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Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

It's rare for a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional to commit murder, but when it does happen, the public is horrified and frightened. Their fear is understandable: Medical professionals maintain a great deal of trust and control over patients; they have access to drugs that can be deadly; and such murders are often easily disguised.

Many of these medical killers were able to operate undetected for years, and attempts to stop them were often initially brushed aside. Typically, authorities finally reacted when a suspicious coworker brought damning evidence.

"We have no idea how many killer doctors never get caught," said Kenneth V. Iserson, MD, author of Demon Doctors: Physicians as Serial Killers. Iserson is professor emeritus of emergency medicine at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "Many who did get caught were able to do it for years. People turned a blind eye in several cases. They didn't want to believe doctors could do such a thing."

This slideshow focuses on seven doctors and five other healthcare professionals who were convicted of purposely harming their patients or others. In one case, the doctor did not intentionally kill but was found criminally negligent.

Image from Ed Betz/AP

Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Michael Swango, surgeon

Location: Illinois, South Dakota, New York, Zimbabwe; 1981-1997

Death toll: Swango pleaded guilty to three murders, but he is suspected of killing 60 patients and colleagues.

He was almost expelled from Southern Illinois University Medical School for faking checkups during his ob/gyn rotation. After he started a surgery internship, unexplained deaths occurred among his patients, and his planned neurosurgery residency was revoked.

Swango used poisons, usually arsenic. Despite mysterious illnesses wherever he went, after he was fired (several times) he managed to find new jobs — often by forging documents or changing his name.

Swango served prison time for poisoning and fraud in 1985 and 1997 and ultimately was charged with murder. He is now in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, serving three consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole.

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Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Harold Shipman, general practitioner

Location: Yorkshire, England; 1990s

Death toll: Shipman was convicted of murdering 15 patients, but he is thought to have killed as many as 260.

A married father of four, Shipman was sent to drug rehabilitation for using opiates. He then resumed his practice and became well-respected.

Shipman killed patients, mostly elderly women, usually by injecting them with opiates during house calls. They died within hours, but for many years Shipman was not a suspect.

Shipman was caught when he forged one of his victim's will in an effort to steal her money. After conviction, he hanged himself in prison. Shipman's killings prompted British authorities to develop tighter oversight of healthcare workers.

Image from Frank Wiese/The Morning Call/AP

Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Charles Edmund Cullen, nurse

Location: Mainly New Jersey; late 1980s to early 2000s

Death toll: Cullen had 29 confirmed victims, but he confessed to murdering up to 40 patients, and experts believe he may have been responsible for 400 deaths.

While in the Navy, Cullen was committed to a psychiatric ward several times. Then he entered a nursing school and was elected class president.

Cullen used digoxin, insulin, and other drugs to kill patients. Despite being a murder suspect, he frequently relocated and continued to find work.

At his trial, Cullen was restrained and gagged after repeatedly taunting the judge. He is at a state prison in New Jersey. He received 11 consecutive life sentences and will be eligible for parole in 2388.

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Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Marcel Petiot, physician

Location: Paris, France; 1941-1944

Death toll: Petiot was convicted of 26 murders but admitted to killing 60 people.

Despite a history of stealing, Petiot was accepted into in an accelerated medical education program. After moving to a small town, he was elected mayor, but he was accused of stealing, resigned, and relocated to Paris.

In Nazi-occupied Paris, Petiot claimed to run an escape network for Jews and resistance fighters. Under the guise of inoculating people to prevent diseases, he injected them with cyanide, co-opted their possessions, and disposed of their bodies.

After the liberation of Paris in 1944, 30 corpses were found in Petiot's basement. He was arrested, convicted, and guillotined in 1946.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

H.H. (Henry Howard) Holmes, physician

Location: Many cities, including Chicago; 1890s

Death toll: Holmes was convicted of one murder but confessed to 27. He may have killed more than 200 people.

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, Holmes graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School. While there, he stole cadavers from the laboratory, claiming they were accident victims, in order to collect their life insurance benefits. After graduation, he worked as a pharmacist.

He killed people mainly to cash in on their life insurance policies. Many of the killings occurred in secret passages in his three-story mansion in Chicago, which the press called "Holmes' Murder Castle."

Holmes was hanged after he was arrested in Boston for attempting to use a corpse in an insurance scam.

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Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Donald Harvey, hospital orderly

Location: Ohio and Kentucky; 1970-1987

Death toll: Harvey was convicted of killing 37 patients but confessed to killing 58.

Harvey grew up in a poor family in Appalachia and says he was sexually molested by his uncle and a neighbor.

He claimed he wanted to end the suffering of terminally ill patients, but he came to enjoy killing and even admitted to killing in anger. Methods included arsenic, cyanide, insulin, suffocation, turning off ventilators, and administering fluids containing hepatitis B virus.

Harvey was arrested after an autopsy showed large amounts of cyanide in the body of a patient who had died suddenly. Imprisoned in Ohio, Harvey was beaten to death by a fellow inmate.

Image from Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Jeffrey MacDonald, thoracic surgeon

Location: Fort Bragg, North Carolina; 1970

Death toll: Not a serial killer — but still a murderer — MacDonald, a physician and former Army captain, was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two young children.

The murder was gruesome. MacDonald claimed that drug-crazed hippies — never apprehended — broke into his home, killed his family, and knifed him. Prosecutors said he beat and stabbed his wife, stabbed his 5-year-old daughter Kimberley, clubbed 2-year-old Kristen, and wrote "PIG" on the wall with his wife's blood.

The crime took place in 1970, but it took 9 years to convict MacDonald of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. MacDonald still proclaims his innocence.

This was one of the most litigated murder cases in US history. MacDonald is incarcerated in Maryland, serving three life sentences.

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Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Kristen Heather Gilbert, registered nurse

Location: Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Northampton, Massachusetts; 1990s

Death toll: Gilbert was convicted of four murders, but it has also been estimated that she was on duty during half of her ward's 350 deaths over 7 years.

Gilbert had a seemingly happy marriage and two children. But she suffered from psychiatric episodes and started an affair with a hospital security guard.

She induced cardiac arrest in patients by injecting their intravenous bags with a fatal dose of epinephrine. Then she would often respond to the coded emergency, resuscitating the patient herself.

Coworkers reported a spike in patient deaths when Gilbert was on duty. Her coworkers had nicknamed her the "Angel of Death." After an investigation, she was convicted and is now serving four consecutive life sentences in a prison in Texas, with no chance of parole.

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Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Roland E. Clark, physician

Location: Detroit; 1950s-1960s

Death toll: Clark was convicted of killing two hospital assistants. He is also suspected of killing at least nine patients, but there was insufficient evidence to pursue those cases.

Clark's medical license was revoked four times; once for "gross misconduct," twice for "moral turpitude," and once for unspecified reasons. He was accused of illegal abortion, sexual assaults on patients, and child molestation.

An autopsy of one of his dead assistants showed traces of sodium pentothal. Patients' deaths were blamed on "therapeutic misadventure, cardiac arrest, or an injection of one sort or another."

Clark was arrested in 1967, convicted of two killings, and died in prison in 1972 owing to a reportedly accidental fall.

Image from Chuck Robinson/AP

Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Orville Lynn Majors, licensed practical nurse

Location: Clinton, Indiana; 1990s

Death toll: Majors was convicted of killing six patients, but investigators believed he killed up to 70.

Majors took care of his elderly grandmother as a teen, which prompted him to choose nursing as a career. He was a popular caregiver, especially among elderly persons.

Majors tended to kill elderly patients who were close to death, but he also reportedly murdered patients whom he deemed whiny or demanding. He injected them with potassium chloride, which usually killed them within minutes.

Coworkers reported Majors after they noticed spikes in patient deaths during his duty hours. Majors maintained his innocence, and the investigation took more than 2 years. He was sentenced to six consecutive life terms and died in Indiana State Prison in 2017.

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Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Christopher Duntsch, neurosurgeon

Location: Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; 2012-2014

Death toll: Duntsch, while not a serial killer, was considered to have purposely injured and disabled patients. He was found guilty of maiming one patient in surgery and has been linked to the deaths of two patients and serious injuries, including paralysis, in 30 more.

Duntsch graduated from a University of Tennessee Health Center MD-PhD program and did successful stem cell research, but during his neurosurgery residency he began taking drugs and behaving erratically.

In Texas, many of his surgeries resulted in terrible outcomes for patients and he was dubbed "Dr Death." In a 2-year period, he operated on 38 patients; 31 of them were paralyzed or critically injured, and two of them died.

Duntsch's license was revoked; he was then charged with several counts of aggravated assault during surgery, making him perhaps the first physician to be successfully convicted of such charges. He is serving a life sentence in Huntsville, Texas, and will be eligible for parole in 2045.

Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Efren Saldivar, respiratory therapist

Location: Glendale, California; 1989-1997

Death toll: Saldivar pleaded guilty to killing six patients, but he told investigators he lost count at 60. The ultimate number is thought to be as high as 200 patients.

Born in Brownsville, Texas, Saldivar trained in Southern California and got a job on the night shift at a hospital there.

Saldivar said he killed patients to reduce his workload. He chose patients who were unconscious and close to death, injecting them with a paralytic drug or reducing their oxygen levels.

When interrogated, Saldivar admitted to killing patients. Police exhumed the bodies of 20 former patients, and six showed evidence of poisoning. Saldivar is incarcerated in Soledad, California, where he is serving seven consecutive life sentences.

Image from Scott Nelson/AFP via Getty Images

Medical Murders: When Healers Become Killers

Leigh Page | October 28, 2022 | Contributor Information

Traits of Medical Murderers

Unlike killers in other fields, Iserson said that killer healthcare workers tend to poison their prey. "They have access to drugs and know how to use medicines as poisons," he said.

"We are better at identifying poisonings than we were 20 years ago," Iserson said. "But in other ways, it's become harder to identify these killings. The number of non–medico-legal autopsies has drastically declined, and cremations are becoming more common."

Several of the healthcare killers said they wanted to alleviate victims' suffering, but they also killed out of anger.

One study also found that healthcare killings were rising globally but were falling in the United States, partly owing to electronic medical records and beefed-up credentialing.

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