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Angels of Death: 8 Medical Murderers

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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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Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
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Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

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8 Bizarre Medical Murderers
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A facial reconstruction of William Burke

We are often at our most vulnerable with physicians and nurses, which might be why stories of crimes committed by medical professionals seem so shocking. Because if you can’t trust your doctor, who can you trust? The answer: probably no one. Below are eight of the most appalling acts of murder, fraud, and grave-robbing associated with the medical community. Patient, beware.

1. BURKE AND HARE: THE BODY-SNATCHERS

In the early 19th century, Edinburgh, Scotland was one of Europe's leading centers of medical study. But there was a problem: The city's medical schools were constantly short on bodies to dissect. The law dictated that only the bodies of executed convicts were allowed to be carved up for science. So fresh bodies, however harvested, could command a princely sum, and there were plenty of local entrepreneurs ready to take advantage. Known as “resurrectionists,” they thwarted graveyard watchmen to plunder the city’s cemeteries, selling the treasure to anatomists.

William Burke and William Hare were a special breed of resurrectionists. In 1827, they began their foray into body-snatching courtesy of one of Hare’s recently deceased boarders. The pair sold the body to a Dr. Robert Knox, one of the city’s leading anatomists. With 7 pounds 10 shillings (about $820 today) in their pockets, they realized they’d stumbled upon a promising enterprise. But like the city's doctors and students, they were frustrated by the lack of bodies. So they decided to create their own supply.

The two soon began murdering other lodgers, travelers, and the generally down-and-out—usually by plying them with whiskey and then suffocating them. Burke and Hare kept Dr. Knox and his students supplied for almost a year, until an acquaintance alerted authorities after stumbling upon one of their victims hidden in a straw mattress. Upon arrest, Hare agreed to testify against Burke, who was convicted of just a single murder, although it is commonly believed the total number killed was at least 16. Burke, whose name became synonymous with his mode of killing, was hanged on January 28, 1829 before a crowd of more than 20,000 spectators. Fittingly enough, his body was donated to science and publicly dissected by one of Dr. Knox's peers.

2. GERALD BARNBAUM: THE FAKE

The vast majority of physicians are highly dedicated individuals. And no one was more dedicated than Gerald Barnbaum, a.k.a. Gerald Barnes. The only problem was, he wasn’t actually a physician. That didn’t stop him from practicing medicine in southern California for more than 20 years, and neither did five convictions and stints in prison for practicing without a license, mail fraud, and manslaughter, among other charges.

Trained as a pharmacist, Barnbaum lost his license in a Medicaid fraud scandal in the mid-1970s. Fascinated by the medical profession since childhood, he decided to follow his real passion, albeit without the pesky education. Barnbaum used a sob story to fool both the California medical authorities and a medical school into sending him the credentials of one Dr. Gerald Barnes, a respected, and real, California MD (he claimed a bitter spouse had destroyed the originals). He then went on to spend more than two decades charming his way from one clinic to another.

He was first caught in 1979, when he misdiagnosed a clear-cut case of diabetes in a young man, who later slipped into a coma and died. He pled down from murder to manslaughter in 1981, and served 18 months of a 3-year sentence before being paroled.

Thus began a bizarre cycle of practice, discovery, conviction, and parole that would repeat four more times. The fifth attempt came in 2000 after Barnbaum escaped custody during a prison transfer. Four weeks later he was caught, of course, practicing at a North Hollywood clinic. He’s currently serving a 10-year sentence for that crime, and is due out in 2019, at the age of 86.

3. HAROLD SHIPMAN: THE LITTLE-OLD-LADY KILLER

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One of the world’s most prolific serial killers was considered by most who knew him to be a caring family physician. Harold Shipman spent decades practicing medicine in the small city of Hyde, in Manchester, England. Most loved him, but a few noticed that many of his elderly charges passed away at or around their visits with the good doctor. Once, the coroner’s office was even alerted, but could not find evidence of any foul play.

That’s because Shipman’s weapon of choice was often diamorphine—a medical form of heroin—which he injected into his patients. He’d then alter his records to support whatever cause of death he gave the relatives of the deceased. He also discouraged autopsies and encouraged cremation.

It was his greed that finally undid him. When a healthy 81-year-old widow named Kathleen Grundy died in 1998, her daughter grew suspicious at the appearance of a will that left Shipman much of her mother’s estate. It was an obvious forgery, and her report resulted in a raid of Shipman’s home, which unearthed enough evidence to prompt a deeper investigation. Shipman was arrested on suspicion of 15 murders and one case of forgery. He maintained his innocence, but in 2000 was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 15 life sentences. Four years later he was found dead in his cell, having hung himself. Subsequent investigations that compared the mortality rate of Shipman’s patients to those of other practices estimated that at least 215 deaths could be attributed to him.

4. NIELS HÖGEL: THE “BAD LUCK CHARM”

Many medical professionals will tell you there’s nothing to match the feeling of saving a life. But for at least one German nurse, the thrill was so addictive there never seemed to be enough desperate cases to quench it.

In 2015 nurse Niels Högel was convicted of two counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. He’d been caught administering a large dose of an unneeded cardiovascular drug to a patient. His goal: Send the patient into cardiac arrest so he could resuscitate them. Högel claimed that he’d found his work as a nurse boring, but reveled in the glory and recognition that a successful resuscitation would bring. His colleagues saw it differently; at one hospital he’d been labeled a “bad luck charm” for his presence at so many deaths.

If only it had been bad luck. During an initial trial, which covered his employment at a clinic in Delmenhorst, Germany, between 2002 and 2005, Högel admitted to dosing some 90 patients, 30 of whom died. The shocking admission prompted an investigation into 500 former patient cases, and the exhumation of 134 bodies. To date, 84 additional victims have been identified, with others still being tested.

5. JANE TOPPAN: THE NURSE FROM HELL

For the sick and suffering, emotional care can be just as palliative as physical. In 19th century Boston, patients of “Jolly” Jane Toppan received both—and then some. The beloved nurse was known for her boisterous good humor with patients, but those she grew especially close to had a habit of expiring, most likely due to the large and lethal doses of morphine and atropine that Toppan administered.

Born Honora Kelly in 1857, Toppan worked as an indentured servant for the Toppan family until she was 28, at which point she began training as a nurse in the city (her name was changed to Toppan during her time with the family, although she was never formally adopted). It was there she began experimenting on her favorite patients, administering varying doses of morphine and atropine to observe their effect on the nervous system. Later, she would admit to receiving a sexual thrill at being close to her patients as they wavered between life and death; she’d even climb into bed and embrace them as they struggled.

After dismissal from both Cambridge Hospital and Massachusetts General, Toppan spent 10 years as a private nurse in the Boston area. During this time she expanded her pool of victims to landlords, friends, and, on occasion, professional competition [PDF]. Again, morphine and atropine were her weapons of choice, although she occasionally dabbled in rat poison.

Her coup de grâce, however, occurred between in July and August 1901, when she systematically eliminated a family of four on Cape Cod. She started with the matriarch, Mattie Davis, who had visited her to collect rent owed on a summer cottage that Toppan rented from the family. Davis lingered for a week before succumbing, and Toppan traveled with the body to the Cape, under the guise of attending to the grieving family. Davis’s oldest daughter was next to go, followed by Mr. Davis, and finally, the youngest daughter, Minnie Gibbs, all in about five weeks.

Suspicious, Gibbs’s husband contacted a toxicologist, asking him to exhume the bodies and test them. Toppan was arrested and tried for the Davis murders, but found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to a mental institution for the rest of her life. Turns out, Toppan had owned up to at least 31 murders in front of her defense lawyer, and may have been responsible for as many as 100. She died in her 80s in a lunatic asylum.

6. LAINZ ANGELS OF DEATH: THE HEARTBREAKERS

Looking after the ill and ailing is a tough job, an unending litany of needs large and small. That goes double for the ill and elderly. In the 1980s, four Austrian nurse's aides decided to make things a little easier on themselves by eliminating the needy.

Nicknamed the Angels of Death, Maria Gruber, Irene Leidolf, Stephanija Meyer, and Waltraud Wagner shocked Austria when they confessed to having brutally murdered some 49 elderly patients between 1983 and 1989. Wagner, largely believed to be the ringleader, initially confessed to all but 10 of those killings, though she later recanted and placed her total number closer to 10 (and all of those mercy killings).

But as their trials—Wagner and Leidolf for murder, Mayer for manslaughter, and Gruber for attempted murder—progressed, it became clear that while mercy may have motivated the first few killings, later victims were chosen not for their suffering, but because of offenses as small as soiling the bed or snoring. The murders themselves were carried out either through an overdose of drugs like insulin or through the “water cure,” in which the patient’s nose was pinched closed, the tongue held down and water poured into the lungs. And according to at least one member of the group, the total death count could have been more like 200, though that was never proven.

All four women were convicted and imprisoned, Wagner and Leidolf for life, but by 2008, all had been released from prison on good behavior.

7. MICHAEL SWANGO: THE KILLER ON TWO CONTINENTS

While Harold Shipman and Jane Toppan ingratiated themselves with those around them, the brilliant Dr. Michael Swango failed to charm. In fact, some found him downright creepy. He’d often express admiration for serial killers and kept a scrapbook of violent accidents. Yet even as suspicious patient deaths followed him over a decade and a half, he was always able to find work—and more victims.

From the very beginning of his medical training, bodies just seemed to drop around Michael Swango (in med school, he earned the nickname Double-O-Swango, because he had a “license to kill”). The dead followed him through his internship in an Ohio hospital, where nurses reported his uncanny appearance just before or after code blues.

In 1984, Swango was arrested for poisoning six of his fellow EMTs by lacing doughnuts, tea, and soda with arsenic. Damned by a mountain of evidence gathered at his apartment, he was convicted and served two years of a five-year sentence.

After prison, Swango bounced around the country, lying about his past on residency applications. After being fired from a number of programs, he tried to escape the mounting evidence against him by practicing in Zimbabwe, where, again, he couldn’t seem to help himself, and was soon under investigation for several patient deaths.

Finally, in 1997, the FBI—who’d been investigating since the death of three patients at a Veterans Affairs hospital on Long Island years earlier—caught up with him during a layover at Chicago-O’Hare airport. Initially convicted of falsifying his credentials on his VA application, he served several years in prison before being charged with three murders. He pled guilty to avoid a death sentence, and is currently serving time at a supermax prison in Colorado.

While it’s unknown just how many people Swango murdered during his career, conservative estimates put it at around 35, and some place it as high as 60.

8. DONALD HARVEY: THE DIS-ORDERLY

Like German nurse-cum-serial-killer Niels Högel, orderly Donald Harvey was given nicknames by his hospital co-workers—"Kiss of Death" among them. Patients, especially the old and infirm, had a habit of dying on Harvey’s watch. At least 34 of them expired thanks to Harvey’s direct intervention, which he claimed to be an act of mercy.

From 1970 to 1987, Harvey worked in hospitals in Ohio and Kentucky, where he’d often be in close contact with the seriously ill. Almost as soon as he began his first job, he started to kill off patients through methods that included smothering them with plastic sheets and pillows, feeding them cyanide and arsenic hidden in food and drinks, or hooking them up to depleted oxygen tanks. And while he said each was an attempt to end suffering, he would also tell the media that he enjoyed exerting control over life and death.

Later, he escalated to non-patients, again via poisoning, and in one case, attempted to kill his lover’s friend by exposing her to hepatitis serum he’d stolen from the hospital.

Harvey was finally caught in 1987 after a doctor performing an autopsy on his last victim caught the smell of cyanide in the victim’s stomach. An investigation followed, and Harvey was arrested. He’d eventually plead guilty to 37 murders (34 patients at two hospitals, and three non-patients). His lawyer later reported that Harvey had actually admitted to 70 murders, but no further charges were ever brought. In 2017, while the 64-year-old was serving multiple life sentences in a prison in Toledo, Ohio, he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate.

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