Dr. Death: Harold Shipman

DeLani R. Bartlette
Sep 14, 2020 · 10 min read
Harold Shipman. Photo courtesy of Press Association.

June 24, 1998, Hyde, Greater Manchester, England: Kathleen Grundy, a former mayor, fails to show up for her volunteer shift at a local charity, so her friends go to her home to check on her. Inside, they find her lying on her sofa, fully clothed — and quite dead.

The friends call her doctor, Harold Shipman, a popular and beloved local physician. Shipman tells them he had visited her some hours earlier to take a blood sample — making him the last person to see her alive. He pronounces her dead and files the death certificate, listing the cause of death as simply “old age.”

The energetic 81-year-old had been the picture of health until that day, volunteering on a daily basis and juggling a busy social life. Her sudden death comes as a shock to the small, traditional community.

Shipman notifies Grundy’s daughter, Angela Woodruff, a solicitor (similar to an attorney) in Warwickshire, of her mother’s demise. He tells her there is no need for a post-mortem examination, as he had seen Grundy just hours before her death. So Woodruff buries her mother in the local cemetery.

Shortly afterwards, she receives a call from another solicitor, claiming to have her mother’s will. Woodruff is surprised at this; previously, she had handled all her mother’s legal affairs, including her will.

When Woodruff looks at her mother’s new will, she is immediately suspicious. First, it is typewritten — something her mother never did. Second, it is so short and simple, so lacking in specifics, Woodruff can’t believe it was written by her meticulous, detail-oriented mother. It states that Grundy bequeathed nearly all her money and estate (worth nearly £390,000) to her doctor, Harold Shipman. But it lists only one house — Woodruff knows her mother owns two houses.

The final suspicious clue is the signature on the will. It doesn’t look right. Woodruff checks through her mother’s papers to find examples of her signature, then compares them to the signature on the will. They do not match.

Woodruff takes her concerns to the police; they agree with her conclusion that the will had been forged.

The police begin an investigation into the forgery and possible murder of Kathleen Grundy. What they uncover is a trail of bodies that would shock the entire nation.

Shipman, as a young boy, was intelligent and aloof, earning good enough grades to gain entrance to an elite school. While he was considered easy-going and nice, he had no actual friends to speak of.

His mother, Vera, doted on him, and she had great ambitions for him. It was Vera who discouraged him from making “the wrong kind” of friends, isolating him and instilling in him a sense of superiority over his peers.

But his mother would not live to see those ambitions come to fruition. She battled lung cancer for years. As the pain from the cancer worsened, her doctor would visit more and more frequently to give her injections of diamorphine. Often Harold would come home to find his mother in the living room waiting for him, a cup of tea sitting on the coffee table, the doctor ready with the syringe.

It was in just this tableau — with his mother sitting on the sofa with her tea nearby — that she finally passed away. Harold, who was 17 at the time, was right at her side.

After this, Harold dealt with his grief by running. He also declared his intention to become a doctor.

It took him two tries to pass the entrance exam, but he did gain acceptance to study at Leeds University. It was while studying at Leeds that he met Primrose Oxtoby, and the two began dating. Soon he got Primrose pregnant, so the two married in a small ceremony. The couple would eventually have three more children.

Shipman graduated from Leeds in 1970 and began working at the Pontefract General Infirmary in Yorkshire.

In 1974, he began his first physician’s practice at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. The other physicians thought of him as a “godsend,” a young, energetic doctor, fresh out of medical school, who brought new techniques and the most up-to-date information.

It was here that he shed his aloof persona and became more outgoing. He wanted to be seen as a respected member of the community, and he was.

Staff, however, saw a different side of him. He was condescending and rude, often calling people “stupid.” He was arrogant, too — demanding things be done his way and arguing with anyone — even much more experienced doctors — who wouldn’t go along with him. Mostly, he was a control freak, so much so he refused to allow anyone else to give his patients injections or take blood samples from them.

While his patients loved the personal attention he gave them, the other staff were growing concerned. Shipman’s behavior seemed to become more and more erratic as time went on. He was having fainting spells, but Shipman explained them away, claiming that he suffered from epilepsy.

Then one of the receptionists noticed something alarming in the narcotics register: Shipman had been prescribing a lot of pethidine — a painkiller usually prescribed to women in childbirth. When the practice followed up with an investigation, they found that many of the patients had never received the drug, and the ones who had, hadn’t taken nearly the amounts Shipman had perscribed.

The doctors confronted him. Shipman begged for a second chance, but was refused. Hearing this, he threw a fit, yelling at the other doctors, flinging his medical bag across the room, and storming out.

Shipman went to a posh rehabilitation facility, and when he got out, was convicted of several counts of prescription fraud and made to pay a small fine. He was not, however, stripped of his medical license.

After this, in 1977, he applied to the Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde — a town perhaps most known for being the home of serial killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. Ever confident, at his interview, Shipman readily admitted his past drug addiction, but assured the doctors he was now clean.

Perhaps appreciating his forthrightness, or perhaps in desperate need of any doctor they could get, Donnybrook hired him. There, he made a name for himself among his elderly patients as being exceptionally kind and attentive. He continued being rude to staff, but hid it from his colleagues better than he had in Todmorden.

In 1993, he shocked the hospital by declaring he was going out on his own — and taking his patients with him. His private practice grew to be quite successful over the next few years, mainly thanks to word-of-mouth referrals from his satisfied patients.

However, as time went on, several people whose work put them into contact with the doctor’s patients began having suspicions. Debbie Bambroffe, who ran a local funeral home with her father, John Massey, was concerned that so many of Shipman’s patients were passing away. It seemed as though they were dying at a much higher rate than other physicians’ patients.

And there was the way the bodies would be found. Often, the patients — overwhelmingly elderly women — would be sitting up in their chairs, fully clothed, often with a cup of tea nearby. Having dealt with many elderly people who died in their homes, it struck the experienced undertakers as extremely odd.

It didn’t seem to fit with their causes of death, either. Many of their death certificates — filled out by Shipman — listed myocardial infarction, or heart attack, as the cause of death. Someone dying of a heart attack, the undertakers knew, wouldn’t sit quietly in their chair.

So Brambroffe took her suspicions to a local doctor, Susan Booth. Booth had her own concerns, too. In British law, in order for a body to be cremated, a doctor from another practice has to sign off on the order. Booth, along with Bambroffe, noticed there was an unusually high number of Shipman’s patients being cremated. So Booth secretly approached a small group of local physicians, who agreed to look into it. After crunching the numbers, they found that, even controlling for age and illness, Shipman’s patient death rate was nearly three times higher than other physicians in the area — and had been for years.

The doctors, along with Bambroffe, took this information to the local coroner, Dr. John Pollard. Pollard also noticed discrepancies, such as Shipman filling in the death certificates saying he had performed a full external exam, yet the bodies were still fully clothed.

Pollard turned his and his colleagues’ findings over to the police. But the police gave the investigation to an inexperienced detective, and one who had no experience with medical cases. In March 1998, after a covert investigation confirming that the patients’ causes of death matched that on their medical records, the police declared Shipman innocent and closed the case.

It was only a few months later when Woodruff came to the police with evidence of the forged will — and of a possible homicide.

Det. Supt. Bernard Postles handled the case. He quickly saw that Woodruff’s investigation had been correct. But in order to prove that Shipman had killed Grundy, they would have to exhume her body. Woodruff agreed, and the court ordered the exhumation.

At the same time — so as not to tip off Shipman and risk him destroying evidence — they searched the doctor’s home and medical clinic. In his clinic, they seized his computer, along with an old Underwood typewriter — the kind used to type the forged will. Forensic testing would later confirm it was the very typewriter used to type it — and that Shipman’s fingerprints were on the will itself.

Shipman’s home was a different matter — for a doctor, his home was shockingly unsanitary. Dirty clothes and trash were strewn about. They seized the medical records they found there, along with a box full of women’s jewelry found in the garage.

Shipman, still arrogant as ever, claimed Grundy often borrowed the typewriter.

When Grundy’s tissues came back from the lab, they were found to contain lethal levels of diamorphine. The levels were so high, they would have to have been administered within three hours of her death — exactly when Shipman was with her.

This revelation, along with the information given to him by Bambroffe and the doctors, gave Postles enough evidence to widen the investigation into the deaths of his other patients.

First, investigators focused on those who had died shortly after a house call from Shipman. Those who hadn’t been cremated — 11 more women — were exhumed and tested. They were all found to have diamorphine in their remains. For those who had been cremated — the vast majority — police would have to rely on the circumstantial evidence.

In Shipman’s computerized medical records, these deceased patients were shown to have medical conditions which did, as the earlier investigation discovered, match with their causes of death. However, even in 1998, computer forensics was a thing. Investigators discovered that Shipman had gone into his patients’ records immediately — sometimes minutes — after their deaths and altered them to reflect the cause of death he would claim on their death certificates. In Grundy’s case, he altered her records to indicate the well-off socialite was actually a heroin addict. In some instances, Shipman had printed out death certificates before the patient had died.

Sept. 7, 1998, Shipman was arrested on 15 counts of murder and one count of forgery. Under questioning, he remained just as conceited as ever. He denied falsifying medical records. And he denied killing anyone. He treated the investigators with the same contempt he treated the staff at hospitals.

His trial began in October 1999. Witness after witness testified to their seemingly healthy, fit parent or relative dying suddenly of diseases that they had never disclosed to anyone. Some witnesses described arriving at their loved one’s home to find them dying or recently dead, while Shipman casually admired the china, never calling an ambulance or attempting any form of resuscitation.

Most were pressured to cremate the bodies. Many also described Shipman as behaving callously and saying odd things when he would inform them of the deaths.

On Jan. 31, 2000, after nearly 34 hours, the jury back with guilty verdicts on all counts. Shipman was given the harshest sentence allowable under the law: life in prison.

But the tragedy wasn’t over. A year later, an investigation was launched into 22 more suspicious deaths associated with Shipman. Called the Shipman Inquiry, the investigation concluded that Shipman had likely killed 215 of his patients, beginning in 1975. Further investigations would link him to even more deaths — over 250, making him possibly the most prolific serial killer in history, behind only Charles Cullen.

His first victim is believed to have been 4-year-old Susan Garfitt, who had cerebral palsy. He is believed to have injected her with diamorphine or other sedatives in 1972, while her mother stepped out of the room and left the girl in Shipman’s care.

However, because Shipman was already serving a life sentence, the Crown declined to prosecute him for the other murders. And Shipman wasn’t about to confess. When questioned, he would turn his chair around so his back was to the investigator. He wouldn’t speak a word, but he would pick his nose and yawn, showing his utter contempt for the officers.

Then, on Jan. 13, 2004, guards found Shipman hanging from a bedsheet in his cell. He had taken all knowledge of his crimes,as well as his motives, with him to his grave. After a post-mortem exam, his remains were released to Primrose, who had him cremated.

His case did have one positive outcome. Called the Shipman Effect, the recommendations from the Shipman Inquiry led to changes in medical practices such as more careful monitoring of narcotic prescriptions, changes to the way death certificates and requests for cremations are filed, and eliminating single-doctor practices.

In 2005, the City of Hyde dedicated a small park, the Garden of Tranquility, dedicated to the memory of Shipman’s victims.

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DeLani R. Bartlette

Written by

Obsessed with true crime.

The True Crime Edition

A publication that delves into fascinating cases, the psychology behind criminals and the history of finding them.

DeLani R. Bartlette

Written by

Obsessed with true crime.

The True Crime Edition

A publication that delves into fascinating cases, the psychology behind criminals and the history of finding them.

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