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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.

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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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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
iStock
iStock

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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History
How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days' time they are as well as before their illness."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

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