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By Stewart Emmens on

When Good Doctors Turn Bad

Three corrupt doctors
18th century caricature showing three corrupt doctors (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Greek authorities recently named and shamed a number of tax-avoiding doctors. A move that is perhaps more revealing of blame-shifting than an indication that the profession is morally suspect. Not that doctors are always the saints we’d like them to be. Just because they’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath, doesn’t mean they’re going to stick to it.

Buried within our vast and varied medical collections are a number of objects associated with good doctors that turned (very) bad.

Dr Neill Cream objects
Photographs and letters relating to Dr Neill Cream (Science Museum)

Dr Neill Cream appears quite the dapper Victorian gentleman doctor. Born 160 years ago, on May 27, he was trained at prestigious medical schools in London and Edinburgh. But his charm and appearance belied his true character – a backstreet abortionist drawn to London’s sordid underbelly. Nicknamed the ‘Lambeth Poisoner’, he was hanged for a series of murders. His alleged cry of “I am Jack…” as the rope went taut would tantalize generations of Ripper enthusiasts. The letter, sent to his fiancée from prison, contains declarations of innocence – and a plea for an alibi.

Dr William Palmer's cigar case
Dr William Palmer's cigar case and cigar (Science Museum)

An even more infamous doctor once owned this cigar case – complete with unsmoked cigar. Dr William Palmer, aka the ‘Prince of Poisoners’, was one of the 19th century’s most notorious characters. Better suited to a life of drink and gambling than healing, Palmer was convicted of a single murder after a sensational trial. However, it is believed he poisoned many more – including his own children and other relatives. He was hanged in front of a crowd of some 30,000 in 1856, but lives on in the enduring pub refrain of ‘what’s your poison?’, believed to be inspired by his exploits.

Compared to Cream and Palmer, those Greek doctors seem paragons of virtue.