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The Doctor Who Killed Old Ladies

Englishman Harold Shipman was convicted of murdering 15 patients. A new report suggests that the number of victims may have been nearly 300.

January 06, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HYDE, England — One of this town's best-loved doctors was almost certainly Britain's worst serial killer.

A year after Harold Shipman was convicted of injecting 15 elderly women with fatal doses of heroin, a government report released Friday suggests that the revered family doctor may have killed closer to 300 of his patients during a quarter of a century of practicing medicine.

Most of his suspected victims were elderly. Most were widows or women living alone. And most no doubt welcomed him into their homes.

Such was the high regard for Shipman that when Hilda Hibbert died unexpectedly five years ago while sitting in a living room armchair, her bereaved granddaughter made a contribution in her memory to the doctor's equipment fund. Jane Ashton-Hibbert never dreamed that Shipman might have had a hand in the death of her Gran.

When the doctor was charged with murder and forging the will of another elderly Hyde woman in 1998, Ashton-Hibbert was among the hundreds of patients who lent him their heartfelt support.

Now Ashton-Hibbert is convinced that her 81-year-old grandmother was another Shipman victim and that an inquest scheduled to begin Tuesday will prove she was murdered. Hibbert's is the first of 24 inquests into the deaths of Shipman patients set to be held this year ahead of a public inquiry into the killing spree that has left a community ravaged by grief, guilt and shame at having been duped.

"In a million years, you don't expect your doctor to be Britain's worst serial killer," Ashton-Hibbert said at her home on a wintry afternoon. "This was someone you trusted with your emotional and physical problems. I think for me personally, the sense of betrayal is sometimes worse than the actual murder."

Shipman, 54, denies that he killed anyone, and his exact murder toll might never be known. But the Health Department review of Shipman's practices revealed that between 1974 and 1998, he signed 2 1/2 times as many death certificates as did any of the six practices with which his was compared--an "excess" of 297 deaths. Of those, most suspicious are 236 that occurred in the patients' homes.

While some of the "excess of deaths" date back to his early years in Yorkshire, most of Shipman's evil appears to have been unleashed during his two decades in Hyde. Few serial killers have wrought so much devastation in such a small area.

A former mill town on the outskirts of Manchester, Hyde was a tightknit community of 30,000 people where the elderly felt safe enough to leave their doors unlocked when they were home alone and neighbors traded gossip on the doorsteps of their brick row houses.

In a place where everyone seemed to know everyone else's business, it amazes residents today that acquaintances seated together on a bus or colleagues sharing a cup of tea never stumbled across their common experiences--that one never said, "Me mum died after a visit from Dr. Shipman" and another never answered, "Hold on, that's what happened to me mum."

Perhaps it was the fact that Hyde already had suffered humiliation at the hands of the notorious Moors murderers, and residents believed lightning could not strike twice. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, sentenced to life in prison for the 1960s torture-murders of five children, were from the area and had brought Hyde untold misery and bad publicity.

But that was history. By the 1990s, Hyde was again a typical English town of salt-of-the-earth folks who put a local doctor on a pedestal, seldom questioning his word or his authority. Especially a charismatic doctor such as Shipman, a father of four who served on the local parent-teacher association and apparently gave his all to patients.

A History of Addiction

Born to working-class parents in Nottingham, Shipman earned a degree in medicine from Leeds University before going to work in 1974 for the Todmorden Group Practice in Yorkshire. In 1976, his colleagues discovered he was addicted to the painkiller pethidine. Repentant, he admitted to forging nearly 70 drug prescriptions, was fined by a magistrates court and fired from his job, and went into rehabilitation.

Less than two years later, Shipman turned up in Hyde at the large Donneybrook House practice, whose members were unaware of his past. He worked there for 15 years before going it alone. The National Health Service doctor hung his shingle on a brick storefront with frosted glass windows on Market Street. His wife, Primrose, helped out in reception.

Soon there was a waiting list to join his roster of 3,000 patients, many of whom would put in a good word for a friend with Shipman.

Even today, former patients and relatives of his victims marvel at how Shipman was what many called "the perfect doctor," who always had time for them. Not only did he make house calls, but he would drop in unexpectedly to see how a young mother was faring with her newborn or to check on someone's grandmother with a touch of flu.

How were they to know he was preying on widows and elderly women living alone?

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