Jane Robins

£20, John Murray

Compassionate doctor or mass murderer? This is the question explored in this meticulously researched exploration of the real-life career and trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams (pictured) .

Adams, born in Northern Ireland at the turn of the last century, was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and, even as his own defence barrister acknowledged, was not a good doctor. He was, however, an outsider who fought his way up through Eastbourne society in the 1940s and 1950s and became the trusted GP to Eastbourne’s privileged elite. Unfortunately for him, he made enemies and friends in equal measure during his rise up the social ladder.  

When one of his patients, wealthy  widow Bobbie Hullett, died in mysterious circumstances it triggered a media frenzy, police investigation and, eventually, a murder trial – though not for the murder of Hullett. First the media, and then the police, uncovered a series of deaths of his elderly, or not so elderly, patients.  These deaths were often recorded as being due to cerebral or coronary thrombosis, although very few of the deaths prompted autopsies. Tellingly, Adams was often a beneficiary under the wills of his wealthy patients.

The reader would feel more comfortable if the author’s coverage of the trial by the press and the comprehensive, if skewed, investigation by the police could be attributed to the shortcomings of the era, but it is also reminiscent of current times. We do not know if Adams was an early generation Dr Shipman, and we never will. But the similarities between the two cases are  clear.

The book also explores how doctors and lawyers during that period were held in such high esteem. While one would like to think this was a quaint, if dangerous, story of a lost age, the current press coverage of Court of Protection out-of-hours rulings and the Liverpool Care Pathway are reminders that times may have moved on, but our lives are still in their hands. As for the trial, one would hope today’s lawyers would avoid the mistakes made by both the prosecution and the defence.

The book is thought-provoking and enjoyable. This case and that of Dr Shipman will not be the last we hear on the subject.

Hilary Palmer is a solicitor at Kent County Council