Book review: The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams by Jane Robins

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John Bodkin Adams could have earned the respect traditionally given to the medical profession as a general practitioner in Eastbourne from the 1920s. Instead he was tried for murder in a case which divided public opinion across Britain

The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams BY Jane Robins

John Murray, 357pp, £20

Jane Robins’s book about him arouses interest in the first paragraph, inviting readers to decide with her “whether or not he was a murderer”. Even if you know what the verdict was in his 1957 trial, the pace of the writing will hold your attention. It is unusual to suggest reading an appendix first but the list of questionable deaths of his elderly (mainly widowed) patients between 1946 and 1956 covers 22 pages and would be a good scene-setter for chapter one.

After the trial, the files were closed for 75 years, a decision which seemed suspicious and suggestive of a cover-up at the time. A Freedom of Information request rescinded that barrier, and Robins has studied the records painstakingly. She has also had access to the personal records of key figures at the trial.

Bodkin Adams grew up in Northern Ireland in a family dominated by his very religious mother. He was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and maintained his faith throughout his life. Having qualified with difficulty as a doctor, he realised he was unlikely to become a consultant and settled for general practice. One extra qualification he did leave university with was in anaesthetics. It would prove useful.

There had been rumours in Eastbourne for some time about his preference for treating elderly widows. Questions about his motives were fuelled by his lifestyle: he was possibly the wealthiest GP in England, with several cars including a Rolls Royce, a splendid house and personal staff including a chauffeur, gardener and housekeeper. How did he get the money?

One of the earliest deaths in which he was involved to be investigated was that of Bobbie Hullett. He first treated her in 1950, soon after the early death of her headmaster husband. Thereafter he visited her every day, which was typical of his care for widowed patients. She remarried in 1952 and her husband became his patient too.

Adams treated Hullet in the same way he did his other older female patients. Like other doctors of his time, he believed that women suffered from nervous problems and prescribed increasing doses of barbiturates. After she died in 1956, the inquest decided she had committed suicide.

Hullett’s death increased the gossip in Eastbourne and police became suspicious. Adams always signed death certificates personally and quickly, declaring that he would not benefit from the deceased’s will even when he knew that was untrue. He organised the funerals, excluding the immediate family. Most of the bodies were cremated.

There was never any doubt that Adams behaved unprofessionally. He knew about legacies in advance and had in some cases arranged them with the solicitor on behalf of his patient. He stole items such as chocolates, brandy, a clock and a typewriter from his patients’ bedrooms after sending the nursing staff out of the room. He was promised a valuable dinner service by one widow and removed it from her house before she died. Did he know she was about to die?

Between 1946 and 1956 he received 23 legacies. The number was unusual but the practice of leaving money to one’s doctor was not uncommon. One nurse, however, declared he was “out for all he could get”. Adams certainly ingratiated himself with patients so as to control their lives, excluding relatives, managing their staff and being the contact with their solicitors.

None of that was proof of murder. Being unethical is not necessarily criminal. The police investigation was complicated enough for a senior officer from Scotland Yard to be assigned to the case. A Home Office pathologist identified 163 suspicious cases in the police files on the doctor. It took many months and two exhumations to put together a case of murder. Bodkin Adams was eventually charged with the murder of one patient, Edith Morrell. A second charge was held in readiness in case that one failed. The Daily Express headline summed up the problem; “Bodkin Adams: Mass Killer or Innocent?”

Jane Robins keeps the readers’ interest as she details the trial and its outcome. She believes it is impossible to be sure about his guilt and draws interesting comparisons between the personalities of Bodkin Adams and Harold Shipman, who was convicted of 215 murders. She is sure that both liked “to preside over the death”.

This is a compelling, very well-written story. It will feed the British love of a good murder mystery. Robins gives her own verdict in the final chapter but her readers are the jury.