Almost famous: Ophthalmologist gained worldwide attention in 1910

A word from Chief Medical Editor Peter J. McDonnell, MD.


A body is discovered buried in the cellar of a London home. The head, hands and all the bones had been dissected away, leaving only the organs and soft tissues.

Needless to say, in 1910 there was no ability to confirm identity with DNA.

The disappearance of the husband, in the company of his secretary/girlfriend Ethel Le Neve, naturally made him the leading suspect, but he eluded the authorities, escaped from England and seemingly had disappeared.

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The suspect, Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American, decided to travel by ship from his hiding place on the European continent back to the United States. Ethel, her hair cut short, pretended to be his son.

Unfortunately for the abscondees, the ship’s captain saw through their disguises.

And also unfortunately, the ship was one of a relatively small number of vessels equipped with the recent technology developed by Guglielmo Marconi known as wireless telegraphy.

The captain messaged his observations back to London, resulting in a Scotland Yard detective immediately setting sail on a newer and faster ship in order to apprehend the suspects before they could vanish into the giant North American continent.

Worldwide attention focused on the flight of the couple, the effort to capture them and the role of the new technology of the earliest radio devices.

Front pages of newspapers around the world included daily updates, with locations of the ships and observations about the fugitives.

Crippen was arrested by the Scotland Yard detective, returned to England, and promptly tried for murder.

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Although he maintained his innocence, the jury deliberated for less than half an hour before finding him guilty. Three weeks later he was hanged.

I've heard of the case, but what I had not known before reading Thunderstruck was that Crippen was a U.S.-trained physician, and not only a physician but an ophthalmologist!

He attended medical school at the Cleveland Homeopathic Hospital (homeopathy was very popular in the United States around the 1880s) and then moved to study “ocular medicine” at the New York Ophthalmic Hospital at Third Avenue and 23rd Street, graduating in 1887.

In his murder trial, prosecutors argued that his medical training gave the defendant access to poisons such as henbane (then commonly used in ophthalmic treatments) and conjectured that he had administered such a drug to his wife before dissecting her corpse. Cora Crippen was the victim.

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Author Erik Larson makes clear she was an egotistical unsympathetic character who was emotionally abusive and probably unfaithful to her husband.

Some readers may take pride in knowing an ophthalmologist briefly became the most talked about man in the world, taking the view that all publicity is good publicity.

But while a lot of things may have changed in terms of societal mores in the past 111 years, and while the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Code of Ethics does not explicitly condemn it, I hope we can all agree that ophthalmologists should refrain from murdering their spouses, children (including teenagers!) and even in-laws.

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