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Angels of Death: 7 More Medical Murderers

In part one of Angels of Death, you saw the stories of eight medical professionals who killed their patients. That's just scratching the surface of the many cases of medical murders. Here are seven more.

Nightmare Nurse

Jane Toppan admitted to first eleven murders, then later to 31. Despite recklessness with drugs, unusually high patient deaths, and charges of theft, she managed to find employment over and over again in Massachusetts between the years of 1885 and 1901. In 1901, Toppan moved in with the Davis family after the death of the elderly mother she had cared for. Within a short time, the father and two daughters were dead. She also killed her foster sister before an investigation, which found the victims to be poisoned, led to her arrest. Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was held in a mental institution for the rest of her life. Toppan was said to have been proud of the killings.

The Angel of Death

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Two of the people profiled here are very different from the rest in that they did not hide their actions at the time. One was Joseph Mengele, who had free rein under the SS to conduct experiments on inmates at Auschwitz. The doctor was also largely responsible for selecting prisoners for the gas chambers. Mengele had a special interest in twins. Thousands of twins were subjected to horrific surgical procedures and injections. Only a few survived World War II. Mengele also "experimented" with electric shock, castration, radiation, and removal of limbs and organs without anesthetic on manner of prisoners. Mengele escaped to Argentina after the war under a false identity. The records he kept on his experiments were destroyed by a colleague. Mengele died in 1979 in Brazil. A grave was exhumed in 1985 and DNA tests in 1992 confirmed that it was Mengele's.

The Job-hopping Nurse

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Charles Cullen worked as a nurse at ten different hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and admitted killing 45 patients between 1988 and 2003. He administered overdoses of drugs (usually digoxin) by injection or through intravenous lines. He was fired from job after job for erratic behavior, incompetence, or breaking rules, but Cullen continued to find work because of a nationwide nurse shortage. Suspicious deaths at Somerset Medical Center in New Jersey finally led authorities to look into Cullen's background. He was arrested for one murder and one attempted murder in 2003. He later confessed and pled guilty to the charges. In later investigations, Cullen pled guilty to 13 murders at Somerset and three more at other hospitals in New Jersey. He also pled guilty to killing six patients in Pennsylvania. Cullen is serving 18 life sentences and will be eligible for parole in 395 years. The nurse explained that he killed because he couldn't stand to see his patients suffer, although he seemed unaware that in many cases, he caused their suffering. As a result of the Cullen case, most states adopted laws that provided legal immunity to employers who give poor performance ratings or referrals to medical professionals.

Dr. Death

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There are many who would not consider Jack Kevorkian a murderer, but he was convicted and served eight years in prison for second-degree homicide. Kevorkian was an activist who published and spoke on the ethics of euthanasia. He pushed the idea that terminally ill patients and even those with a limited quality of life, should have the right to commit suicide, even those who are not physically able to do so. Kevorkian developed at least two devices that allowed patients to deliver their own death with a simple push of a button. The doctor, whose license was revoked in 1991, says he assisted in over 100 suicides. He was arrested numerous times, but wasn't convicted until 1998 because the patient had made the ultimate move in each death. However, Thomas Youk was completely paralyzed due to ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), so Kevorkian, with the patient's permission, administered a lethal injection. The event was videotaped and shown on the TV show 60 Minutes in 1998, which led to murder charges for Kevorkian. He was denied parole until 2006, when he finally promised not to involve himself in any more suicides. At the time, Kevorkian was expected to die of Hepatitis C within a year. However, he was healthy enough to run for a Michigan congressional seat in 2008. He did not win the election.

The Veteran Murderer

220_gilbert.jpgWhen nurse Kristen Gilbert moved to the evening shift at the VA Hospital in Northampton, massachusetts, the death rate tripled. Other nurses noticed patients dying of cardiac arrest when there was no history of heart trouble. They also noticed epinephrine, a drug that can cause heart attacks, sometimes went missing. And they noticed Gilbert's affair with security guard James Perrault, who was always called when an emergency arose on the ward. It was thought that the nurse would induce a heart attack solely for the opportunity to summon her lover to the scene. Authorities investigated in 1996, Gilbert was suspended, and the death rate immediately dropped to normal levels. Perrault broke off the affair, and Gilbert tried to kill herself. She landed in a psychiatric ward, where she admitted to  Perrault that she killed patients. Her former lover then aided the investigation against her. Gilbert called in a bomb threat to the hospital, asking to speak to Perrault. She was arrested for the act, and later charged with four counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. She was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.

The Compassionate Killer

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Stephan Letter was convicted of murdering 16 patients and causing the death of 13 more, although the line between the two charges seems blurry. Letter was a nurse at a clinic for the elderly in Sonthofen, Bavaria, Germany. Police investigated around 80 suspicious deaths in 2003 and 2004. 43 victims were exhumed and another 38 had been cremated. The exhumations showed the patients had been killed by a lethal combination of drugs. Letter admitted killing twelve of the patients. The 27-year-old nurse told the court he had acted out of compassion for the dying. In 2006, he was found guilty of 29 murders and sentenced to life.

The Most Prolific Ever

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British physician Harold Shipman may have killed as many as 400 of his patients during his medical career, which would make him the most prolific serial killer of all time. An official audit estimates the number of victims at 236 over 24 years, but the exact number will probably never be known. Shipman was abusing drugs and forging prescriptions early in his career, but went on to treat patients in Hyde, Greater Manchester. Eventually, funeral directors and medical examiners were concerned about the number of deaths under Shipman's care, but an inquiry went nowhere because the doctor had changed medical records after the fact to explain that the patient had been ill. In reality, almost all the patients had been healthy just prior to death. After Kathleen Grundy died in 1998, a suspicious-looking will was produced that left £386,000 to Dr. Shipman. Mrs. Grundy was found to have died of an overdose of morphine. Police investigated the deaths of previous patients, and found many had died of overdoses. Mrs. Grundy's will was linked to Shipman's typewriter, and an examination of Shipman's computer revealed evidence of medical records that were amended after the deaths. He was convicted of 15 murders in 2000 and sentenced to life for each, plus four years for forgery. Shipman proclaimed his innocence until the day he hanged himself in prison in 2004.

Most of the entries in this post were people mentioned in the comments of the previous post on the subject. I have a long list of obscure medical murderers, so there may well be a third installment.

Update: Part three of this series is now available.

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Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
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Medicine
Bill and Melinda Gates Will Repay Nigeria's $76 Million Polio-Fighting Loan
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Not long after announcing a $100 million donation to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, Bill and Melinda Gates have agreed to pay off Japan's $76 million loan to Nigeria to stamp out polio, Quartz reports.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world, but it's still present in Nigeria, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, according to The Conversation, Nigeria accounted for 86 percent of all polio cases in Africa. This high number was thanks in part to low immunization rates and calls from extremists to boycott polio vaccinations out of fear that they were tainted with anti-fertility steroids.

National and international campaigns were launched to lower polio rates in Nigeria, and in 2014 the nation received the loan from Japan to boost disease-fighting efforts. Progress has been made since then, with no new cases of polio reported in Nigeria in 2017. Two children had contracted polio in 2016, two years after Nigeria's last known case.

Nigeria's loan repayments to Japan were slated to begin in 2018. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to cover the costs after Nigeria met its goal of "achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country's local government areas," Quartz reports. The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years.

While the Gates Foundation is lending a hand to Nigeria, the Associated Press reports that health officials in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province recently launched a new chapter in the nation's ongoing struggle against the disease. Health workers will engage in a week-long, door-to-door vaccination campaign, though efforts like this are risky due to threats from the Taliban and other militant groups, who view vaccinations as a Western conspiracy and believe they sterilize children. Anti-polio efforts in Pakistan also suffered after the CIA used vaccinations as a cover to get DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound.

[h/t Quartz]

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George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
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Design
This 1907 Vision Test Was Designed for People of All Nationalities
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain

At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco was a diverse place. In fact, Angel Island Immigration Station, located on an island in the San Francisco Bay, was known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” processing some 300,000 people coming to the U.S. in the early 1900s. George Mayerle, a German optometrist working in the city at the time, encountered this diversity of languages and cultures every day in his practice. So in the 1890s, Mayerle created what was billed as “the only [eye] chart published that can be used by people of any nationality,” as The Public Domain Review alerts us.

Anticipating the difficulty immigrants, like those from China or Russia, would face when trying to read a vision test made solely with Roman letters for English-speaking readers, he designed a test that included multiple scripts. For his patients that were illiterate, he included symbols. It features two different styles of Roman scripts for English-speaking and European readers, and characters in Cyrillic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Chinese scripts as well as drawings of dogs, cats, and eyes designed to test the vision of children and others who couldn't read.

The chart, published in 1907 and measuring 22 inches by 28 inches, was double-sided, featuring black text on a white background on one side and white text on a black background on the other. According to Stephen P. Rice, an American studies professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey, there are other facets of the chart designed to test for a wide range of vision issues, including astigmatism and color vision.

As he explains in the 2012 history of the National Library of Medicine’s collections, Hidden Treasure [PDF], the worldly angle was partly a marketing strategy on Mayerle’s part. (He told fellow optometrists that the design “makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.”)

But that doesn’t make it a less valuable historical object. As Rice writes, “the ‘international’ chart is an artifact of an immigrant nation—produced by a German optician in a polyglot city where West met East (and which was then undergoing massive rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake)—and of a globalizing economy.”

These days, you probably won’t find a doctor who still uses Mayerle’s chart. But some century-old vision tests are still in use today. Shinobu Ishihara’s design for a visual test for colorblindness—those familiar circles filled with colored dots that form numbers in the center—were first sold internationally in 1917, and they remain the most popular way to identify deficiencies in color vision.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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