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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 7th July 2011

I had thought I would be the only person in the UK writing a blog today without mentioning the closure of the News of the World. But, it occurred to me that there are similarities between what is happening now to NoW and one of the most famous murderers of all time.

Amongst all the accusations and rumours that will keep flying around for many months to come there are cries of ‘How could this have happened?’ And the answer is simply that whenever people say ‘Lessons have been learned’ they are proved to have been wrong.

Throughout history, there have been times when events have become public that are so shocking that it seems remarkable that they could have been going on without being known to many more people than those directly involved.

Sometimes, they are things that people know about but don’t realise are as much of an issue as they turn out to be. Most people were aware that MPs were able to claim many things as expenses but very few were fully aware of how much the system had become simply a way of topping up their salaries because a straightforward increase would have been politically difficult.

At other times, the information is just too unbelievable to be accepted. The Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ was widely rumoured to be going on but it just seemed so far away from the behaviour of even the least human being that people simply couldn’t accept that it might be true until the appalling evidence was obtained as the camps were liberated.

Then again, there can be things that simply never enter people’s minds. It took a very long time before anyone even began to think that there might be something odd in the number of people dying when in the care of Dr Harold Shipman.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Shipman spent 25 years killing his patients with overdoses of morphine, the narcotic obtained from Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. His first victim died on 12th April 1972 and his last on 11th November 1997. The enquiry that followed his conviction on 31st January 2000 for fifteen murders concluded that between that first and last there were, probably, 282 others who died because Shipman decided they should.

Every death is, of course, a tragedy but the final three are, perhaps, most tragic because they occurred after suspicion had fallen on Shipman and the police had conducted an enquiry. Unlike the News of the World situation, there was never any suggestion that the police enquiry was deliberately perfunctory and that evidence was ignored. It was accepted that the possibility of an ordinary GP being a murderer was just too far from even abnormal behaviour to have been seriously considered.

We will never know why Harold Shipman killed. With someone like Jane Toppan, another medically qualified user of morphine as a murder weapon who killed 31 people in the USA almost a century before Shipman, we know, because she said, that she obtained pleasure from killing and would, sometimes, reach a sexual climax by hugging her victim as death overtook them. But Shipman never admitted his guilt and never expressed any remorse. The best guess is just a guess but it may be that watching his mother die when he was seventeen and being unable to do anything to stop her demise led him to decide to take control of life and death.

Some people think his suicide in 2004 was a sign of remorse even though he had shown none and had refused to co-operate with the enquiry under Dame Janet Smith. That seems not to have been the case because, by dying before his 60th birthday, Shipman secured an enhanced pension for his widow worth, in total, over £100k to her. Even with his own death he wanted to demonstrate his control of events.

Dame Smith’s enquiry produced four reports, the last in July 2004, six months after Shipman’s death. Procedures were changed and, everyone agreed, ‘Lessons had been learned’. Let’s hope so but what can’t be unlearned is our tendency to not believe that serious wrong can be going on without our knowledge.