“Primum non nocere” is a Latin phrase which means “First, do no harm,” and it is the foundation on which medicine is based. However, there are some medical professionals who use the profession’s social status and easy access to drugs to perform heinous acts of cruelty against their patients. In most cases, their crimes go undetected for years, until they finally take their murderous tendencies too far. Read on to learn about ten doctors and nurses whose unfortunate patients quickly became victims.
1) Josef Mengele: the “Angel of Death” who operated without anesthesia, sewed twins together and killed thousands
Dr. Josef Mengele was an SS Physician at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz during the Second World War. As Jewish prisoners were lead off the trains into the camp, Dr. Mengele would stand in his white coat with his arms outstretched, earning him the nickname “Angel of Death.” The doctor’s job was to examine each person to see if he or she was healthy enough to enter the forced labor camp or not. Those deemed unfit to work were immediately lead to the gas chambers. The doctor was also known for his harsh “solutions” to minor problems. For example, he once ordered all seven hundred and fifty women in a dormitory to be gassed because of an outbreak of head lice.
However, it was not the doctor’s role in these crimes against humanity that earned him his notoriety. Rather, it was his fondness for performing forced medical experiments on the prisoners, especially on twins and children. Mengele operated on people without using anesthesia, often removing their organs, amputating limbs, injecting dyes into eyeballs in an attempt to change the eye color, and sewing twins together to form monstrous conjoined siblings. Most of Mengele’s patients died on the operating table, or quickly afterward, due to infection.
After the war, Mengele fled to South America, where he lived until his death in 1979. Though he was a wanted Nazi war criminal, he was never captured and brought to justice.
2) Jane Toppan: the nurse who killed at least 31 patients with morphine
Jane Toppan was an American nurse who killed thirty-one of her patients by administering lethal injections of morphine. Over the course of two decades while working in the Boston, Massachusetts area, Toppan may have actually killed upwards of seventy people altogether.
As a young, attractive twenty-six year-old nurse, Toppan was able to hide her dark obsession with death from nearly everyone she worked with. Even as a nursing student, she would alter her patients’ medicine dosages to see what would happen to their nervous systems, and once she became a Registered Nurse she took her skills to the next level, administering overdoses of morphine and atropine.
Toppan finally slipped up when she murdered a man whom she was caring for as a private nurse. Along with Alden Davis, Toppan also killed two of his daughters, leaving a third daughter to go to police and start an investigation. Once one of the Davis girls was exhumed, authorities discovered that she had been poisoned, and it didn’t take much to figure out who was behind the treachery.
After Toppan was caught, she is quoted as saying that she wanted to kill more people than anyone who has ever lived before. She confessed to thirty-one of her murders, and provided details to solve them. Since Toppan had a well-documented history of attempted suicide, she was committed to a mental hospital, where she lived for forty years until her death in 1938.
3) Michael Swango: the doctor who killed at least 30 patients, poisoned coworkers, then killed some more in Africa
Though American doctor Michael Swango appeared to be handsome and congenial in nature, signs of his inner mental instability were noticeable to colleagues even while he was attending medical school. Swango’s classmates observed that he often worked on a scrapbook containing images of horrific, bloody disasters, and they worried that some of the basic anatomical knowledge expected from a physician was sorely lacking. However, no one knew how scary Swango really was until they discovered years later that he had killed between thirty and sixty of his patients.
As an intern in 1983, Swango’s patients started quietly dying after he had been in the room with him. Though nurses alerted hospital officials at Ohio State University, their cursory investigations revealed nothing, and Swango continued to practice medicine without reproach. He moved to Illinois, taking a job as an ambulance driver because he admitted that he liked seeing the blood and gore of accidents. It was there that his coworkers again became suspicious of him. Swango began slowly poisoning his coworkers with ant poison, sending them home sick with terrible stomach pains. After a particularly bad episode involving a tainted batch of donuts, his coworkers set a trap for Swango by leaving him alone in a room with a pitcher of iced tea. They later had the tea tested in a lab and found that Swango had indeed put ant poison in the tea.
A police search of Swango’s home found chemicals, weapons, and handwritten recipes for poison. He was arrested and served two years of his five year sentence. Incredibly, after being released for good behavior, he was able to move to a different state and lie his way into another job in the medical field. Swango’s past caught up with him wherever he went, until he finally forged his credentials again to continue his murderous practice in a remote hospital in Africa.
After poisoning more patients in Africa, Swango skipped out of the ensuing scandal and hid in Europe for several years. When he finally tried to re-enter the United States in 1997, officials were waiting for him at the airport. He was arrested and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
4) John Bodkin Adams: the doctor who made over a hundred elderly patients include him in their wills
Dr. John Bodkin Adams was a British doctor who, between 1946 and 1956, may have been responsible for the death of over one hundred and sixty of his patients. Dr. Adams was a general practitioner who was especially friendly towards his elderly female patients. He would dote on them to the point where they seemingly decided to rewrite their wills. In fact, one hundred and thirty-two of these patients added Dr. Adams to their wills just before they passed away.
The interesting thing about this doctor is that he was never found guilty of murder or other professional negligence, leading some people to wonder if Dr. Adams was helping his patients euthanize themselves. However, a later trial regarding thirteen additional offences, including prescription fraud, lying on cremation forms, obstructing a police search, and failing to keep a dangerous drugs register, earned him a guilty verdict and stripped him of his medical degree. After two failed attempts, Adams got his license back in 1961.
After he was acquitted on the murder charges, Adams kept practicing medicine until he died of natural causes. This case instigated many important changes to the English legal system.
5) Dorothea Waddingham: the nurse who was hanged after killing a mother and her daughter
Though Dorothea Waddingham was not a Registered Nurse, she ran a nursing home near Nottingham, England for many years. Waddingham, who was a wife and mother to five children, began taking elderly invalids into her home in the early 1930s. Two of these women were mother and daughter. First the mother died, and shortly afterward the younger woman also passed away. It was then that their family discovered that the younger woman had recently changed her will to leave everything to Waddingham. She had also added some bizarre details, such as a desire to be cremated immediately after her death, and she requested that her family not be notified when she died.
In order to have a cremation, two doctor’s signatures were required to sign off on her death certificate. The first doctor was well-known to Waddingham and signed off with no issues. The second doctor was suspicious, especially in light of the woman’s recent changes to her will. He ordered an autopsy of her body and found large amounts of morphine in her system. After examining the deceased mother’s remains, they found that she had also died from a morphine overdose.
Waddingham was found guilty of murder and insurance fraud and was sentenced to death. As a young mother of five children, one of whom was just three months old and still breastfeeding, the execution drew ten thousand protesters who chanted, “Stop this mother murder!” Nevertheless, Waddingham was hanged for her crimes in 1936.
6) H.H. Holmes: America’s first Serial Killer
H.H. Holmes was an American physician who is known to have murdered between twenty and one hundred people, though his victims may have actually numbered as high as two hundred people.
During his schooling at the University of Michigan Medical School, Holmes began to steal bodies from the lab and take out bogus insurance policies on them. He would then disfigure the corpses and claim they had been in an accident so that he could cash out the policies.
Holmes moved to Chicago and began to associate with nefarious characters. He also became a polygamist, keeping three wives at the same time, none of whom knew about the others. After swindling a widow out of her husband’s pharmacy business, Holmes built a huge hotel that took up three store fronts and resembled a castle. He forced his employees to take out life insurance policies in which he was the beneficiary, and then he started murdering them to collect the money.
Holmes favored female victims, and his employees and hotel guests frequently disappeared. Since the Chicago World Fair was taking place, it was not altogether unusual for people to come and go in the Chicago area, so his crimes went unnoticed for quite some time.
In the hotel, Holmes had built rooms that were rigged with gas lines, along with airtight vaults and other horrific torture devices. He would torture and kill people in the basement, then dismember some of the bodies and sell their organs and skeletons to medical research labs.
After he was finally caught, Holmes was sentenced to death by hanging in 1897. Holmes’ hanging was gruesome; his neck didn’t break. Instead, he strangled to death over the course of fifteen to twenty minutes.
7) Jayant Patel: the surgeon who’s linked to 87 deaths, yet found “not guilty” twice
Though American surgeon Jayant Patel has been linked to about eighty-seven deaths among his patients between the years of 2003 and 2005, he has been found not guilty by the Australian court system not once, but twice.
8) Beverley Allitt: the nurse who injected children with air bubbles and insulin
Beverley Allitt is a nurse who worked in the children’s ward at Grantham and Kesteven Hospital, Lincolnshire, England. During the course of fifty-nine horrible days in 1991, Allitt murdered four children in the hospital by administering lethal doses of insulin and injecting air bubbles into their blood streams. She also attempted to murder three other children, and badly injured six more.
Allitt was caught and sentenced to thirteen life sentences for her crimes. Though we’ll never know exactly why Allitt started murdering her young patients in the hospital, in prison she was diagnosed with Münchausen syndrome by proxy. This controversial psychological condition is described as “involving a pattern of abuse in which a perpetrator ascribes to, or physically falsifies illnesses in someone under their care to attract attention.”
9) Arnfinn Nesset: the nursing home manager who murdered 22 patients and is now free
While working as a nurse and nursing home manager, Norwegian Arnfinn Nesset murdered at least twenty-two patients. He also committed document forgery and embezzlement and was convicted of attempted murder, as well. It’s possible that his victims numbered closer to one hundred and thirty, but many of those cases could not be definitively pinned to him.
After a series of suspicious deaths in the nursing home he managed, Nesset confessed to the murders of twenty-seven of his patients by injecting them with suxamethonium chloride, a muscle relaxer. He later recanted his confession. Nevertheless, he was convicted of poisoning twenty-two patients in 1983.
Sentenced to only twenty-one years in prison, which was the maximum sentence under Norwegian law at the time, Nesset served just twelve of those years and is now free. He is thought to be living under an assumed name.
10) Harold Shipman: the British Doc who killed over two hundred people for the money
In 2000, Dr. Harold Shipman became the only British doctor to be successfully prosecuted for the murder of his patients. Shipman was found guilty of murdering fifteen patients, though an investigation known as the 2002 Shipman Inquiry concluded that he had actually murdered an additional two hundred people for which he was never charged.
Like other doctors on this list, it was the nurses who worked alongside Shipman who first noticed that many of his patients were dying after being alone with him in their rooms. They were also concerned about how many cremation forms the doctor needed to have signed by a second physician. After alerting the authorities, yet another cursory investigation turned up nothing, so the doctor went about his devious business unabated.
It wasn’t until Shipman made a huge mistake that he was finally caught. He had killed an older patient and forged a new will, cutting the woman’s children out and leaving himself a very large monetary inheritance. The patient’s daughter insisted on an investigation, and when the patient’s body was exhumed coroners discovered that she had overdosed on a form of medicinal heroin. After searching Shipman’s home, they found the typewriter that he had used to forge her new will.
Once Shipman was arrested, an investigation exposed his pattern of administering lethal overdoses of diamorphine, signing patients’ death certificates, and then falsifying medical records to “prove” that they had been in poor health.
Shipman was sentenced to fifteen consecutive life sentences in 2000. He later committed suicide by hanging himself in his jail cell in 2004.
There are many, many more. Stay tuned! NEVER trust your doctor. Doctors can be greedy psychopaths or sociopaths with an MD after their names. BEWARE! You’ve been warned!