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Radio review: Story of killer doctor Harold Shipman shows that behind every graph lies a mystery waiting to unfold

Mathematician Hannah Fry brings to life pivotal moments in people’s lives
Mathematician Hannah Fry brings to life pivotal moments in people’s lives Mathematician Hannah Fry brings to life pivotal moments in people’s lives

Uncharted with Hannah Fry, Radio 4

Mathematics can seem deeply unsexy.

But under the keen eye of mathematician Hannah Fry, it isn’t.

A recommendation brought me to a 15-minute episode of this radio series which sets out to prove that behind every graph lies a mystery waiting to unfold.

Fry is good on intrigue and drama. She paints pictures, brings to life pivotal moments in people’s lives.

The Doctor Will See You Now asked us to imagine a hot summer’s day in 1998, two couples standing side by side in a courtyard, looking at a tatty piece of A4 paper that would change their lives and the lives of thousands of other people.

The paper turned out to be a forged signature on a will.

Rewind a few weeks and Angela Woodruff received a copy of her mother Kathleen’s will, a few weeks after her death. She was stunned and upset to find that she and her children had been completely disinherited.

There had been no falling out, no sign of this bombshell... it seemed unimaginable.

Kathleen had left everything to a friendly local doctor. Angela’s husband Phil’s first thought was that somebody was trying to discredit the doctor. The will was badly typed and the couple felt Kathleen wouldn’t have put a name to it.

They were convinced it was a fake. They looked at the signatures of those who had witnessed the will. And that led to that sunny doorstep in Manchester.

Yes, the witness signed, but it was for having Angela’s blood tested for research and Doctor Shipman had asked for a witness in the GP surgery.

That was how the doctor who murdered his patients was caught and the true scale of horror began to unfold.

This is where the data comes in. When Shipman’s mortality rate was compared to that of other GPs in the area, he was a complete outlier – his estimated excess mortality for those aged 65 and over was 174 women and 49 men.

The statisticians also looked at his patients’ time of death. For other GPs in the area, that could be any time. For Shipman there was “a huge spike” between 2pm and 3pm – when he was doing home visits and overdosing his victims on diamorphine.

All episodes of Uncharted are available on BBC Sounds – it’s worth a listen.