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10 Derailed Doctors Who Creatively Abused Their Patients

by Andrei Dina
fact checked by Matt Hayes

There’s no mystery as to why doctors are seen as the most important members of society – but unfortunately, humanity has had its share of heartbreak thanks to derailed medical practitioners. They say there are worse things on Earth than one can imagine, but when medical “angels” turn to “demons” even the most prolific imagination finds its limits.

Below is a list of the ten most evil doctors history has ever recorded – doctors you really should try to avoid in the ER.


Dr. Walter Freeman
1895 – 1972

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Walter Jackson Freeman II was an American doctor and member of the American Psychiatric Association. Although he is the only one on our list who hasn’t performed a direct criminal practice on his patients, he can be blamed for harming as many as 3,400 people by using a very controversial and primitive medical technique: the lobotomy.

His operations were performed by inserting a metal pick into the corner of each eye socket, moving it back and forth, and thereby severing the connections to the pre-frontal cortex in the frontal lobes of the brain. This method did not require a neurosurgeon and could be performed outside of an operating room without the use of anesthesia. Freeman actually used his personal van as a surgery room, which he called the “lobotomobile”.

Dr. Freeman was finally banned from performing surgery after the death of some of his patients from brain hemorrhage.

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Dr. Linda Burfield
1867 – 1938


Dr. Linda Burfield demanded to be addressed as “Dr. Hazzard” by her patients – strangely enough this didn’t raise any red flags. She was not technically a doctor, having never graduated from medical school, yet worked as a medical clinic manager as well as licensed medical practitioner in Washington State in the USA.

She’s infamous not necessarily for the number of lives she claimed (15 patients by official police records), but for the unconventional and dangerous methods she promoted for curing diseases. Burfield encouraged the idea that fasting cures almost all ailments – from a simple cold to cancer. To this end she subjected her patients to a draconian diet that lacked basic nutritional elements; it included only two bowls of tomato broth and one or two small oranges a day, for a period as long as one whole month.

In 1912 she was sentenced to two years in prison, after being accused of manslaughter over the death of Claire Williamson, a wealthy British woman who weighed less than 50lb at the time of her death. After her release from prison, she opened a new clinic publicly known as a “school of health” where she continued to starve credulous patients looking for a miraculous cure.

Dr. Hazzard died in 1938 while attempting a fasting cure on herself.


Dr. Marcel Petiot
1897 – 1946

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Marcel Andre Henri Felix Petitot was a French serial killer who conducted his criminal activity during the first and second World Wars. What qualifies Petitot as a worthy presence on our list is a body count of around 60 patients.

After being injured and sent home in the First World War, Petitot completed medical school and started working as an intern in a mental hospital – a controversial appointment as Petitot himself was diagnosed with various mental illnesses during the Great War. After his internship, Dr. Petitot managed to attract patients with fake credentials and built an impressive reputation for his practice. However, rumors of illegal abortions and excessive prescriptions of addictive remedies began to swirl around his clinic.

Petitot`s first victim is said to be Louise Delaveau, the daughter of an elderly patient, with whom he had an affair. Delaveau disappeared, and neighbors later said they had seen Petitot load a trunk into his car. Police investigated but eventually dismissed her case as a runaway.

The truth about Dr. Petitot`s practice was revealed when his neighbors again complained to police – this time of a foul stench in the area and of large amounts of smoke billowing from his chimney. Fearing a chimney fire, the police summoned firemen, who entered the house to find a roaring fire in a coal stove in the basement. In the fire, and scattered in the basement, were human remains.
After being trialed, Petitot was beheaded on 25 May 1946.


Dr. Michael Swango
born 1954


Michael Swango is a former medical doctor, former U.S. Marine recruit and a prolific serial killer with more than 60 deaths attributed to him. As with almost all the other doctors on our list, Dr. Swango’s career as a serial killer goes hand in hand with his clinical practice.

Nurses working with Swango began noticing that apparently healthy patients were dying mysteriously with alarming frequency. Each time, Swango had been the floor intern. One nurse caught him injecting some “medicine” into a patient who later became strangely ill. His co-workers also began noticing that whenever Swango prepared the coffee or brought any food in, several of them became violently ill with no apparent cause. Swango was investigated for poisoning his patients and colleagues, found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

But that wasn’t the end of Swango: after his release, he changed his name by forging IDs and was welcomed back into medical life as Dr. Daniel J. Adams. As you might expect, his patients and colleagues stared dying. After being investigated for a second time, he fled to Zimbabwe to avoid criminal charges. Here he began working as – you guessed it – a doctor.

Dr. Swango was finally foiled in 2000, when he pleaded guilty for murder and fraud charges. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. During the trial, prosecutors read lurid passages from Swango’s notebook, describing the joy he felt during his crimes.


Dr. Jayant Patel
born 1950

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Jayant Mukundray Patel is the only doctor on our list who – even though 87 patients died by his hands – was not carrying out any experiments, had no mental problems or murderous intent whatsoever. Patel’s issue was his gross incompetence and lack of hygiene.

Patel is an Indian surgeon who immigrated to the U.S. While working in Portland, Oregon, his colleagues alleged he performed surgery when not rostered to work, operated on other surgeon’s patients, operated unnecessarily and caused serious injury and death.

In 2003, Patel moved to Australia, where inadequacies in his practice were quickly identified. Colleagues described his surgery as “antiquated” and “sloppy”. Nurses claimed that they hid their patients from him when they knew he was in the hospital. He attracted the nickname “Dr. Death”; and it’s alleged he altered medical records in order to hide his inadequacies.

Patel is linked to at least 87 deaths amongst the 1.202 patients he treated between 2003 and early 2005 but considering that his practice spread over 20 years, the real number of his victims will remain a mystery.
In 2010 Patel was charged with the unlawful killing of three patients, and injuring a fourth. He pleaded not guilty to all charges, but was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in jail.


Dr. John Bodkin Adams
1899 – 1983


John Bodkin Adams was a British medical doctor, a convicted fraudster and a suspected serial killer. Over a ten-year period (1946 – 1956) a total of 160 of his patients died in suspicious circumstances – and most suspiciously, almost all of them left him money or other valuable assets through their will.

Adams’ medical branch was anesthetics, but he wasn’t the assiduous type – soon after commencing his career he acquired a reputation as a ‘bungler’. He would fall asleep during operations, eat cakes, count money, and even mix up the anesthetic gas tubes, leading to patients waking up during the surgery.

Despite being a far-from-brilliant technician, Adams managed to become the wealthiest doctor in England by 1956, in large part because all of his dying patients were agreeing to leave him their valuable possessions. Dr. Adams was never convicted for any of his crimes even though he was brought to court several times. The prosecution was unable to prove his guilt in any of the suspicious deaths – but the general opinion on Adams is that he was a serial killer that got away with it.

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Dr. H.H. Holmes
1861 – 1896

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Herman Webster Mudgett (a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes) was a graduate of Michigan Medical School and one of the first recorded American serial killers. But while most serial killers lurk in dark corners, Holmes went as far as opening a hotel which he had designed and built with murder in mind.

After completing his “house of terrors” – complete with pits of acid, bedrooms fitted with gas lines, secret chutes and even a stretching rack – Holmes selected mainly female victims among his employees as well as hotel guests. After being tortured to death, the victim`s bodies were dropped to the basement where Holmes performed a meticulous dissection procedure, stripping them of flesh and crafting them into skeleton models.

Even though the verified number of victims is 27, police commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Some suggest that more than 200 people found their end in Holmes’ hotel.


Dr. Harold Shipman
1946 – 2004


Harold Frederick Shipman was a British doctor, and one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history. He is judged responsible for more than 250 deaths.

After graduating from Leeds School of Medicine, Shipman became a respected member of the British Medical Council. In 1993 he founded his own clinic. His criminal activities didn’t emerge until 1998, when a fellow doctor complained about the high death rate among Shipman’s patients. The police investigation revealed the fact that Dr. Shipman was administering lethal overdoses of diamorphine to his patients, then forging their medical records to indicate they had been in poor health.

Even though Dr. Shipman was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences, he didn’t spend long in prison, committing suicide in his cell in 2004.


Dr. Shiro Ishii
1892 – 1959

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Shiro Ishii was a Japanese microbiologist and a lieutenant general of the biological warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army responsible for human experimentation and war crimes during the second Sino–Japanese war.

After graduating Medical school in 1922, Dr. Ishii was assigned to the 1st Army Hospital and Army Medical School in Tokyo – but it was not until 1942 he began his famous experiments on humans as part of a secret project for the Japanese Army. His countless victims (some estimate tens of thousands) were mainly Chinese prisoners of war and civilians. Ishii referred to his victims as maruta (logs), a term originating either his view of them as inert, expendable entities, or in the cover story told to locals that the facility contained a sawmill.

His experiments included bio-weapons exposure, vivisections, forced abortions, simulated strokes, heart attacks, frostbites and hypothermia.
Dr. Shiro Ishii has never been prosecuted for his crimes; he negotiated to trade the information obtained during his experiments to the United States in return for his freedom.


Dr. Josef Mengele
1911 – 1979

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Josef Rudolf Mengele (a.k.a. “The Angel of Death”) heads our list mainly because he racked up the highest body count, but also due to the unimaginable atrocities masquerading as “medical experiments” he performed on concentration camp inmates during World War II.

After graduating from Frankfurt Medical School, Mengele was conscripted into the army and later volunteered to the medical service of the Waffen SS, where he distinguished himself as a soldier. In 1943 he was promoted to the rank of Captain and sent to the infamous Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, as the camp’s medical officer.

Mengele soon started abusing inmates. He drew lines on the wall of the children’s block, 150 centimeters from the floor – children shorter than the line were sent to the gas chambers. The remaining children were used for human experiments. He was particularly interested in identical twins. After being placed in special barracks, Mengele attempted to change twins’ eye color by injecting chemicals into eyeballs. He performed limb amputations, and would also experiment with sterilisation and shock treatments on girls.

After an experiment was completed, the survivors were usually killed and their bodies dissected. Mengele survived the war and, after a period of living incognito in Germany, he fled to South America, where he evaded capture for the rest of his life, despite being relentlessly hunted as a Nazi war criminal.

fact checked by Matt Hayes