Suicides in History

The Atlantic magazine had an article last year on the topic of assisted suicide in Bern Switzerland. Under Swiss law, someone can come to your home, you can hand them a loaded gun, and they can shoot themselves in the head; you will face no charges unless you had something material to gain from their death or unless it can be proven that they were mentally deranged. I do not accept the argument that any thought of suicide is de facto deranged because the Jews at Masada made a perfectly reasonable and reasoned choice. Over 300 medical doctors a year commit suicide and they have access to lethal dosages and a knowledge of how to use them effectively. Of course, any suicide attempt carries the risk of failure. The only certain method I can think of is drowning. People who have survived drowning say that it is not terribly painful. Provided there is no one to fish you out, death follows in minutes. It would make sense to me if there were some legal path that one could take which included donating much needed organs.

Years ago I was on an Amtrak train seated next to the director of a psychiatric facility. We spoke for several hours in detail about the history of psychoanalysis/psychotherapy (of which I know more than just a little.) He said to me “sometimes, suicide is simply a way of moving on.”

Alfred Adler said something amazing in his book for the lay-person entitled “What Life Could Mean To You;” he said that “Every suicide is a reproach [of someone or something.]”

Dr. Carothers, the inventor of Nylon, ALWAYS carried in his pocket a capsule of cyanide so that he might comfort himself with the assurance that death was never more that a swallow away.

Excerpt: Carothers showed Julian Hill that he kept a capsule of cyanide attached to his watch chain…

He committed suicide in a hotel room in Philadelphia by taking cyanide dissolved in lemon juice, knowing that the ingestion of cyanide in an acidic solution would greatly intensify the speed and effect of the poison.

One cannot say that the world was saved from the Nazis solely by the efforts of one homosexual (Alan Turing) but it is quite possible that the war would not have been won without the aid of this cryptologist/mathematician who cracked the secret of the German’s “Enigma Machine.”

Turing was persecuted by the government because of his sexual orientation and died in 1954, several weeks before his 42nd birthday, from an apparently self-administered cyanide poisoning.

In the 19th century the most significant progress was made by Sophie Germain, a woman who, living in an era of male chauvinism, took on the identity of a man in order to conduct her research. Although Germain’s ideas eventually reached a dead-end, they generated new techniques that became valuable in tackling other problems. This was often the way with the Last Theorem – failed attempts to prove it spawned new areas of mathematical research.

At the turn of the century, Paul Wolfskehl, a German industrialist and amateur mathematician, bequeathed the equivalent of DM 100,000 for whoever could prove the Last Theorem. The story of the prize begins with Wolfskehl’s obsession with a beautiful woman whose identity has never been established. The woman rejected Wolfskehl and he was left in such a state of despair that he decided to commit suicide. He appointed a date on which to shoot himself through the head at the stroke of midnight.

In the hours before his planned suicide, Wolfskehl visited his library and began reading about the latest ideas concerning the Last Theorem. Suddenly, he believed he could see a way of proving the theorem, and became engrossed in exploring his strategy. By the time Wolfskehl realised his method was flawed, the appointed time of his suicide had passed.

Because he had been reminded of the beauty and elegance of number theory, Wolfskehl abandoned his plan to kill himself. The prize he left in his will was his way of repaying a debt to the problem that saved his life.

On November 17, 1958, Taniyama committed suicide.[2] He left a note explaining how far he had gotten with his teaching duties, and apologizing to his colleagues for the trouble he was causing them. His mystifying suicide note read:
Until yesterday I had no definite intention of killing myself. But more than a few must have noticed that lately I have been tired both physically and mentally. As to the cause of my suicide, I don’t quite understand it myself, but it is not the result of a particular incident, nor of a specific matter. Merely may I say, I am in the frame of mind that I lost confidence in my future. There may be someone to whom my suicide will be troubling or a blow to a certain degree. I sincerely hope that this incident will cast no dark shadow over the future of that person. At any rate, I cannot deny that this is a kind of betrayal, but please excuse it as my last act in my own way, as I have been doing my own way all my life.
Although his note is mostly enigmatic it does mention tiredness and a loss of confidence in his future. Taniyama’s ideas had been criticized as unsubstantiated and his behavior had occasionally been deemed peculiar. Goro Shimura mentioned that he suffered from depression. Taniyama also mentioned in the note his concern that some might be harmed by his suicide and his hope that the act would not cast “a dark shadow over that person.”
About a month later, Misako Suzuki, the woman whom he was planning to marry, also committed suicide, leaving a note reading: “We promised each other that no matter where we went, we would never be separated. Now that he is gone, I must go too in order to join him.”
After Taniyama’s death, Goro Shimura stated that:
He was always kind to his colleagues, especially to his juniors, and he genuinely cared about their welfare. He was the moral support of many of those who came into mathematical contact with him, including of course myself. Probably he was never conscious of this role he was playing. But I feel his noble generosity in this respect even more strongly now than when he was alive. And yet nobody was able to give him any support when he desperately needed it. Reflecting on this, I am overwhelmed by the bitterest grief.


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