“If it was good enough for a King, it is good enough for a killer.”

Lethal injection as a method of execution has become a hot button issue for those who deal with death penalty cases.  Since I handle death penalty habeas cases, I express no opinion on the merits of the current practice of lethal injection. That said, I ran across a historical tidbit that I found fascinating and informative.

In January 1936, King George V was given a fatal dose of morphine and cocaine in order to hasten his death. At the time the King was suffering from cardiorespiratory failure, and the decision to end his life was made by his physician, Lord Dawson.  This remained a secret for over 50 years.

Dawson wrote in his diary:

At about 11 o’clock it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. Hours of waiting just for the mechanical end when all that is really life has departed only exhausts the onlookers and keeps them so strained that they cannot avail themselves of the solace of thought, communion or prayer. I therefore decided to determine the end and injected (myself) morphia gr.3/4 and shortly afterwards cocaine gr. 1 into the distended jugular vein.

J.H.R. Ramsay,  A king, a doctor, and a convenient death, 308 British Medical Journal 1445 (May 28, 2011) (abstract freely available; full article requires subscription).

The King’s nurse refused to give the injection. As Ramsay wrote in 2011,

To her credit, Sister Catherine Black of the London Hospital, who was present and who had nursed the king since the 1928 illness, refused to give the lethal injection, which is why Dawson had to give it himself. Nevertheless, faced with conflicting loyalties, she kept quiet about what had been done and her autobiography published in 1939 made no mention of what must have been the most poignant and unforgettable episode in her long and distinguished career.


Why did Lord Dawson really decide that night to kill the King by lethal injection? “The reason for his action, which Dawson frankly admits in his diary, was to ensure that the announcement of the king’s death should appear first in the morning edition of the Times and not in some lesser publication later in the day. ” Id.

After reading the account of Lord Dawson’s use of lethal injection to kill King George V, the sardonic might well say “If lethal injection was good enough for a King, it is good enough for a killer.” But that would facile, wouldn’t it?


14 responses

  1. How sad! Some of the most precious times I’ve had with family have been as they were in the final days of life. It was a time to say those things we had always wanted to say, or if they were unable to talk, a time to sit & hug & sing & read to them & just treasure their presence. And, I could see that they were treasuring those last days on this earth, too. I would be devastated to be robbed of that time.

  2. Clever. But if the King’s last words, after receiving the injection, had been “I feel my whole body burning,” or if his final minutes were spent jerking and thrashing, would sardonicism still seem appropriate?

  3. Matthew,
    I would guess that Lord Dawson would not have given that injection if the King had still been conscious. From what little I’ve read, he seemed to be a competent physician who would not have done that if he had had any doubt as to the outcome.

    Southern Law Student

  4. Additionally and more to Matthew’s point, this was nearly a century ago. I fail to see the relevance of the lethal injection killing of someone, even if royalty, so long ago to current procedure.

    Now, if a King or President now was executed using a particular drug cocktail, then it may make sense to say “if fit for a king then fit for a killer”. But again, I fail to see any relevance at all to how someone was killed nearly a century ago to current death penalty procedure

  5. Hi Judge, long time lurker, first time poster. Just wanted to say the sardonic seems to me at least, quite wrong to say that.

    It seems completely irrelevant on the modern practice of lethal injection a lethal injection killing that happened so long ago. It would be the equivalent of saying, well, in the 1700’s English King and Queens peed in their fireplaces, so if fit for a King then fit for a killer. Why don’t we take toilets away from prisoners?

    What may be fit back then, even for royalty, says nothing about the fitness now, even for the “lowest” rungs of society.

  6. It’s a weak analogy. No one says the problem with lethal injection is that needles are bad. The fight is over how it’s done–the wrong drugs, bad protocols, untrained executioners. So the fact that a doctor killed a dying King using one set of drugs doesn’t shed much light on whether some poor prison guard ought to be doing it with different drugs.

  7. Long Time Lurker,

    Thanks for writing rather than lurking. (Lurking is fine too!)

    Notice that I put the saying in quotes. Nor did I claim that this historical example of lethal injection had any present day relevance. (For example, so far as I know, cocaine is not presently used in any of the cocktails of lethal drugs.) Finally, what Dawson did has almost uniformly been condemned by other physicians.

    The foregoing said, I still find this event fascinating and informative. All the best.


  8. I could see that they were treasuring those last days on this earth, too. I would be devastated to be robbed of that time.

    But for whom is the euthanasia–the man who’s dead, but whose body hasn’t quit yet, or the living?

    Separately, given a “sufficiently” lingering death, the premise that Dawson did his deed in the morning of a particular day seems limited: if his goal was merely to hit the morning editions, he could have done that the prior day, or the next. The timing of the day seems to me secondary to Dawson’s decision, also in his diary, to end the suffering of the living.

    My question just above notwithstanding, Anna is right to this extent: Dawson had no right to make that decision for the living.

    As to whether what’s fit for a king is good enough for a killer is reasonable, a question of the mechanics of execution can only come after we’ve determined the fitness of execution.

    Eric Hines

  9. Judge:
    Re: Lord Dawson, pardon my naivete, but isn’t a physician duty bound to “do no harm” (let alone engage in mercy killing?)?

  10. One reviewer characterised it as an “arrogant convienience killing” and it is hard to think of a better description.

    In my opinion arrogance and the death penalty go together.

  11. When I read the title, I thought this was going to be an argument for decapitation a la Charles I.

  12. I’m missing the significance of this. There have always been plenty of scheduled drugs that cause painless death (and both cocaine and morphine are schedule 2…cocaine is still occasionally used in surgery) the issue is that physicians are unwilling (at least publicly) to prescribe a drug to kill rather than help a patient.

    I mean fuck *I* want to go out with a speedball so that is plenty compassionate just not practical.

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