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Angels of Death: 8 Medical Murderers

Serial murderers can come from any background and work in any profession. However, medical careers make it easy for someone who is inclined to murder to carry it out, and to cover it up. And to do it again and again.

The Doctor of Poison

Michael Swango is believed to have poisoned dozens of patients under his care. Despite a troubled medical school record and a 1985 conviction for poisoning, he was able to find employment in several states and one other country until his 1997 arrest for murder. Nurses had noticed Dr. Swango's patients died at an unusually high rate as early as 1983, but their suspicions were brushed off, and Swango changed jobs and locations often. He also forged documents and falsified his resume to gain employment, and hospitals didn't check his background thoroughly. His reputation caught up with him in 1994. Swango was under FBI surveillance, but fled the country before an arrest warrant could be served. Dr. Swango had found employment in Zimbabwe, where no one had heard of him. There, the pattern of unexplained deaths continued and Swango was arrested. He absconded before his trial, and was on his way to new employment in Saudi Arabia when US officials arrested him for fraud during a layover in Chicago. Swango pleaded guilty, and was incarcerated when murder charges were filed in 2000. He pleaded guilty to three murders in exchange for avoiding a death sentence or extradition to Zimbabwe. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Center of Attention

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Beverley Allitt had a history of drawing attention to herself by faking injuries or illness while growing up in Britain. In 1991, she was working in Children's Ward 4 at Grantham and Kesteven Hospital in Lincolnshire. An unusual number of emergencies began to happen during a 15-day period, in which a child would suffer a heart attack or other crisis and then either died or was revived at the last minute. A couple of the children were transferred to other hospitals, where they recovered. An autopsy of one child revealed a high level of potassium, leading to more autopsies that showed high levels of insulin or other unnecessary drugs. 25 suspicious episodes involving 13 children were identified. They only had one thing in common: Beverly Allitt was on duty during every one of them. She was arrested several months after the investigation began and charged with four counts of murder and 11 counts of attempted murder. Allitt was diagnosed with Munchausen's syndrome and Munchausen's by Proxy syndrome. In the former, a person fakes or inflicts injury on illness on himself to get attention; in the latter, the injury is inflicted on someone else for the same reason. Allitt was convicted in 1993 and was sentenced to 13 life sentences. She is incarcerated at a high-security mental hospital.

Helpling Them Die

00MFMalevre.jpgNurse Christine Malèvre worked at a lung hospital in Mantes-la-Jolie, France. She was charged with the deaths of seven patients in 1997 and 1998. Malèvre had written a book entitled My Confessions, in which she described how she "helped" patients who were terminally ill and in pain. She confessed to police that she had terminated as many as 30 patients out of compassion, but she later recanted and said she had only caused two deaths and two others were accidents. Malèvre was convicted of six murders in 2003 and received a ten year sentence. Her case sparked a nationwide discussion on euthanasia in France, where assisted suicide is illegal.

The Night Shift Gang

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Waltraud Wagner was a nurse's aide at Lainz General Hospital in Vienna, Austria. She worked the night shift on a geriatric ward where people died from natural causes at a higher rate than the rest of the hospital. That rate went up between 1983 and 1989 when Wagner and three colleagues killed between 42 and 300 patients. The first death was a woman who asked Wagner to end her suffering. Wagner obliged by injecting her with morphine and found she enjoyed killing. She recruited her coworkers, Stephanija Mayer, Maria Gruber, and Irene Leidolf to carry out more murders. The four killed not only patients who were dying, but those who were annoying or hard to care for as well. The death rate was noticed, but the murderers weren't caught until 1989 when a doctor overheard the group discussing a recent killing. After arrest, the four admitted some murders and implicated each other for the rest. Wagner, who originally boasted to police that she was responsible for 39 murders, recanted and would admit to only ten by the time their trial began in 1991. Waltraud Wagner was convicted of 15 murders and 17 attempted murders, and drew a life sentence. Leidolf also received a life sentence, and Mayer and Gruber each received 15 year sentences. All have been now released from prison.

The Fasting Cure

00hazzard.pngLinda Hazzard claimed to have a medical degree as a "fasting specialist". She treated patients in Olalla, Washington by starving them, sometimes to death. Patients were given only weak broth as nourishment and powerful enemas that left them weak and delirious. Then Dr. Hazzard would have them make out their wills, with her clinic as beneficiary. At least a dozen patients died under her care, until an investigation by the family of Claire Williamson resulted in the doctor's arrest in 1911. Williamson weighed less than 50 pounds when she died. Hazzard was found guilty of manslaughter, served two years, then moved to New Zealand where she again practiced as a "fasting specialist." She returned to Washington State in 1920 and built the sanatorium she had dreamed of -and tried to finance with her dead patient's money. However, since she was barred from practicing medicine, the building was named "a school of health". Hazzard died in 1938 when she decided to try her own fasting cure.

Money as a Motive

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Anna Marie Hahn was the first woman to die in Ohio's electric chair, and only the second woman executed by the state. She immigrated from Germany in 1929. After divorcing her second husband, Hahn began working as a private live-in nurse for elderly German men in Cincinnati. Her patients tended to die and leave their fortunes to Hahn, which helped pay for her gambling habit. The string of unusual deaths ended in 1937, when police found a suspicious amount of arsenic in George Obendoerfer's body. An investigation revealed 11 unusual deaths among Hahn's patients, and a survivor who caught her trying to poison him. Hahn was convicted of one murder, that of Jacob Wagner in 1937. Her own 12-year-old son testified against her at the trial! She was executed in 1938.

The Fast Worker

00MForvillemajors.jpgFrom 1993 to 1995, 130 patients died while nurse Orville Lynn Majors was on duty in the ICU at Vermillion County Hospital in Clinton, Indiana. An investigation into the unusual death rate turned up this vital statistic:

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From March 1, 1993 to March 31, 1995, (the dates of Majors employment), a death occurred every 23.1 hours that Majors was working. When he was not working (during the same period of time) one death occurred every 551.6 hours.

*
As soon as Majors was suspended and relieved of his nursing license in 1995, the ICU death rate fell to pre-1993 levels. 79 witnesses testified at his trial, in which the judge ruled that the death rate statistics were not admissible because Majors was only on trial for six murders. However, he was convicted on other evidence, including potassium chloride and syringes found at his home. Many of the victims are believed to have been injected with potassium chloride, a poison notoriously hard to identify. Majors was convicted in 1999 and received a sentence of 360 years in prison.

The Hero of Children

00MFgenenejones.jpgGenene Jones was a pediatric nurse in Texas who wanted to be the hero, to save a child's life. In order to do this, Jones first had to endanger the child's life, but she wasn't always successful in saving that life. While working at Bexar County Medical Center Hospital, other nurses noticed that children with normal illnesses tended to have seizures or cardiac arrest when Genene Jones was on duty. Some autopsies showed the children had been given heparin or Dilantin which was not prescribed. Hospital officials resisted an investigation, but transferred Jones out of pediatrics. She reacted by resigning. She began working at a pediatric clinic in Kerrville, Texas. The same pattern of seizures and unexplained crises occurred in children under Jones' care. An investigation found 47 suspicious deaths while Jones was at Bexar County Medical Center. She was indicted on one charge of murder and charges of injuring other children. Another indictment was later filed on an additional injury charge. Two trials on the various charges were held in 1984, both winning convictions against Jones, and she was sentenced to a total of 159 years. She has been denied parole once, and will be eligible again in 2009.

If your favorite medical murderer isn't featured in this list, that's probably because he or she will be featured in part two coming next week.

Update: Parts two and three of this series are now available.

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7 Health Tips From Ancient Physicians
Portrait of Galen
Portrait of Galen

If you feel bombarded by conflicting advice on how to stay (or get) healthy, you’re not alone. Intermittent fasting, juice cleanses, and low-carb diets are a few of today’s health trends, but fashionable health advice is nothing new. Consider these health tips from ancient physicians, which range from surprisingly relevant to downright absurd. (Just don't consider any of it actual medical advice, of course—that's what modern physicians are for.)

1. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR DREAMS.

Galen, a Greek physician who treated Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius among others, wrote hundreds of texts about medicine starting around 150 CE. Galen believed that what you dream about can indicate your overall level of wellness and reveal specific ailments you might be suffering from. Before you call him a quack, keep in mind that he acknowledged that some dreams are simply a random assortment of the day’s events, rather than a direct message about the state of one’s health. As he wrote in On Diagnosis in Dreams:

“The vision-in-sleep [dream], in my opinion, indicates a disposition of the body. Someone dreaming a conflagration is troubled by yellow bile, but if he dreams of smoke, or mist, or deep darkness, by black bile. Rainstorm indicates that cold moisture abounds; snow, ice, and hail, cold phlegm. ... But since in sleep the soul does not produce impressions based on dispositions of the body only, but also from the things habitually done by us day by day, and some from what we have thought—and indeed some things are revealed by it in fashion of prophesy ... the diagnosis of the body from the visions-in-sleep that arise from the body becomes difficult.”

2. DON’T CHANGE YOUR DIET TOO QUICKLY.

Line engraving of Hippocrates
Hippocrates

Greek physician Hippocrates, now known as the father of medicine, wrote several works chock full of health advice. In On Ancient Medicine (written around 400 BCE, although the dates and authorship of the text are somewhat disputed), he explains the wisdom of treading slowly when it comes to making adjustments to your diet. As he explains it, some people are used to eating only one meal per day, while others feel better eating two meals per day. If someone who is accustomed to eating once per day suddenly adds another meal to his schedule, disease can occur.

“But there are certain persons who cannot readily change their diet with impunity; and if they make any alteration in it for one day, or even for a part of a day, are greatly injured thereby. Such persons, provided they take dinner when it is not their wont, immediately become heavy and inactive, both in body and mind, and are weighed down with yawning, slumbering, and thirst; and if they take supper in addition, they are seized with flatulence, tormina [abdominal pain], and diarrhea, and to many this has been the commencement of a serious disease, when they have merely taken twice in a day the same food which they have been in the custom of taking once.”

3. DRINKING TOO MUCH BOOZE CAN CAUSE PIMPLES.

As Galen explains in the Art of Physick, people with high body heat, red cheeks, and a cheerful disposition have a sanguine complexion. Such people, he argues, are more prone to certain conditions such as fevers and phlegm. Luckily, Galen tells sanguine patients how to achieve an optimal diet and exercise program for their body type. He warns that drinking too much beer, ale, and wine can cause a variety of maladies, including scabs, abscesses, fevers, and red pimples.

“Inordinate drinking of strong beer, ale, and wine, breeds hot rhewms scabs and itch, St. Anthony’s fire [a skin infection], quinsies [an infection behind the tonsils], pleuresies [pain when breathing], inflammations, fevers, and red pimples.”

4. BEANS AND FLOWERS CAN FIGHT DYSENTERY.

In On Regimen in Acute Diseases, Hippocrates lays out an easy plan for fighting dysentery, an intestinal infection that causes severe diarrhea. Luckily, no pharmacists are needed for this treatment, but you will have to track down some beans and plant shoots, if you don’t already have them on hand.

“For dysentery. A fourth part of a pound of cleaned beans, and twelve shoots of madder [a Eurasian plant] having been triturated [ground to a fine powder], are to be mixed together and boiled, and given as a linctus [a medicinal syrup] with some fatty substance."

5. IF YOU’RE PREGNANT, STAY AWAY FROM HAMMOCKS.

Detail of a woodcut depicting ancient herbalists and scholars, including Soranus
Detail of a woodcut depicting ancient herbalists and scholars, including Soranus

Scholars credit Sushruta as one of the earliest surgeons and the author of The Sushruta Samhita, a Sanskrit medical text written sometime around 600 BCE. The text warns pregnant women to avoid certain activities, such as fasting, falling, and taking medicine that causes vomiting. But some of the guidelines may sound strange to modern readers. According to Sushruta, pregnant women should not ride a horse, swing on a hammock, or sit on uneven ground, lest those activities cause the fetus to prematurely detach from the uterus.

“Sexual intercourse during pregnancy, riding on horseback, etc., or in any sort of conveyance, a long walk, a false step, a fall, pressure on the womb, running, a blow, sitting or lying down on an uneven ground, or in an uneven posture, fasting … use of emetics or purgatives, swinging in a swing or hammock, indigestion, and use of medicines which induce the labor pain or bring about abortions, and such like causes tend to expel the fetus from its fixture. These causes tend to sever the child from the uterine wall with its placental attachment owing to a kind of Abhighatam (uterine contraction) just as a blow tends to sever a fruit from its pedicel.”

6. IF YOU DON'T WANT TO GET PREGNANT, TRY SNEEZING.

Soranus, a Greek physician who worked in Rome around the early 2nd century CE, had plenty to say about menstruation, contraception, and abortion. As he wrote in Gynecology, sneezing can expel semen from a woman’s body and serve as an effective birth control method. Just remember to squat before you start sneezing.

“And during the sexual act, at the critical moment of coitus when the man is about to discharge the seed, the woman must hold her breath and draw herself away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus. And getting up immediately and squatting down, she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all round; she might even drink something cold.”

7. USE BURNING IRON TO CURE YOUR HEMORRHOIDS.

Hippocrates wrote at length about hemorrhoids, and his writings on the subject survive to this day. In On Hemorrhoids (400 BCE), he offers several methods to remove the offending piles. One of his tricks, which entails burning the hemorrhoids with pieces of hot iron, requires the patient to purge the day before. Sounds like fun.

“I recommend seven or eight small pieces of iron to be prepared, a fathom in size, in thickness like a thick specillum [speculum], and bent at the extremity, and a broad piece should be on the extremity, like a small obolus. Having on the preceding day first purged the man with medicine, on the day of the operation apply the cautery. Having laid him on his back, and placed a pillow below the breech, force out the anus as much as possible with the fingers, and make the irons red-hot, and burn the pile until it be dried up, and so as that no part may be left behind. And burn so as to leave none of the hemorrhoids unburnt, for you should burn them all up.”

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

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