Puzzle over the heroine who wasn’t

The extraordinary fantasy life and lonely death of a New Zealand woman hailed as a heroine after the July 7 bombings in London has left a confused and contradictory trail over which former friends, colleagues and the medical establishment are puzzling.

Police appear to have discounted rumours that Richmal Oates-Whitehead, whose body was found 10 days ago in a west London flat, committed suicide.

The British Medical Association held an investigation into how she came to be employed but declined to reveal the outcome.

Ms Oates-Whitehead gained prominence in New Zealand amid media coverage of the suicide bombing that destroyed the No. 30 bus in Tavistock Square outside the headquarters of the association. She worked there as editor of Clinical Evidence, an online edition of BMJ, the British Medical Journal.

After the blast she appears to have joined medically trained staff bringing first aid to survivors.

Her precise role remains uncertain. The 35-year-old always carried a stethoscope in her handbag. She later told New Zealand’s Weekend Herald she had been helping the injured in a makeshift hospital next door to the association when two firefighters approached her for help.

“They needed one doctor to assist as firemen cut two badly injured people out of the wreckage. Would she come? They would understand if she declined,” the article said.

It reported her as saying: “There was no room for hesitation – I wasn’t thinking at that level. It was the moral and ethical thing to do.” Her account included a controlled detonation of a second bomb.

The problem was twofold. Police had no record of a controlled explosion in Tavistock Square; moreover, she was not a doctor.

Coverage of the London bombings triggered suspicions. The Auckland papers began inquiries. On August 15 <>The New Zealand Herald<> published: “Doctor status of NZ bomb heroine questioned.” The story disclosed the association was investigating her qualifications. Other papers published sceptical stories.

Their reports unearthed bizarre behaviour. Ms Oates-Whitehead had claimed to be the victim of a stalker, had described herself as a professor, told some friends she had cancer and others that she had lost premature twins who lived for only a day. She even placed a death notice in the NZ Herald: “Two beautiful girls, Jemima Josephine and Molly Niamh … Taken away from Mummy and Daddy too soon. Two more beautiful angels in heaven.”

Challenged by the association, she resigned. On August 17, alerted by concerns from her family, police went to her flat and found her dead. Initial suspicions focused on the belief that, faced with humiliation and the loss of her job, she might have killed herself.

But a post-mortem found she died of a blood clot on the lungs. The association declined to go beyond a brief statement: “It is with great regret that the BMJ Publishing Group has heard of the sudden death of Richmal Oates-Whitehead. Our thoughts are with Richmal’s family and friends. The BMJ will be making no further comment.”

In fact, she did have a medical background. She trained for a year as a radiation therapist in 1991 and had a postgraduate diploma in health service management. She also had epilepsy.

She had always dreamt of being a doctor, the New Zealand Sunday Star-Times reported. It quoted an interview with a Sydney forensic psychiatrist, Dr Anthony Samuels, who suggested she might have suffered borderline personality disorder and posed as a doctor to satisfy a psychological need.

“People with borderline personality disorders often get into caring professions because they have so much need themselves and it distracts them from their own pain.”