The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States

By Shai J. Lavi | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO

Medical Euthanasia: From Aiding the Dying
to Hastening Death

Introduction

THE Birmingham Speculative Club was a small society of professionals and businessmen who met periodically in the British midland city to discuss the problems of the day. A collection of their essays published in 1870 includes a discussion of women's rights, colonialism and its breakdown, and educational inequality. More than a century later, one cannot help but appreciate the persisting relevance of these problems to our own time while simultaneously noticing that the solutions the writers offered tend to be far less compelling today.1

However, one article in this long-forgotten collection is an exception to this rule. It is a piece titled “Euthanasia,” written by Samuel D. Williams, an otherwise unknown businessman.2 Its author proposes a solution to the problem of dying patients suffering from unbearable pain. He writes that:

In all cases of hopeless and painful illness it should be the recognized
duty of the medical attendant, whenever so desired by the patient, to
administer chloroform—or such other anaesthetic as may by and by
supersede chloroform—so as to destroy consciousness at once, and
put the sufferer to a quick and painless death; all needful precautions
being adopted to prevent any possible abuse of such duty; and means
being taken to establish beyond the possibility of doubt or question,
that the remedy was applied at the express wish of the patient.3

Williams's proposal was the first to advocate euthanasia, the medical hastening of death, in the modern age.4 While euthanasia was generally opposed by the medical establishment as well as by the general public, several leading physicians openly supported legalization of the practice. In 1906, there were even attempts to pass bills legalizing euthanasia in Ohio and Iowa; although these attempts were eventually defeated, they mark a demand for a new way of dying that would persist into the twenty-first century.5

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