On this date in 1792 — a surprisingly late date, just nine months before the king himself would die under its blade — debuted the iconic symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine.
Though predecessors of the grim machine had been used centuries before in Scotland, Italy and Switzerland, the guillotine ushered in a distinctly modern era of technological application to capital punishment informed by egalitarianism — prior to the French Revolution, nobles and commoners had different modes of execution — and by legal and medical expertise aimed at minimizing pain.*
In fact, the device’s namesake, physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, opposed the death penalty altogether; he approved scientific and “painless” execution as a stopgap measure.**
For his troubles, the humane doctor’s name became synonymous with terror, enough so that his descendants changed their handle. One wonders how the doctor judged his own legacy; certainly better for any condemned person to die on the guillotine than the breaking wheel, but the mechanical efficiency of the “French razor” and the depersonalization of the condemned in relation to the headsman and the witnesses also made possible the mass executions the French Revolution is known for.
Singular Guillotin, respectable practitioner: doomed by a satiric destiny to the strangest immortal glory that ever kept obscure mortal from his resting-place, the bosom of oblivion! … “With my machine, Messieurs, I whisk off your head (vous fais sauter la tete) in a twinkling, and you have no pain;”–whereat they all laugh. (Moniteur Newspaper, of December 1st, 1789 (in Histoire Parlementaire).) Unfortunate Doctor! For two-and-twenty years he, unguillotined, shall near nothing but guillotine, see nothing but guillotine; then dying, shall through long centuries wander, as it were, a disconsolate ghost, on the wrong side of Styx and Lethe; his name like to outlive Caesar’s.
Whither the ethical role of the physician dedicated to life in the protocol of dishing out death? It’s a strikingly current dilemma.
* Pain reduction was distinctly not the order of the day under the ancien regime. Often, quite the opposite.
** It was still another physician, Antoine Louis, who actually designed the decapitation machine; for a time, it was known as the Louisette. The working model was built from Louis’ design by a piano maker — and it may be more than coincidence that the science of constructing this mechanically complex musical instrument was also bursting with creativity on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.