Medical Definition of Guillotine

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Guillotine: A machine used during (and after) the French Revolution for beheading people condemned to death, by means of a heavy sharp blade that slid down within vertical guides. By extension, "guillotine" refers to any shearing machine or instrument (such as a paper cutter, a book trimmer, etc.) that is like a guillotine in its action.

The word "guillotine" is named for a French physician, Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814). Appalled by the cruel methods (such as torture) by which people were then executed, Dr. Guillotin argued before the French National Assembly in 1789 that painless and private beheading by machine should become the standard means for capital punishment in a civilized society such as in France.

The National Assembly endorsed Dr. Guillotin's proposal on March 20, 1792. But, much to the doctor's dismay, the guillotine came almost immediately into public use and great abuse. The use of the guillotine was only abolished in France on October 9, 1981. The humanely-oriented Dr. Guillotin's name had long since become inextricably associated with the use of his machine.

A surgical instrument used to cut off the tonsils was called the guillotine.

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Reviewed on 10/30/2018

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