Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Portait painting of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Revolutionary hero and doctor
28 May 1739 – 26 March 1814

Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was a French physician and politician who, despite his association with the tool of execution that bears his name, opposed the death penalty. He believed that criminals should be allowed to volunteer for medical experiments instead of being subject to capital punishment.

After completing his medical studies in Reims and later Paris, Dr Guillotin became a prominent politician. He gained a reputation for sceptical pragmatism as part of a 1784 royal commission into the work of hypnotist Franz Mesmer, that declared Mesmerism a hoax.

In 1789 Guillotin was elected to the Estates General, a legislative and consultative assembly, and became its secretary. Under the French monarchy this body had no true power, acting only to advise the Crown.

It was Guillotin who proposed reconvening the Estates General in the Jeu de Paume court during France’s constitutional crisis of 1789 – not as an assembly of Estates, but of ‘The People’. The French National Assembly was born.

Death penalty

Before Guillotin’s reforms, the death penalty was by axe or sword for nobility. Commoners were often hanged, and prior to the invention of the hangman’s noose this could be a long and torturous process. Other methods used included burning at the stake, the ‘breaking wheel’, or death by boiling.

Guillotin campaigned to abolish the death penalty, but failed to convince the government of the new Republic. He instead proposed a more humane method of killing.

Guillotin’s 6 principles of humane punishment

All punishments for the same class of crime shall be the same, regardless of the criminal (i.e., there would be no privilege for the nobility).

When the death sentence is applied, it will be by decapitation, carried out by a machine.

The family of the guilty party will not suffer any legal discrimination.

It will be illegal for anyone to reproach the guilty party’s family about their punishment.

The property of the convicted shall not be confiscated.

The bodies of those executed shall be returned to the family if so requested.

Modern day relevance

Aside from criminal justice reforms, Guillotin was one of the first French doctors to support Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination, becoming chairman of the Central Vaccination Committee in Paris in 1805. He went on to found the precursor to the French National Academy of Medicine.