Is life more painful than death

Medical History: Less Painful Death

. . . In view of the socio-political and religious context, it is in view of the socio-political and religious context that in the 16th and 17th centuries those sentenced to death experienced a form of “moral rehabilitation” and a way out of execution through medicine, especially anatomy, and a way out of execution by participating in drug experiments less morally reprehensible than it may seem at first glance. In the decades of denominational divisions and witch hunts, other concepts about the availability of human life and other ideas about the afterlife prevailed. Torture was a common "truth-finding" method used before the stake, death on the gallows or on the bike, and other forms of execution. . .

The criminals, who may have found death in their sleep with opium from Gabriele Falloppio in Padua in order to better serve the anatomy because they are physically intact, had a better fate than those who had to experience the usual route to the gallows. In contrast to beheading with the sword of execution, at that time a humiliating form of execution, those chosen by Falloppio could not only hope for a non-painful death, but perhaps also for a milder punishment in the afterlife.

Other sources provide other insights into medical practice at the time. The surgeon Fabry von Hilden reports on an autopsy that he carried out in 1601. It was the body of a man executed with a sword. But the skeleton prepared from it - which Fabry had intended for anatomy lessons - had certain deficiencies as a teaching object. There were traces of violence, as Fabry remarks, because he had seen: “That. . . Both shoulder blades are broken in several pieces, happened to him in torture and torture, I saw this more in other Sceletis. Yes, I have another one myself, both shoulder blades of which were broken from the torture. So that I had to patch them both together with wire every now and then. ”(Fabry von Hilden, Von der Fürtrefflichkeit der Anatomey, Basel 1624/1936 p. 191.)

Fabry shows the pointlessness of the ordeal, initially through anatomical rather than ethical arguments: The bones are covered with a "skin" (periosteum) that is extremely sensitive. If you break the shoulder blades so that “the pointy legs prick such a skin”, an indescribable pain arises that rises to the brain and puts the person affected in a state of confusion: He or she wishes to die because the pain is almost unbearable.

Due to the widespread form of torture, the accused were hung by the arms with a heavy weight on their feet, their shoulder blades broke and breathing became increasingly difficult with unspeakable pain. Under these conditions, the alleged criminals admitted all guilt before they were painfully suffocated. As Fabry was able to demonstrate with the help of the Helvetic and Bernese Chronicles, confessions obtained through torture and followed by execution had later often turned out to be erroneous. His conclusion is sober: If those responsible had had anatomical knowledge, they would have distanced themselves from these senseless torture practices.

Objectively and precisely, the surgeon is committed to the abolition of torture methods that fail to achieve their goals, and propagates his Christian desire for a compassionate society in which instead of torture and torture, “wisdom, understanding and cleverness” with the search for truth prevail.

Other examples could follow that make the image of premodern medicine in Europe appear even more heterogeneous. Unfortunately, medicine is today as it was yesterday, as complex and contradicting as the social context in which it arises and works. Early modern doctors were sometimes extremely educated, sometimes crude and materialistically oriented, manipulable, contradicting, obsessed with their research or conscientious, critical and morally upright - just as they are today.

Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. rer. med. Mariacarla Gadebusch Bondio, Institute for the History and Ethics of Medicine, Technical University of Munich, 81675 Munich