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


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


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


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


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


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.

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
An Ancient Book Blasted with High-Powered X-Rays Reveals Text Erased Centuries Ago
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A book of 10th-century psalms recovered from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is an impressive artifact in itself. But the scientists studying this text at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University were less interested in the surface text than in what was hidden beneath it. As Gizmodo reports, the researchers were able to identify the remains of an ancient Greek medical text on the parchment using high-powered x-rays.

Unlike the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) used by the scientists is a much simpler and more common type of particle accelerator. In the SSRL, electrons accelerate to just below the speed of light while tracing a many-sided polygon. Using magnets to manipulate the electrons' path, the researchers can produce x-ray beams powerful enough to reveal the hidden histories of ancient documents.

Scanning an ancient text.
Mike Toth, R.B. Toth Associates, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the case of the 10th-century psalms, the team discovered that the same pages had held an entirely different text written five centuries earlier. The writing was a transcription of the words of the prominent Greek physician Galen, who lived from 130 CE to around 210 CE. His words were recorded on the pages in the ancient Syriac language by an unknown writer a few hundred years after Galen's death.

Several centuries after those words were transcribed, the ink was scraped off by someone else to make room for the psalms. The original text is no longer visible to the naked eye, but by blasting the parchment with x-rays, the scientists can see where the older writing had once marked the page. You can see it below—it's the writing in green.

X-ray scan of ancient text.
University of Manchester, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now that the researchers know the hidden text is there, their next step will be uncovering as many words as possible. They plan to do this by scanning the book in its entirety, a process that will take 10 hours for each of the 26 pages. Once they've been scanned and studied, the digital files will be shared online.

Particle accelerators are just one tool scientists use to decipher messages that were erased centuries ago. Recently, conservationists at the Library of Congress used multispectral imaging, a method that bounces different wavelengths of light off a page, to reveal the pigments of an old Alexander Hamilton letter someone had scrubbed out.

[h/t Gizmodo]


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