There was a time in my country when, among other unpleasant duties, the prison doctor was required to assess prisoners for their fitness for execution. Needless to say, not much attention was paid in medical school to this particular skill: the physician was on his own because in those days there were no such things as official guidelines. The rough and ready rule was that a man was fit to be executed if he knew that he was to be executed and why. It was the death-penalty equivalent of informed consent to surgery.

One of the last British executioners, Albert Pierrepoint, who hanged about 600 people, wrote in his memoirs that he was often asked if people struggled on their way to the gallows. He replied that he had known only one do so; to which he added, by way of explanation, “And he was a foreigner.” However, foreign nationality was not in itself a contraindication to execution. Pierrepoint was one of the executioners at Nuremberg.

An article in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine draws attention to the ethical and practical dilemmas of American physicians asked to assess people for fitness to carry concealed weapons. Again this is not a skill taught in medical schools. No firm criteria, beyond those of common sense (which have not been validated by research), have been laid down. It seems obvious that people with paranoid personalities or psychoses, gross depression or mania, those who take cocaine, amphetamines, or other stimulants, and alcoholics should be refused permission to carry concealed weapons. But many of those conditions (if taking cocaine can properly be called a condition) are easy to conceal or difficult to detect. How far is the doctor to go in attempting to detect them? Interestingly, or curiously, the authors do not mention hair or blood tests, which could certainly help the doctor detect drug and alcohol abuse.