Physician’s is a strange job: on one hand it is a profession, on the other an “absolute” vocation, which should not depend from personal gain and well-being. In fact, from the moment he takes the Hippocratic Oath, every doctor is required to provide first aid even outside the strictly professional sphere, and there are many doctors who put their own health in danger to cure, or even just understand, a disease.
Nicolae Minovici (1868-1941) was one of these men determined to get his hands dirty in order to help others.
Most of his life was spent giving assistance to the weak, the poor and the outcasts who in Romania at the beginning of the XX Centry received little or no support from authorities: he founded one of the first ambulance and emergency services, provided care and assistance to more than 13.000 homeless people giving them the opportunity of working for the emergency units. He also helped out single mothers, opening shelters where they could find assistance before and after giving birth. He was even appointed mayor of the Băneasa district, where he modernized the sewage system, the fountains, the night shelters.
His professional and academic career was just another variation of Minovici’s interest in social issues. Having worked as a coroner, he touched first hand the most dramatic realities of his time; his studies in forensics, pathological anatomy, psychiatry and anthropology led him to take interest in delinquency (after all, his father was Mina Minovici, Romanian founder of criminological disciplines). In 1899 Nicolae published an essay on the alleged relationship between tattoos and criminal personality, coming to the conclusion — atypical in those times — that this relationship does not exist. HE founded the Romanian Association of Legal Medicine, and the Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine.
But his name is above all remembered for another work, his Study on hanging (1904).
Minovici’s humanist sensibility led him to believe that the physician’s vocation had to be both scientific and moral, as we said in the beginning. After all, he was not the kind of man who backs up before danger.
When, at the beginning of his studies on strangulation, he realized that he could not understand the dynamics of hanging without first hanging himself, Minovici did not hesitate.
In his first experiment, Minovici tried to personally adjust the intensity of asphyxiation. He passed a rope through a pulley fixed on the ceiling, and attached a dynamometer to the (non contracting) noose: he then pulled as hard as he could on the other end of the rope. Immediately his face turned purple red, and Minovici heared a prolonged hiss in his ears, as his visual became blurred. After just six seconds, he lost consciousnees.
This system allowed him to discontinue the rope’s tension in the exact moment he was about to faint. After experimenting with this method several other positions, recording symptoms and timing his resistance, Minovici moved to a new phase of decidedly more dangerous tests. With the help of some assistants, he decided he would be lifted from his neck, once again using a non contracting knot.
A couple of assistants pulled on the rope, one of them counted loudly as the seconds went by, so that Minovici could hear them over the tinnitus. But the first time the professor was lifted from the ground, and his feet lost contact with the floor, an excruciating pain went through his throat, as his airways were strangled and his eyes involountarily shut. Minovici frantically signaled the assistants to bring him back down, after few seconds.
Not at all discouraged, Minovici decided he needed a little practice. “I let myself hang six to seven times for four to five seconds to get used to it“. After this training, the professor was able to resist up to 25 seconds as he was hanging with his feet a couple of meters from the floor: the reckoning for this experiment were two weeks of sharp pain in his neck and throat muscles.
Eventually, Minovici was ready for the most dangerous and extreme endeavour: being hanged with a slip knot.
As usual, his assistants began to pull the rope, but this time the noose tightened in a split second, squeezing his neck in a grip of burning pain. The shock was so intense that after just three seconds Minovici signaled to let go of the rope. His feet had never even left the floor: the professor nevertheless swallowed with great difficulty and pain during the following month.
Besides experimenting on himself, Minovici ran some tests — albeit less dramatic ones — on some volunteers, who were chocked by applying pressure on the carotid and jugular. In these cases, as the subject’s face turned purple, he recorded sight problems, paresthesia (tingling sensensation, or numb limbs), a sensation of heat in the head, and tinnitus.
Minovici’s research, published in Romania in 1904 and in France in 1906, was extensively quoted in successive studies on the topic. His essay, in fact, was not limited to these singular hanging experiments, but related clinical records, statistics, information on the knots most frequently used by suicide victims, anatomy notes and so on.
Nicolae Minovici, who was passionate about Romanian folklore, had been collecting folk art objects all of his life. When in 1941 he died a bachelor, he donated his estate and collection to his Country, and today his former villa in Bucarest houses an ethnological museum.