Dr. Death: Is Nils Headley Based on an Actual Person?

As a true crime anthology drama living up to its title in every way conceivable, Peacock’s ‘Dr. Death’ can only be described as equal parts baffling, gripping, intriguing, haunting, and shocking. That’s because its each installment follows those particular cases wherein medical professionals took advantage of their work for gain without a single care about ethics, morality, or human lives.

Thus, of course, season 2 is absolutely no different — it chronicles the tale of cardiothoracic surgeon and Karolinska Institute researcher Paolo Macchiarini as he crosses all bounds across the globe. Yet for now, if you simply wish to learn more about the individual/s to have arguably abetted him along the way — Nils Headley from KI, in the original series — we’ve got the details for you.

Nils Headley Seems to Have Been Inspired by Many

Although there’s not one distinct person Nils (portrayed by ‘This Life’ star Jack Davenport) appears to be based on in his entirety, the character does possess a lot of significance considering his role. He’s actually the prime Karolinska Institute executive who backed Paolo at every step following his recruitment with just an unwavering goal in mind: to help this establishment earn a Nobel Prize.

In other words, Nils essentially serves as an official provost at the renowned Swedish organization wherein most of Paolo’s “ground-breaking” stem cell surgeries/synthetic transplants occur. He thus kind of becomes responsible for pushing the latter’s “innovative” ideas just to earn the prestigious Nobel mark, unaware all his so-called research was wholly scientifically baseless. However, even when suspicions are raised by co-workers, and he himself witnesses a few patients tragically passing away, he does place personal, political ambitions ahead of professional duty.

Coming to the KI-centric people Niel seems to be a combination of, they are then-Medical Nobel Committee Secretary Urban Lendahl, Vice-Chancellor Anders Hamsten, plus other board members. We actually specify them because while the former was involved in hiring Paolo in the first place in 2010, the latter were responsible for overseeing his work before making appropriate decisions. As for Anders, he has been explicitly named in several reports as the cardiollogistic specialist to have heard co-workers’ speculations from the get-go yet not made a move until it was too late.

It was only in 2014 that things came to a head when three renowned KI doctors/Paolo’s former colleagues formally requested an internal investigation into his studies, theories, and conclusions. However, Anders soon publicly cleared him of all misconduct — he found no trace that the surgeon had violated any codes or laws while performing his regenerative stem cell-driven trachea transplant surgeries. He thus eventually ended up resigning from his Vice-Chancellor position in early 2015 as it was announced that another review of the matter would take place, but this time by a third party altogether.

Anders Hamsten//Image Credit: Karolinska Institute

In his resignation, Karolinska Institute education as well as lifelong career alum Anders had penned, in part, “Following the criticism on the so called Macchiarini affair at KI, I conclude it will be hard for me to serve as Vice-Chancellor with the strength and credibility this university needs. I will therefore leave office.” This actually came a mere week following Urban Lendahl’s own decision to part ways from his coveted post in early 2016, stating that in the face of a new inquiry, he expects investigators would likely involve him in the way Paolo’s relationship with the establishment panned out.

We should actually mention that because of this case, the Swedish government moved to dismiss KI’s entire board in September 2016, by which point Urbam Anders, plus Chairman Lars Leijonbor were gone. In the new external report, the former two were found to have acted “without due care” but weren’t held criminally responsible in any way, shape, or form. As for the latter, he had no involvement in Paolo’s misconduct yet he still handed in his resignation eight months before his Chairman term was to end believing that a new head would be better in the aftermath of it all to signify a new chapter for KI.

Since then, Anders has written an opinion piece for local Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, wherein he candidly expressed he’d “completely misjudged” Paolo. He added, “[I]t seems very likely that my decision in this case was wrong. I realise it will be difficult for me to continue working as Vice Chancellor of Sweden’s most successful university with credibility and effectiveness.”

Read More: Emanuela Pecchia: Paolo Macchiarini’s Wife Keeps a Low Profile Now