It's surprising there are a number of doctors who were serial killers, and we still find them in recent years. Doctors are supposed to look out for the well being of their patients; they have to sign the Hippocratic Oath, after all, but this was not the case when it came to these serial killing doctors. Each of these doctors seemed normal on the outside, but deep down, they were hiding sadistic secrets. These stories about doctors who were serial killers will both fascinate and terrify you.
Out of all the doctors who were serial killers on the list, H.H. Holmes is by far the most infamous. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He is known as “America’s First Serial Killer.” In 1893, Chicago held the World’s Fair in honor of the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus coming to the Americas. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes however, had other activities planned for the weekend. Holmes built a hotel that was fashioned with murder in mind. It became known as “Murder Castle.” Holmes was calculated and planned many of his victims as tourists who wouldn’t be missed from the World’s Fair. He also murdered employees of the hotel, lovers, and guests. Some of the rooms in Murder Castle had gas lines that he could use to poison the guests at any time. He also had a soundproof bank vault that he would trap and suffocate his victims in. Murder Castle was completed with a secret chute that led to the basement so he could get rid of the bodies. He had furnaces for cremation and at times, he would sell the organs and skeletal remains to medical schools. This was easy for him because he made connections in med school. The basement of Murder Castle even contained some torture equipment, including a stretching rack. Holmes was eventually captured and executed. He confessed to 27 murders, but the actual count could be as high as 200.
Harold Shipman is not only one of the most prolific serial killers in recent history, but he is one of the deadliest killers of all time. Known as “Doctor Death,” Shipman has been proven responsible for the death of 218 patients, but the actual number may be as high as 250. Shipman targeted elderly patients, his youngest victim being a 41-year-old male. He injected them with diamorphine (a form of heroin) and then falsified their medical records by stating the cause of death was “old age” or some sort of ailment. Some of his colleagues in the medical community as well as funeral home employees noticed an unusually high death rate among his patients. They contacted police, but their investigation lead them nowhere. It wasn’t until the daughter of a deceased elderly woman thought it was peculiar that her mother’s will had been changed, naming Shipman as the beneficiary, that real action was taken. Police were able to perform an autopsy on the corpse where they found traces of diamorphine. This lead to his arrest and conviction for the murder of 15 patients. He hung himself in his jail cell in 2004, 2 years after his trial ended.
Michael Swango attended Southern Illinois School of Medicine to get his M.D. It was during this time that his strange behavior began getting noticed. Although he was a bright student, he falsified some of his training and did not focus on his studies. Instead, he wanted to work as an ambulance attendant, which is where it is said his fascination with death began. While no one found it alarming at the time, patients were becoming strangely ill when Swango was assigned as their doctor and 5 people actually died under his watch. Although there was controversy surrounding his time at SIU, he was able to graduate with his doctorate. He went on to work an internship at the Ohio State University Medical Center. There, a nurse caught him injecting a patient with some “medicine” but her concerns were played off as paranoia. A shocking amount of his patients died under his care at OSUM but he was cleared by a cursory investigation. He went on to work as an emergency medical technician where some of his coworkers found themselves getting sick every time he prepared food or coffee. Finally, in 1984, Swango was arrested when police officers found arsenic and other poisons in his possession. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison. This lead investigators to look into all the strange deaths and illnesses surrounding him throughout his schooling, internships, and jobs, but they didn’t have any hard evidence. In 1994 he fled to Zimbabwe where it is believed he performed even more murders. It is estimated that Swango was involved in the deaths of 60 patients. He plead guilty in 2000 and is currently held in ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado serving 3 consecutive life sentences.
John Bodkin Adams is a suspected serial killer who was never actually convicted in his lifetime. He was born in 1899 in Britain and became a general practitioner. Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients died by suspicious causes. Of the 160, 132 of them had left him money or possessions in their wills. Sounds shady, doesn’t it? In 1957, he was tried and acquitted for the murder of one his patients, Morrel. The trial lasted 17 days and Adams’ defense attorney claimed there was no evidence, only the testimony of nurses who had watched him treat Morrel. He claimed the act of murder had to be proven by expert evidence. He also claimed the nurses' stories didn’t add up based off different journals they kept. The courts expert witnesses gave two different opinions, thus making it harder to get a conviction for Adams. After only 44 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Adams not guilty. Today, many believe the evidence in the trial was tampered with and that there was prejudicial and political interference. Although he wasn’t found guilty, he still makes my list of doctors who were serial killers because the evidence surrounding him is just too hard to ignore.
Marcel Petiot was a French doctor who turned out to be a bloodthirsty killer. Not only was he a trusted doctor, but he also had a political background.. However, no matter what he did, there was scandal surrounding him. As a doctor, he performed illegal abortions and supplied people with narcotics. As a mayor, he embezzled funds. He was briefly institutionalized for kleptomania and didn’t pay his taxes. It’s believed that right before he ran for mayor, he claimed his first victim – Louise Delaveau, a woman he had an affair with. 18 years later in 1944, Petiot’s neighbors called the police about a foul smell and billowing smoke coming from Petiot’s chimney. Afraid of a house fire, police and firefighters went into his home to stop the blaze where they found a fire in a coal oven in the basement that contained human remains. There were 21 bodies found in his house but he is suspected of claiming 60 victims. He was convicted of 26 counts of murder and was beheaded for his crimes.
Although Linda Burfield Hazzard did not have a medical degree, she was still licensed to practice medicine in Washington because of a loophole in the system. She studied under Dr. Edward Hooker Dewey, one of the pioneers of fasting. Inspired by what she has learned, she opened a “sanitarium” called Wilderness Heights in Olalla, Washington. Under her care, patients were subjected to fasting where they were given meager amounts of tomato and asparagus juice, and occasionally, a teaspoon of orange juice. While some people loved her “treatment,” 40 people died under her care. In 1912 she was convicted of manslaughter, but was released on parole after serving just 2 years. She was later fully pardoned. Afterward, her and her husband lived in New Zealand where she was a practicing dietician. She returned to Olalla in 1920 and opened the “School of Health” but 15 years later it burned to the ground. Linda Burfield Hazzard got a taste of her own medicine however, when she died while attempting one of her very own fasts.
Shirō Ishii was a microbiologist who served as an army surgeon in 1925 in the Imperial Japanese Army. He began studying chemical and biological warfare tactics from World War I onward. In 1942, Ishii began to field test germ warfare weapons on Chinese Prisoners of War and civilians. Some historians estimate that tens of thousands died as a result of bio-weapons he deployed. This included cholera, anthrax, bubonic plague, and other diseases that were released on innocent people. He also conducted physiological experiments. Some of his human test subjects underwent forced abortions, heart attacks, hypothermia, and simulated strokes, among other tortures. When the Pacific War was coming to an end and the Imperial Japanese Army realized they were going to lose, they decided they needed to destroy evidence. This led to Ishii ordering the execution of 150 subjects. He and his peers unleashed their terror on more than 10,000 human beings. Soviet Authorities questioned him, but in the end he was granted immunity in exchange for his full disclosure on germ warfare and his human experimentations. He never paid for his crimes but he eventually died of throat cancer at the age of 67.
Josef Mengele was an SS physician at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz who earned the moniker "Angel of Death" due to his inhumane practices as a doctor. Mengele was in charge of performing exams on people in order to see if they were healthy enough to be in the forced labor camp. Mengele was notorious for his forced medical experiments on prisoners, notably children and twins. He often operated on people without the use of anesthesia, injected dye into eyeballs and sewing twins together. The "Angel of Death" was also known for resorting to extremes in order to solve minor issues such as gassing over 700 women in a dormitory due to an outbreak of head lice. Mengele referred to his unspeakable practices as research for a post-doctoral dissertation in order to teach at a German university. He is said to have evaded capture from authorities for many years, but died while having a stroke while swimming in Brazil in 1979.
Jane Toppan was actually a nurse however, she was just as dangerous and cruel as the doctors on this list. Toppan was known to modify dosages of medication while she was still in nursing school just to see how the patients reacted. Once she graduated and became a registered nurse, she admitted to killing over 30 people by overdosing them on morphine. Toppan had very morbid ambitions and later stated that she wanted to kill more people than anyone who has ever lived before. Toppan was sent to a mental institution where she lived for 40 years until she died in 1938.
Each of these doctors betrayed the trust that most of the general population has for medical practitioners by committing the ultimate crime – murder. Some of these doctors who were serial killers killed for personal benefit while others killed simply for pleasure. Let's just be thankful that the medical system today has a better procedure for evaluations that makes it harder for crimes like this to happen.
This article was written in collaboration with editor Lisa Washington.
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