Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (French: [ʒɔzɛf iɲas ɡijɔtɛ̃]; 28 May 1738 – 26 March 1814) was a French physician, politician, and freemason who proposed on 10 October 1789 the use of a device to carry out death penalties in France, as a less painful method of execution than existing methods. Although he did not invent the guillotine and opposed the death penalty, his name became an eponym for it. The actual inventor of the prototype was a man named Tobias Schmidt, working with the king’s physician, Antoine Louis.
Guillotin was born on 28 May 1738 in Saintes, France, the second son of Joseph-Alexandre Guillotin and Catherine Agatha Martin. Legend has it that he was born prematurely because his mother was in distress after hearing the screams of a man being tortured to death on the breaking wheel.
Guillotin’s early education was by the Jesuits in Bordeaux and he earned a Master of Arts degree at the College of Aquitaine of the University of Bordeaux in December 1761. The essay that he wrote to earn the degree impressed the Jesuits so much that they invited him to become a professor of literature at the Irish College in Bordeaux. However, he left after a few years and travelled to Paris to study medicine, becoming a pupil of Antoine Petit. He gained a diploma from the faculty at Reims in 1768 and his doctorate at the School of Medicine in Paris in 1770, which also gave him the title of Doctor-Regent. This allowed him to teach medicine in Paris.
In Paris, Guillotin became a well-known physician. By 1775, he was concerned with issues of torture and death. That year, he wrote a memo proposing that criminals be used as subjects in medical experiments. Although he recognised that as cruel, he considered it preferable to being put to death. In 1784, when Franz Mesmer began to publicize his theory of “animal magnetism“, which was considered offensive by many, Louis XVI appointed a commission to investigate it and Guillotin was appointed a member, along with Jean Sylvain Bailly, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, Antoine Lavoisier, and Benjamin Franklin. The commission declared Mesmer to be a fraud, and this put Guillotin in the public eye.