It is a strange quirk of fortune that the name of a reformer and humanitarian who spent his life in the search of social justice should have become associated with a device used to decapitate people. Yet such was the fate of Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Trained in his youth as a Jesuit, he then went to medical school and for many years had a successful private practice in Paris combined with an academic and public service career, lecturing at the university and writing reports on vinegar, rabies, the drainage of swamps, and the treatment of criminals.
During the French Revolution he was elected to the National Assembly, serving on the poverty committee, surveying hospitals, asylums, orphanages, and homes for the aged, as well as working on bills to regulate the teaching and practice of medicine. He was opposed to capital punishment and sponsored a bill that outlawed torture and inhumane executions, specifying that all criminals were to be treated equally regardless of their social status. The death penalty, when imposed, was to be carried out quickly and painlessly, by decapitation with a device based on a simple mechanism.
The device used during the Revolution was designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, a surgeon, and was at first known as the “Louisette.” Following a debate in the Assembly during which Dr. Guillotin reportedly said he could “cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you would never even feel it,” this became a popular joke and a song that spread all over Paris, with the result that the name of this erudite philanthropist became forever associated with a hideous instrument born out of the best intentions.
Towards the end of the Reign of Terror, Dr. Guillotin was briefly imprisoned, and after being released, abandoned politics and resumed his medical practice. He was one of the founders of the French National Academy of Medicine and died from a carbuncle on his shoulder in 1814.
Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, 18th century
Tête de Guillotiné
(Head of a guillotined man)
Donegan C. F. 1990. “Dr. Guillotin—reformer and humanitarian.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 83:637–639.
GEORGE DUNEA, (Winter 2013), MD, Editor-in-Chief