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April 3, 1972

The Real Doctor Guillotin

Author Affiliations

From the History Department, Manhattanville College, Purchase, NY.

JAMA. 1972;220(1):85-89. doi:10.1001/jama.1972.03200010071012

The guillotine, the beheading mechanism widely used in the French Revolution, is familiar to everyone. Yet historians hardly know the real Dr. Guillotin. A recent popular biography is a sensationalist travesty; journals in many languages contain short pieces on the guillotine irrelevant to Dr. Guillotin's life. A scholarly article might be technical and discuss the shape of the deadly blade—it evolved from crescentshaped to diagonal—because the surgeon Antoine Louis demonstrated on sheep that diagonal instruments make neater incisions. Elsewhere an author might discuss whether "life" lingered in the severed head or body, and adduce contemporary evidence that a head managed a prearranged wink at the audience. Or again a writer might explore the reasons why the name "guillotine" stuck to a machine that Guillotin neither invented nor christened.

The famous doctor himself has left us no books or articles that might reveal his personality. This may be one reason why