Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021

It was medical gossip that once you had made out a will in Dr Adams' favour, you would not live long.

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Where there's a will...

Was Dr John Bodkin Adams a fraudster, a serial killer or a darn good FM?

Dr Bodkin Adams was making news in 1957, just as I starting medical school. He practised in Eastbourne, about two hours from London, and half an hour from where I interned. So when he was charged with murder, I read the papers avidly. At three weeks, his murder trial was the longest held at that time, and it was so expensive that it tripled the cost of medical malpractice insurance in England.

Eastbourne is a pleasant town on the south coast of England with a (marginally) better climate, where the elderly traditionally retire. Taking care of these mainly female retirees was a very lucrative practice. Dr Adams bought into a practice there in 1922, and by 1936 became the senior partner. As a foretaste of his style, in that year he was left £7000 by a widow (at least $250,000 in today’s terms). The relatives contested, but Dr Adams won in court.

Although these events took place only 50 years ago, it really was a different world. As a family doctor, Dr Adams had a large practice, but he seemed to specialize in wealthy elderly widows. He would do house calls in a Rolls-Royce, driven by a chauffer, and almost all his patients were private. Socialists and like to suggest that the poor were not looked after, but the truth is that even Dr Adams was known for being kind and generous to his poor patients, and every town had a hospital where treatment was free.

However, in reading about Dr Adams, he generally does not come across as a very attractive person. Co-workers described him as unctuous and oily. Fellow general practitioners resented his success in attracting the wealthy, and local consultants resented the fact that he ignored them, and referred his wealthy patients to specialists in London. Not only did he refer them, but he would take them to London in his Roll-Royce, and would be present for the consultation.

In 1939, a proportion of the town’s physicians went off to war, and there was an agreement that other physicians would look after their patients, but would return them when the war was over. In addition, half the fees from these transferred patients would go to the original physician, or his family. It was significant that Dr Adams was excluded from these arrangements.

A push to the grave?

In dealing with the wealthy, his common approach was to mention that if he sent a bill, the money he received would be highly taxed, but if the patient were to remember him in her will, any bequests were not taxable. His second line was to suggest that if there were no relatives, the patient might consider leaving money to charity, but as there were so many scams, they could leave money to him, and he would see that it went to worthy causes.

Using this technique, Dr Adams received money from a total of 350 wills, and was left large amounts of property, jewels, silverware and two Roll-Royces. It also made him the target of rumour, jealousy and even hatred. It was medical gossip that once you had made out a will in Dr Adams' favour, you would not live long.

These rumours became prevalent enough to trigger a police investigation, firstly over two patients. A Mr. Hullett died one year after surgery for bowel cancer, (leaving Dr Adams £500, say $20,000 in today’s terms) and his depressed widow was said to have died of a barbiturate overdose.

She died one day after giving him a cheque for £1000. Dr Adams cashed the cheque on the same day, the bank clerk said at the time that the signature was very feeble, but Dr Adams reassured him that the patient was very sick. Shortly after the death, the police were suspicious enough, that a warrant was obtained to search Dr Adam’s house for drugs.

Unusual timing

One of the police, Superintendent Hanna, made it his job to "get" Dr Adams, and investigated several deaths. His conversations with Dr Adams were superficially cordial, despite the fact that he had searched Adams' office. But in 1956, Dr Adams was charged with murder of a Mrs. Morrell, and then with the murder Mr. And Mrs. Hullett. The good doctor's initial response to the charge was: "Easing the passing of a dying person is not all that wicked — she wanted to die, that cannot be murder."

Mrs. Morrell was yet another wealthy widow, who had suffered a stroke while visiting the north of England. She retired to Eastbourne and met Dr Adams and was looked after at home by private nurses. She was said to be rude and cantankerous, especially to the nurses. When Dr Adams visited, the nurses were required to leave the room, his common practice.

Her main hobby seemed to be writing and changing wills, and Dr Adams was included, then excluded several times. She was a difficult patient, and she received increasing doses of sedatives including morphine, heroin, paraldehyde and Omnopon.

As expected, her general condition declined, and with or without the help of narcotics she died in the night.

Although Mrs. Morrell died in 1950, Dr Adams was not charged until 1957 and, after being charged, he was held in jail for a preliminary hearing. There was tremendous national publicity, and mainly as a result of this, Dr Adams was committed for trial, though legal opinion was that the little evidence was insufficient.

While Dr Adams was kept in jail where he received many gifts and messages from his loyal patients. The jail staff said he remained calm and dignified, and spent time praying and singing hymns.

Bullying manner

For the trial, the prosecutor was the Attorney-General himself, Sir Reginal Mannigham-Buller, known generally as Sir Bullying Manner, from the way he handled witnesses. For the defense, Geoffrey Lawrence, a brilliant cross-examiner, who was polite, patient and merciless. His technique was sometimes similar to Columbo, in that he would meekly ask questions of an expert, leading him on, then would suddenly pull the rug out revealing obvious flaws.

The trial started with both sides giving an overview of the case, then the three nurses who had looked after Mrs. Morrell were questioned. The first, Nurse Stronach gave evidence about the drugs given, except she was not sure of the ones Dr Adams used. She stated her memory was clear about these events from seven years before, and that all significant events, especially injections, were recorded in the nursing notebooks — which were destroyed after the patient died.

Mr. Lawrence elaborated on this. "And as distinct from your memory of six years ago, these reports would be absolutely accurate?"

"Oh yes."

In one of the most dramatic moments of the trial, Mr. Lawrence suddenly produced the notebooks, which unbeknownst to all, Dr Adams had stored away. He then went back over the evidence, pointing out days when the Nurse had said Dr Adams had visited, and had given injections, but although each meal was recorded, no visit or injection was listed.

"Are you saying that as a trained nurse, who recorded every drop of brandy would not have recorded an injection of morphia, or a visit from the doctor?"

Errors of memory were listed one by one.

"You said you never gave the patient Omnopon, but here in the notes you have written that you did?"

Before the notes were produced, Nurse Stronach said the patient was comatose for the last day of her life. "We have your records for that day. You wrote that this semi-conscious woman for lunch had partridge, celery, pudding and a small brandy and soda. Would that be a normal diet for a comatose patient?"

By the time Mr. Lawrence was finished, the credibility of the three nurses was shattered.

Motive for murder?

Next the question of motive. While it had been generally reported in the press that Dr Adams received cash, silverware and a Rolls-Royce, it turned out that he was left nothing in the final will, but had been given these items by Mrs. Morrell’s son, who said it was his mother’s wishes.

Other that the rather old Rolls, the value of the gifts was £270. All the medical opinion was that Mrs. Morrell was only expected to live a short time, weeks at the most. Therefore her earlier death would not have been any advantage to Dr Adams.

The main medical witness for the prosecution was Dr Arthur Henry Douthwaite of Harley Street. He was consultant physician to University College, Guy’s Hospital and other great institutions. He was President of this and that, author of this and that, and a towering figure. He was said to be tall, distinguished looking. He was also arrogant and dogmatic. He was not aware that Mr. Lawrence, while appearing to be asking for information, was leading him into a trap.

He described a stroke and the treatment. Morphia should never be used. It should not be given for sedation or for irritability. It should only be used for severe pain. It should never be used for restlessness, it would always produce addiction. Finally he was almost goaded into saying that the only reason to give morphia to a patient after a stroke would be with "murderous intent". The judge adjourned for the day.

Next morning, Mr. Lawrence began to chip away at this evidence.

"You say that the only reason to give morphine to a patient with a stroke would be with murderous intent? I wonder if you would look at these records?"

At this Mr. Lawrence did his second conjuring trick, and produced the hospital records from Mrs. Morrell’s original stroke, from Chester hospital. It showed she had received morphia prescribed by two separate doctors.

"Would you therefore conclude that these physicians also had murderous intent?"

Even with this, Dr Douthwaite refused to back down, until his arrogance was obvious to the court and destroyed his credibility.

Other physicians disagreed; several said that the medication would have no effect on her lifespan. On her final night, Mrs. Morrell was given paraldehyde, one of the safest sedatives. "A curious choice if one was intent on murder."

Mr. Lawrence took apart the case for the prosecution, plank by plank, leaving them nothing but innuendo. Mr. Justice Devlin, summing up gave an opinion which has since been used:

"Members of the jury there are three points, the Crown must convince you that she did not die from natural causes, second you must be convinced that there was an act of killing, and thirdly if there was such an act, was it with the intent of killing?"

This principal, that if a drug is used to relieve suffering, and as a result of using that drug the patient dies, because there was no intent to kill it would not be considered murder. Of course, too often intent is known only in the heart of the administrator.

Free but besmirched

The jury acquitted Dr Adams after only 45 minutes of deliberation. The other murder charges were dropped, mainly as Mr. Lawrence had shattered the case for the prosecution. Dr Adams was spirited away, hidden from the crowds outside the courthouse. He was taken to the offices of the Daily Express where he sold his story for £10,000 which he never used, this cash, still in the same envelope was found in his safety deposit box at his death.

As a result of a search of his chaotic drug cabinet, where margarine and chocolates were stored along with narcotics, Dr Adams was charged with several drug and cremation offenses. These were relatively minor. It should be noted that records of narcotics were only required starting around 1933. Before that they were much easier to obtain, and morphine was used on a regular basis for general sedation.

Much later, there was a requirement for physicians to keep records of narcotics, but this was generally ignored, much as it is today. Adams apparently stated, " I obtained all the drugs at the same drug store, and they had records." It is said that only after this case, all physicians started to keep drug records.

He was also found guilty of stating on a cremation form under, "Will you receive financial benefit from the death of this patient?" He wrote "Of this I cannot say." Evidence was given by the Registrar that he had never seen "Yes" in answer to this question. And another physician said, "How would you know, unless you asked a dying patient?"

The local Medical Society asked Dr Adams to resign due to the "unnecessary extra publicity," though how Dr Adams benefited from this is not obvious. He was asked to resign as director of the local YMCA and the Gun Club.

The General Medical Council, surely being vindictive, crossed him off the register for four years for drug recording offenses, while they knew that very few physicians kept the required records.

Dr Adams filled in the four years with travel and socializing, and returned to practice in 1961. He died in 1983, after falling and breaking his hip. He left an estate of £402,970 and bequeathed £1000 to the Daily Express reporter who had befriended him.

The sources used in preparing this article include:

Cullen, Pamela. A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams. (2006, Elliott & Thompson Limited).

Gow, JG. "Easing the Passing: the Trial of John Bodkin Adams," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, July 1987.

Surtees, John. The Strange case of Dr. Bodkin Adams: The Life and Murder Trial of Eastbourne's Infamous Doctor and the Views of Those Who Knew Him. (2000, Seaford Publishers).

Wikipedia. "Dr. John Bodkin-Adams."

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