Object of the Month: Blade Runner

4 April 2011
 Guillotine blade used in execution of Jean-Baptise Carrier. French, 1790-94

Guillotine blade used in execution of Jean-Baptise Carrier. French, 1790-94. Science Museum/SSPL

For a man so interested in the history of health and wellbeing, it is remarkable just how many torture devices, weapons and instruments of execution found their way into Henry Wellcome’s vast collection of between 1 and 2 million medical and anthropological curios. From African spears to amputation saws and from trepanned skulls to torture chairs, Wellcome’s collection served not only as a grizzly catalogue of medicine’s past attempts to heal and cure but as an unsettling reminder of how knowledge of the human body can be used to cause just as much harm as good. By placing these gruesome offerings alongside more traditional symbols of ‘good medicine’ – the stethoscope, the medicine chest – Wellcome’s collection quietly challenged the ethical authority of Western medicine, with its famous claim, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, to ‘do no harm.’

The truth is, as Henry Wellcome surely realised, medicine has never been solely about the preservation of health and life. In various political and religious circumstances, medical knowledge can be co-opted to deliberately cause harm or take life away, from the horrific Nazi concentration camp experiments to the cool clinical practice of Death Row in America. Medicine’s ethical integrity in regard to the taking of life continues to be questioned in the 21st century: recent controversy erupted when it was discovered a British pharmaceutical company was selling a drug to be used as part of the lethal injection in the United States, and the place of medicine in euthanasia or abortion is still fiercely debated.

All these issues buzz around this month’s item, a guillotine blade used during the French Revolution, on display in Medicine Man. Surprisingly small (nowhere near the size of the contraptions usually seen in magic tricks or in films) the reason it found a home among Wellcome’s more overtly medical artefacts was as simple as the device itself: its use was suggested as a more swift, clinical, medical way of executing people during the Revolution by the eminent physician, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738–1814).

The circumstances of Guillotin’s birth couldn’t have been more grimly prophetic. Prior to the Revolution, a variety of methods of execution were used in France, and one of the most feared was the breaking wheel, which cudgelled its victims to death. According to Guillotin family legend, it was the shock of hearing the blood-curdling cries of a man being broken upon the wheel that led to Guillotin’s premature birth. Guillotin grew to be a wealthy and respected physician, renowned for his rationalism and reformist attitudes. Along with Benjamin Franklin, in 1784 he was a member of the inquiry that investigated Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism, and he dallied with ideas of political reform before turning his attention to the reform of capital punishment in 1789. It was Guillotin’s belief that, as a first step towards abolishing capital punishment altogether, a more humane and egalitarian form of execution was required in France to replace the torturous and class-based punishments handed out in the ancien régime: in general, the aristocracy was afforded the dubious honour of decapitation by sword, while commoners were usually hanged. To this end he proposed a ‘simple mechanism’: ‘The device strikes like lightning, the head flies, blood spouts, the man has ceased to live,’ he argued.

It is a myth that Guillotin designed and built the blade before later falling victim to it (he died quite peacefully in 1814, although he did narrowly escape his own death by it). The French guillotine blade was designed by a surgeon, Antoine Louis, and built to specification by a German maker of musical instruments. In fact, if it wasn’t for a popular Royalist satirical song of the day, Guillotine’s name would probably have never become attached to the device; instead, it probably would be known to this day as the Louisette or Petite Louison, after the surgeon who designed it. The ‘Guillotine’ wasn’t even the first decapitation machine. Forms of the guillotine had been in use in Europe for centuries before the French Revolution: the Maiden in Scotland and the Gibbet in Halifax were two methods used in Britain (if someone was caught stealing a sheep in Halifax, a sheep would be brought in as the executioner, releasing the rope that unleashed the blade).

The guillotine blade on display in Medicine Man was used to execute an infamous revolutionary, Jean-Baptise Carrier. Carrier was renowned for the sadistic ways he despatched his enemies, such as the drowning of political prisoners in the River Loire. It often isn’t realised just how recently execution by guillotine was practised in France: the last guillotining (in private) took place in 1977, to execute a Tunisian murderer called Hamida Djandoubi. The last public guillotining took place in the 1930s; it was only in 1981 that France withdrew the death sentence altogether.

Some historians have argued that Guillotin was a humanitarian, since he suggested the use of an instrument that did away with forms of execution that were crueller and more protracted by comparison. In this sense, perhaps the guillotine can be considered a ‘medical’ object of sorts, and more at home with its surrounding objects than it may appear. On the other hand, the guillotine allowed people to be unthinkingly executed on a terrifying scale – 40,000 people during the French Revolution alone. Can a device which led to so many deaths in any way be considered ‘medical’?

Chris Sirrs is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.