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Hats off to Doctor Guillotin

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Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (Callie Jones)Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the eponymous French physician who called for a humane device to carry out death penalties, died 200 years ago this week.

But Dr Guillotin did not invent the guillotine and he actually opposed the death penalty. In fact, his association with the infamous instrument of execution so embarrassed his relatives that they changed the family name after the French Government refused to rename the decapitation device.

Guillotin spent his early career as a professor of literature in Bordeaux, but later studied medicine in Paris.?He qualified in 1768 and became an eminent medic. In 1784 Louis XVI appointed him, with Benjamin Franklin and others, to investigate Franz Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism, which proposed that animals exerted an invisible natural force that could have healing powers.

In 1805 Guillotin became president of the Committee for Vaccination in Paris.

Guillotin was one of 10 deputies in the Estates-General of 1789. This assembly was summoned by the king to propose solutions to his government’s financial problems. As an assembly member, Guillotin focused his attention on medical reform. During a debate on capital punishment he proposed that criminals sentenced to death by decapitation should be killed using a “simple mechanism” defined as “a machine that beheads painlessly”. At that time, beheading in France was typically carried out with an axe or sword, which did not always cause immediate death. And beheading was reserved for the nobility, while commoners were usually hanged. Guillotin suggested that a fairer system with only one method of capital punishment would help the public to appreciate their rights.

Despite his contribution to the capital punishment debate, Guillotin hoped that a more humane method of execution would lead to abolition of the death penalty. But a remark he made in a speech to the assembly tied his name to the guillotine for ever more. “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it,” he is reported to have said. This statement became a popular joke as well as the subject of a comic song.

Another French doctor, Antoine Louis, is credited with designing a prototype guillotine. The device was initially called a louisette.

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