Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Portrait painting of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Revolutionary hero and doctor
28th May 1739 – 26 March 1814


Concerned about torture and deaths

Criminals should be allowed to volunteer for medical experiments instead of being subject to capital punishment

Part of a commission that decided mesmerism was a fraud

In 1789, elected to the Estates General and became secretary

When locked out, it was Guillotin who proposed reconvening in the Jeu de Paume court, and the National Assembly was born

Pioneer of medical reform, exposing unsanitary conditions First chair of Health Committee and submitted bill for medical reform in 1791

Death penalty

Death penalty was by axe or sword for nobility

Commoners hanged but noose not invented.  Other methods included burning at the stake, the breaking wheel or death by boiling

Guillotin failed to get abolition of the death penalty, so proposed a more humane method of killing, mechanical decapitation

Guillotine’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 to anyone to reproach the guilty party’s family about his/her 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

Guillotin one of first French doctors to support Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination

In 1805, he became chairman of the Central Vaccination Committee in Paris

Founded precursor to the French National Academy of Medicine

A full account of Dr Guilotine’s life can be found here