When Doctors Kill - Who, Why and How

Lloyd Bradley finds this eclectic trawl through the profession's alleged killers a lot to stomach

August 12, 2010

Occasionally one wanders into the hinterland at the end of the television remote control; a strange universe populated with innumerable channels offering something between documentary and drama that may be described as "infotainment". When Doctors Kill could easily serve as the synopsis for one of the schlocky strands that are the mainstay of these channels.

It offers a collection of anecdotes and case studies interspersed with the occasional rumination on a variety of topics including alternative medicine, religion, environmentalism and the pressures of fame, all of which make for an entertaining, if confusing, read. The authors adopt a light, conversational tone that sometimes works well but sits uneasily with, for example, speculation regarding Harold Shipman's motives. I'm sure that the pair would be greatly in demand on the after-dinner circuit, as they are clearly able to relay dry facts in an entertaining and engaging way.

Unfortunately, any sense of coherence or overarching thought as to why physicians may kill is lost in this salad of unrelated stories, rumours and conjecture. The remit is too broad to carry any unifying thesis or message on the subject. Characters such as Che Guevara, Jack the Ripper and Josef Mengele all surface along the way. There are dentists, alternative therapists, unethical investigators, proponents of euthanasia, terrorists and even a roll call of fictional psychopathic medics. Such a wide range of completely unrelated individuals and ideas certainly holds the attention, but can shine little light on any of them.

When there is an attempt to dig a little deeper, in discussion of Islamic education or the interface between commerce and ethics, for instance, the general tone seems inappropriate and perhaps inadequate to address the issues in question, while musings on the nature of evil and terrorism seem to have been transplanted from the op-ed section of a tabloid newspaper.

It is a shame that the authors' focus was not a little sharper, as genuinely thought-provoking concepts are alluded to. The grey area between euthanasia and "keeping comfortable" is a place that every practising doctor will have visited at some point in their career, and yet it is given less consideration than what Elvis Presley may have consumed in the hours leading to his death.

Indeed, the final chapter is not, as may have been expected from this kind of work, a summary and overview of the subject. Instead, the deaths of three celebrities are dissected from the standpoint of the authors in their professional roles as forensic pathologists. While the insights into pharmacology and toxicology are unexpected and engaging (and When Celebrities Die might have been a better book), further speculation about Michael Jackson's childhood most certainly is not. There is a sense that the final chapter is intended to make the book more appealing to a public with a seemingly endless appetite for all things celebrity-related. Perhaps the expedience in publishing the book during the blizzard of interest in Jackson's personal physician, Conrad Murray, has distorted its original structure or purpose.

In the end, this eclectic collection of tyrants, psychopaths, sadists and terrorists (using the George W. Bush definition set) could be drawn from almost any walk of life. These are individuals who happened to be doctors and, by their very variety, call into question the purpose of this book. It is a fairly depressing trawl through a gallery of atrocities committed by a range of people and organisations, unencumbered by any sense of coherence or purpose. Like watching those cable channels at the end of the remote: entertaining enough, but ultimately leaves you feeling empty and a little bit nauseous.

Oh, and where was Dr Crippen in all this?

When Doctors Kill - Who, Why, and How

By Joshua A. Perper and Stephen J. Cina

Springer, 320pp, £22.99

ISBN 9781441913685

Published 22 June 2010

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