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Nazi Medical Experiments: Background & Overview

During the Holocaust, the Nazi Party carried out a series of medical experiments to advance German medicine without the consent of the patients upon whom the experiments were conducted and with total disregard for the patients suffering, or even their survival.

Some of these experiments had legitimate scientific purposes, though the methods that were used violated the canons of medical ethics. Others were racial in nature, designed to advance Nazi racial theories. Most were simply bad science.

- Racial experiments
- War-injury related experiments
- Pharmaceutical testing
- Nuremberg Trials

Racial Experimentation

The Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases was promulgated on July 14, 1933. It led to the sterilization of more than 200,000 Germans and to a great interest on the part of German physicians in sterilization. If successful, sterilization could rid the master race of those within it who were less than masterful and, if perfected, it could have enabled Germany to utilize the populations in the territories it occupied without fearing their reproduction with its consequences for the master race.

Two modes of sterilization were the subject of experimentation: X-rays and injections.

Air force physician Dr. Horst Schumann ran experiments at Auschwitz. Two to three times a week, groups of 30 prisoners–male and female–were brought in to have their testicles or ovaries irradiated with X-rays. Schumann varied the dosage. As a rule, prisoners subjected to these experiments were sent back to work, even though they suffered from serious burns and swelling. The results of sterilization experiments by means of X-ray irradiation proved disappointing. Surgical castration was more dependable and time-efficient. Nevertheless, Schumann continued his experiments.

The most infamous experiments at Auschwitz were conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele, who became the chief physician of Birkenau in 1943. Mengele wanted to "prove" the superiority of the Nordic race. His first experiments were performed on Gypsy (Roma) (Roma) children supplied to him from the so-called kindergarten. Before long he broadened his interest to twins, dwarfs, and people with abnormalities. The tests he carried out were painful, exhausting, and traumatic for the frightened and hungry children who made up the bulk his subjects. The twins and the crippled people designated as subjects of experiments were photographed, their jaws and teeth were cast in plaster molds, and prints were taken from hands and feet. On Mengele's instructions, an inmate painter made comparative drawings of the shapes of heads, auricles, noses, mouths, hands, and feet of the twins. When the research was completed some subjects were killed by phenol injection and their organs were autopsied and analyzed so that more information could be obtained. Scientifically interesting anatomical specimens were preserved and shipped out to the institute in Berlin-Dahlem for further research.

On the day Mengele left Auschwitz - January 17, 1945 - he took with him the documentation of his experiments. He still imagined that they would bring him scientific honor. According to his son, he took them with him to South America even when he was fleeing for his life.

War-Injury Experimentation

There were several forms of war injury-related experiments. At Dachau, a series of experiments were conducted to ascertain how German military personnel might survive conditions of combat. Civilian physicians Siegfried Rugg and Hans Romberg of the German experimental Institute of Aviation joined Air Force physician Sigmund Rasher in high-altitude experiments carried out to see how long people could withstand the loss of air pressure. Prisoners were put into pressure chambers to replicate what might happen at high altitudes. Some died; many suffered. Presumably, this was meant to ascertain at what altitude Air Force personnel could bail out of an airplane.

Freezing experiments were conducted to find a treatment for hypothermia. Victims were put into tanks of ice water for an hour or more and various methods of warming up their bodies were tried. No painkillers were used. Others were placed in the snow for hours. Physicians also experimented with prisoners who were forced to drink sea water.

Pharmaceutical Testing

At other concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Natzweiler, Buchenwald and Neuengamme, pharmaceutical compounds were tested to fight contagious diseases such as malaria, typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, yellow fever, and infectious hepatitis. Sulfa drugs, only recently discovered, were tested at the Ravensbrueck camp. Elsewhere, prisoners were subjected to gas poisoning to test antidotes. In Ravensbruck new methods were explored to deal with fractures and war wounds. Prisoners' legs were broken or amputated; transplants were attempted.

The physicians enjoyed complete freedom to act without regard to basic medical ethics, without any consideration for the health of the patient.

There were some 70 such "medical-research" programs at Nazi concentration camps involving some 7,000 prisoners and some 200 physicians, who worked directly in the concentration camps, but they were not alone. They maintained close professional and research contacts with leading medical institutions and universities and an ongoing relationship with research laboratories. Indeed, the German medical establishment was involved in this work.

Nuremberg Trials

Medical experimentation on human subjects has long been practiced. This experimentation was different. It was left to the Physicians Trials, begun on October 25, 1946, at Nuremberg, which were the forerunner of the subsequent trials, to determine precisely how different.

Twenty-three men stood in the docket. Seven were sentenced to death; nine to long prison terms and seven were acquitted. Two physicians - Mengele and Schumann - had disappeared, and Clauberg was tried in the Soviet Union.

More important than the judgment were the principles articulated by the Court. They form the foundation for contemporary medical practice and define what was wrong with the Nazi practice.

The judges found that certain basic principles must be observed in order to satisfy moral, ethical, and legal concepts:

1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs, or engages in the experiment. It is a personal duty and responsibility which may not be delegated to another with impunity.

2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.

3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.

4. The experiment should be so conducted to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.

5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur, except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.

6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.

7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.

8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.

9. During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end, if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.

10. During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill, and careful judgment required of him, that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

A. Gotz, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (1994); R.J. Lifton, Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing the Psychology of Genocide (1986); R. Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (1988); P. Weindling, Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From Medical War Crimes to Informed Consent (2004).