Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Essay

Capital punishment, my sixth great grandfather, and me—an essay by J Robert Sneyd

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 11 April 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l1512
  1. J Robert Sneyd, emeritus professor
  1. Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK
  1. robert.sneyd{at}

After finding out about a distant forebear’s execution, J Robert Sneyd acted as an expert witness in a US court to try to prevent the use of a new drug for lethal injection, appalled that untrained government workers were using lifesaving drugs to kill

In the summer of 2017 I was visiting family in Scotland when two notable things happened within a few days. Firstly, my great aunt let on that my sixth great grandfather Archibald Cameron (fig 1) had been convicted of high treason. With a bit of research I learnt he’d been sentenced to death, hanged for 20 minutes, and then beheaded. He was not quartered but his heart was cut out and burnt.

Fig 1

Line of descent from Dr Archibald Cameron to Professor J Robert Sneyd

Cameron was a physician in the service of Bonnie Prince Charlie who, after the defeat of the prince’s army at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, fled with him to France. Returning to collect some of the prince’s debts, he was betrayed, imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, and then transferred to the Tower of London before being sentenced to death for high treason. In 1753 he was finally transferred to Tyburn for execution (fig 2).

Fig 2

J Robert Sneyd’s ancestor, Archibald Cameron, heads towards his end in Tyburn, place of execution for London, on 7 June 1753. The attendant riding with him holds a raised surgeon’s knife to remind Cameron of his fate

A few days after I learnt of my ancestor’s fate, and entirely by coincidence, I was approached to provide assistance as an expert witness on behalf of Mark James Asay, a prisoner scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in Florida. Although I have always been opposed to the death penalty, I had not until then tried to do anything …

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