1967; they had four children in all, with sons Christopher, Samuel and David.


Shipman graduated from Leeds School of Medicine in 1970, and started work at Pontefract General Infirmary in Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire. In 1974, Shipman 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 sent briefly to a drug rehabilitation clinic in York, after which he was pronounced clean. 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, Greater Manchester, 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. He was even interviewed on the Granada television documentary World in Action on how the mentally ill should be treated in the community.


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. 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 (though 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 examined. It contained 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.

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.

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 prosecuted for the murders of Marie West, Irene Turner, Lizzie Adams, Jean Lilley, Ivy Lomas, Jermaine Ankrah, Muriel Grimshaw, Marie Quinn, Kathleen Wagstaff, Bianka Pomfret, Norah Nuttall, Pamela Hillier, Maureen Ward, Winifred Mellor, Joan Melia, and Kathleen Grundy. All of these women died between 1995 and 1998.

After deliberating six days, the jury convicted Shipman, on 31 January 2000, of killing 15 patients by lethal injections of diamorphine, and forging the will of Kathleen Grundy. The trial judge sentenced him to 15 concurrent life sentences and recommended 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 forensic 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.

Though 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. The Shipman Inquiry also suggested that he liked to use drugs recreationally.

Despite the prosecutions of Dr John Bodkin Adams in 1957, Dr Leonard Arthur in 1981, and Dr Thomas Lodwig in 1990 (amongst others), Shipman is the only doctor in British legal history found guilty of killing patients. According to historian Pamela Cullen, Adams also had been a serial killer, but since 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 may have been more difficult for Shipman to commit his crimes."


Shipman was found hanged in his cell at Wakefield Prison at 6:20am on 13 January 2004, on the eve of his 58th birthday, and was pronounced dead at 8:10am. A Prison Service statement indicated that Shipman had hanged himself from the window bars of his cell using bed sheets. 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!"

Some of the victims' families, however, said they felt cheated, as his suicide meant they would never have the satisfaction of Shipman's confession, and answers as to why he committed his crimes. 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".

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. His wife received a full NHS pension, which she would not have been entitled to if he had died after the age of 60. 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.

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. However, the ethics of intentionally misleading prisoners, by using this form of sentencing for those who have no chance of release, is debatable.


It is unclear when Shipman started killing people, or even how many he killed. 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 Yorkshire (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. It is uncertain how many of these were Shipman's victims, as Shipman was often the only person to certify a death.

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

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.

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.

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.

Unidentified items were handed to the Assets Recovery Agency in May. 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. 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.











This web page was last updated on: 24 December, 2008