Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (May 28, 1738 – March 26, 1814) was a French physician and freemason.
He proposed on October 10, 1789 the use of a device to carry out death penalties in France, as a less painful method of execution. While he did not invent the guillotine, and in fact opposed the death penalty, his name became an eponym for it. The actual inventor of the prototype was Antoine Louis.
At that time, beheading in France was typically done by axe or sword, which did not always cause immediate death. Additionally, beheading was reserved for the nobility, while commoners were typically hanged. Dr. Guillotin assumed that if a fair system was established where the only method of capital punishment was death by mechanical decapitation, then the public would feel far more appreciative of their rights.
Despite this proposal, Guillotin was opposed to the death penalty and hoped that a more humane and less painful method of execution would be the first step toward a total abolition of the death penalty. He also hoped that fewer families and children would witness executions, and vowed to make them more private and individualized. It was also his belief that a standard death penalty by decapitation would prevent the cruel and unjust system of the day.
The association with the guillotine so embarrassed Dr. Guillotin’s family that they petitioned the French government to rename it; when the government refused, they instead changed their own family name. By coincidence, a person named Guillotin was indeed executed by the guillotine – he was J.M.V. Guillotin, a doctor of Lyons. This coincidence may have contributed to erroneous statements that Guillotin was put to death on the machine that bears his name; however, in reality, Guillotin died in Paris in 1814 of natural causes, and is now buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.