Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A tale of three doctors

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden


Modified from Wikimedia translation of description: The sentenced person is kneeling while a priest is blessing him and tending to him with a cross. The executioner is ready with his sabre to cut the cord. A soldier and some spectators are standing by.
Early print of an execution by guillotine, as proposed by Dr. Guillotin. Jean-François Janinet, c. 1789–1791. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris via Wikimedia. Public domain.

“How true it is that it is difficult to benefit mankind without some unpleasantness resulting for oneself.”
– Dr. Edme-Claude Bourru, giving Dr. Guillotin’s eulogy

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, M.D. (1738–1814) was an ex-Jesuit priest, a practicing physician, and a politician just before and during the French Revolution.1,2 He was an opponent of capital punishment and did not invent the machine which unfortunately bears his name. Beheading machines were used as early as 1280. The first recorded use was of the English Halifax Gibbet, in which a heavy axe head slid down upon the victim’s neck. A similar machine was first used in Ireland in 1307, in Germany in 1532, and in Scotland (the “Maiden”) in 1565.3 A decapitating machine was used in Italy during the Renaissance.4 The guillotine was used for executions in the nineteenth (Belgium) and twentieth centuries (Switzerland, Greece, Sweden, Nazi Germany, France, French Guiana, and South Vietnam).5

Knowing that the time was not right for suggesting the abolition of capital punishment, Guillotin was in favor of what might be the quickest, most humane method—it took about one half-second for the blade to fall and sever the head from the body6—to execute a prisoner. He spoke about this machine in the Assemblée Nationale, and the newspapers connected his name with the machine. The law of 1792 made death by guillotine the only form of capital punishment in France. It was to be used for commoners as well as for nobles and notables, a provision upon which Dr. Guillotin insisted.

His family hated having their name associated with a method of execution. They could not get the government to officially change the name of the machine, so they changed their family name. Dr. Guillotin retired from politics and returned to the practice of medicine. He died of natural causes at age seventy-five. The death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.7


“I wish I had invented a lawnmower.”
– Soviet General Mikhail Kalashnikov on his AK-47 (“kalashnikov”) submachine gun

A multichambered gun on wheels
A British 1865 Gatling gun at the Royal Artillery Museum. Photo by Max Smith (Megapixie) on Wikimedia. Public domain.

Richard Jordan Gatling, M.D. (1818–1903) was an inventor and a non-practicing physician. He invented machines that “revolutionized” American agriculture.8 In 1861, modifying a machine for the rapid planting of seeds, he produced a weapon capable of firing 200 rounds per minute.9 His hope was that such a gun could “do as much battle duty as a hundred” men and reduce the size of armies, exposure to battle, and the diseases of military camps.10

This naïve notion about his six-barreled, hand-cranked machine gun (a “Gatling gun”) was clearly wrong. Now armies had a weapon with which “you could kill without looking your opponent in the eye. You could kill without even knowing how many people you had killed.”11 The gun was little used during the American Civil War, as the military was not impressed by its performance. Gatling offered to sell it to anyone, including the Confederate States of America, though he had no particular sympathy for the South. He sold his gun to England, Austria, Russia, and several countries in South America.12

Gatling continued producing inventions, none of them war-related, and mostly agricultural machines.


“Mysterious affair, electricity.”
– Samuel Beckett

A wooden chair with straps
The electric chair in Auburn State Prison. Lew Collings, The Post-Standard, Syracuse, N.Y., Dec 26 1908. Library of Congress. No known restrictions on publication. No renewal found in Copyright.

Alfred Southwick, D.D.S. (1826–1892) was an engineer, dentist, and inventor. His family could be traced back to the Mayflower.13 In 1881 he heard about a drunken man who touched a terminal of an electrical generator and died quickly. Southwick wondered if electrocution could be a “quick and seemingly painless” alternative to hanging,14,15 since there had been some “botched hangings” in the US and a “more humane” form of execution was needed. After many experiments with animals, Southwick believed he had an effective method of putting a prisoner to death by electrocution. New York passed, in 1889, a law allowing the use of electrocution for capital crimes, and twenty other states followed.16 In 1890, the first execution in the “electric chair” was attempted.17

The first surge of current, 1000 volts according to some,18,19 2000 volts according to others,20 caused the prisoner, a murderer, to turn red, foam at the mouth, and struggle for breath. However, he remained alive.21 They paused: the generator needed to be powered up for a second “dose” of electricity. This time 2000 volts were applied for longer than one minute, four times longer than the first surge.22 Witnesses saw smoke coming from the electrode on the prisoner’s head and smelled burning flesh. The prisoner died from this surge.

The fact that electrocution took place in a chair has been attributed to the simple fact that inventor Southwick worked on patients who were seated in a dental chair.23 The following year, the next electric chair execution in New York was reportedly less gruesome. The “execution went smoothly” because of improvements in the generator and the placement of electrodes on the prisoner’s body.24 New York stopped using the electric chair in 1963, calling it “cruel and unusual punishment.”25



  1. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Wikipedia.
  2. Ciaran Donegan. “Dr. Guillotin – reformer and humanitarian,” J Royal Soc Med, 8, 1990.
  3. Guillotine, Wikipedia.
  4. NA. “Joseph Ignace Guillotin – Biography” from Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal (1844). todayinsci.com
  5. Guillotine, Wikipedia.
  6. Janine Lanza. “Why the guillotine may be less cruel than execution by slow poisoning,” The Conversation.com, 2019.
  7. Guillotin, Wikipedia.
  8. Richard Jordan Gatling. Wikipedia.
  9. Julia Keller. Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun that Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius who Invented It, New York: Viking, 2008.
  10. Gatling, Wikipedia.
  11. Keller, “Mr. Gatling.”
  12. NA. “Richard Jordan Gatling,” ND. biography.yourdictionary.com.
  13. Daniel Demers. “Dr. Alfred Southwick and his legacy of the electric chair,” drbicuspid.com, 2014.
  14. Alfred P. Southwick, Wikipedia.
  15. Arden Christen and Joan Christen. “Alfred P. Southwick, M.D.S., D.D.S., dental practitioner, educator, and originator of electrical executions,” J Hist Dent, 48(3), 2000.
  16. Christen, “Alfred P. Southwick.”
  17. Alfred P. Southwick. Wikipedia.
  18. NA. “Podcast- C’est arrivé le 6 août 1890: la première exécution sur une chaise électrique aux États-Unis,” Republicain-lorain.fr 2021.
  19. Scott Hastings. “History of the electric chair,” NDhistory engine.richmond.edu
  20. NA. “Crime library. Horrifying mistakes,” 2005. webarchive.org
  21. Hastings, “History.”
  22. webarchive.org
  23. Southwick, Wikipedia.
  24. webarchive.org
  25. Demers, “Legacy.”


Further reading

J.I. Guillotin: reformer and humanitarian – George Dunea



HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.


Spring 2022  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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