Such is the powerful, emotive nature of the subject of euthanasia that its reach stretches
beyond the pages of specialised medical journals or the conference rooms of an interested few.
Despite this, investigation into the historical origins of current euthanasia debates has, until very
recently, been a neglected area of academic interest. Contemporary euthanasia debates are often
presented in a manner where the values at stake are viewed as essentially a historical and my
thesis seeks to address this imbalance.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing throughout the twentieth century,
the medical profession and lay writers in Britain mobilised an array of philosophical and
technical arguments in order either to support or oppose euthanasia. My thesis elucidates and
explores these arguments, tracing them through two centuries of changing attitudes towards
death, suffering and pain. The thesis starts by examining how powerful pain-relieving drugs that
rendered the patient unconscious were adopted into the repertoire of nineteenth-century medical
practice. Then, with the position of this new form of pain relief consolidated, the first lay
demands for euthanasia surfaced in the form of proposals that the incurable, suffering patient be
made irrevocably unconscious so as to secure a medically-managed, painless death.
Moving into the twentieth century, the official line of the medical profession was one that
defended the use of pain relief that potentially shortened life but contested any suggestion that
death be brought about at the patient's request. However, by the middle of the twentieth century,
support for legalised euthanasia was more sustained and organised. The question of pain -
whether it could be relieved and how it was to be managed - was now entrenched in the debate
over euthanasia. It was in this context that the hospice movement emerged, where sophisticated
pain-relieving technologies were harnessed with a distinct ideology that rejected legalised
euthanasia. As I explore at the end of my thesis, this provided an institutional 'solution' to the
problem of how to care for the dying patient in pain as well as a template for an 'ideal' form of
death that stood as an alternative to legalised euthanasia.
Informed by the methodological approaches of history and sociology, my analysis
incorporates close readings of unpublished archive literature, set alongside wider surveys of
pertinent primary and secondary sources. I focus on the process of how the values and ideas
connected with arguments over euthanasia were articulated, placing particular emphasis on the
way in which the negotiation and interpretation of medical practice fed into debates about the
management of death. Throughout the thesis, I examine how the concept of 'natural' death was
mobilised in a variety of ways, serving as part of the rhetorical strategies used by those on both
sides of the debate. I conclude that the medical profession's commitment to the Hippocratic
principle, that the physician should not kill, involved the accommodation of medical
interventions in order to relieve pain in the dying patient. At the same time, however, this tended
to exclude any notion that such interventions disrupted the concept of 'natural' death. This
negotiation between principle and practice, I contend, is central to understanding historical
arguments over euthanasia and, indeed, remains an ongoing process underpinning the
construction of current debates.