Angel of mercy or cold-blooded killer? Murderous HCPs throughout history

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published October 24, 2023

Key Takeaways

The golden history of medicine is tarnished by rare and horrific tales of disturbed healthcare providers who deliberately took the lives of their patients. This Halloween season, we’ll delve into the details of their depraved behavior.

What motivates a doctor to kill?

Doctors who inflict intentional patient harm may be driven by a slew of dark motives. Some seek financial gain, exploiting vulnerable patients for their personal enrichment. Others have a twisted sense of mercy and believe they are sparing their patients from suffering. 

Early cases of such deeds were often termed “angel of mercy” killings. However, investigations subsequently revealed that some perpetrators had something else in mind. 

Psychopathic healthcare killers often derive thrill and satisfaction from exerting power over life and death. According to a Crime Traveller article on medical serial killers, the repetitive nature of many of these crimes has led criminologists to conclude that healthcare workers who murder develop an addiction to committing their heinous acts.[]

The traveling abortionist: Dr. Thomas Cream

A notable case during the late 1800s involved Dr. Thomas Neill Cream. Dr. Cream was a Scotland-born physician raised in Canada who earned his medical degree from McGill University. Also called the "Lambeth Poisoner," Dr. Cream used his medical knowledge to perform illegal abortions alongside his medical practice, leading to several suspicious deaths.

His first likely victim was his wife, Flora Brooks, on whom he conducted an abortion before they wed. She later became ill and eventually died after reportedly taking the medication he provided. Dr. Cream continued to practice in Canada, but his reputation was irreparably damaged when suspicions linked him to the death of a woman from the mysterious administration of chloroform. 

Dr. Cream then fled to Chicago, where he became known as a backstreet abortionist in a city riddled with prostitution.

His life continued on a downward spiral involving drug addiction, murders, and attempts at extortion. Although his younger years were filled with accolades and extravagance, he spent his later years serving long prison sentences. Ultimately, Dr. Cream faced public execution in London.[] 

Prolific patient killer: Dr. Harold Shipman

Crime Traveller also told the story of Dr. Harold Shipman, a UK doctor who is believed to have killed up to 250 of his patients (although he was convicted of only 15 murders) between 1975 and 1988. 

Dr. Shipman achieved this grim feat by falsifying medical records and administering lethal doses of opioids. He targeted patients with poor health, avoiding scrutiny for their deaths. In some cases, it appears Shipman was motivated by the desire to inherit his victims' estates. 

He was eventually sentenced to life in prison and committed suicide by hanging in 2004.

A notorious nurse: Charles Cullen

While some healthcare murders may go under the radar, nurses are much more likely to be convicted of this type of crime.

Nurses are charged in 86% of criminal cases of healthcare murders, compared with 12% for physicians.[] The vast majority (72%) of patient murders happen in the hospital, and more than half are committed using lethal injections.

Charles Cullen was a licensed practical nurse in the United States who worked in 10 different hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Cullen's killing spree spanned from 1984 through 2003, during which time he administered fatal doses of medications to at least 40 patients.[] However, some sources suspect he may have killed up to 400 patients over the span of his nursing career.

Cullen showed signs of mental illness early in life, with multiple suicide attempts starting at age 9. After a tumultuous childhood that included dropping out of high school and being discharged from the Navy, Cullen married, had two daughters, and completed nursing school. He divorced a few years later and was accused of domestic abuse. He was also known for abusing animals.

Nationwide nursing shortages and a lack of report systems for suspicious deaths enabled Cullen to jump from hospital to hospital, fatally overdosing patients with injections of medications like insulin and dioxin.

He was eventually caught and tried for his crimes, avoiding the death penalty by agreeing to cooperate with authorities. Cullen was given 18 life sentences and maintains that his motivations stemmed from the desire to prevent patient suffering. However, those who oversaw his case were highly skeptical of any good intentions.

Insights from healthcare history’s darkest chapters

Stories of doctors and nurses who murder are chilling reminders of the potential for abuse within the medical profession. While these cases represent a minuscule fraction of healthcare practitioners, they serve as a stark testament to the importance of vigilant oversight and ethical conduct in medicine.

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