Serial homicide by doctors: Shipman in perspective

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7276.1594 (Published 23 December 2000)
Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1594

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  1. Herbert G Kinnell, retired consultant psychiatrist
  1. 18 Cross Street, Reading, Berkshire RG1 1SN
  • Accepted 9 November 2000

The previous BMA chairman, among others, is on record as saying that Harold Shipman is unique, yet medicine has arguably thrown up more serial killers than all the other professions put together, with nursing a close second.1-4 Dentistry too has had its notorious characters, yet among veterinarians homicide seems to be almost unknown.

“Jack the Ripper,” the perpetrator of five unsolved murders in 1888 in London, is thought to have been a member of the medical profession, although there is no conclusive evidence. Sir William Gull, “physician in ordinary” to Queen Victoria, and Dr Thomas Barnardo were prime suspects, and there were advocates for Montague John Druitt, a barrister (he was from a respected medical family and may have passed himself off as a doctor); a Dr Stanley (he may have been fictitious); the Polish Dr George Chapman (real name Severin Klosowski); and the Russian Dr Alexander Pedachenko.5-7 Nor has conclusive evidence been found for Gaylord Sundheim (a psychotic who had studied medicine) being the “mad butcher” of Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1930s.8

Summary points

Arguably medicine has thrown up more serial killers than all the other professions put together

The medical profession seems to attract some people with a pathological interest in the power of life and death

Doctors have been responsible for killing not only patients and strangers but members of their own family

The political killers par excellence were the Nazi doctors and the Japanese doctors engaged in biological warfare

The power of life and death

Yet there are enough recorded instances of multiple murders by doctors (real or bogus) to make at least a prima facie case that the profession attracts some people with a pathological interest in the power of life and death. Would be doctors with homicidal tendencies include Kenneth Bianchi, one of the serial “Hillside Stranglers” in 1978 …

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