I once heard that Dr. Mengele's experiments were medicine's "dirty little secret": modern medical science had gained from his atrocities, but such a fact couldn't be made public. Later, though, a friend in the biomedical tech industry told me he had never found any reference to Mengele's work in the literature and that his experiments had no medical value. Can you shed some light on this?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
You’re actually both right — but then again, pretty much all medical research back then was a dirty little secret. These days studies consist of college kids getting paid 40 bucks to smoke weed and sit in an MRI scanner for an hour, but things were different back in the day: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where rural men with the disease were kept ignorant of their condition and prevented from getting treatment, is justly infamous, but there’s also the ’40s case where inmates at a New York correctional facility were directed to swallow suspended fecal matter so researchers could study a stomach bug. In 1942 Jonas Salk himself led a study that injected insane-asylum patients in Michigan with a experimental flu vaccine, apparently with less than fully informed consent. The list goes on.
Of course, if we’re talking circles of hell, none of these would place you as deep in the inferno as the experiments conducted in Nazi concentration camps, which regularly crossed the line into pure sadism and horror — like the one where condemned female prisoners were told the date they’d be executed so researchers could study the effect of the psychological trauma on the women’s menstrual cycles. But most Nazi medical research was intensely professional; proportionately, more German physicians (48 percent) joined the Nazi party than any other occupation. And Germany was a science powerhouse; through 1939, Germans accounted for more than a third of all Nobel prizes in medicine, chemistry, and physics.
So yes, there’s plenty of Nazi-era research that doctors have used and built on ever since: Nazi scientists were pioneers in the study of hormones and vitamins, they were the first to discover the link between smoking and lung cancer, and they had the most aggressive and successful cancer-prevention program of the time.
But the data gathered in the concentration camps tended towards the gruesome, unscientific, and fairly useless. Two cases where these experiments did have some clear public-health application, though, involved phosgene gas and hypothermia. The latter was part of German efforts to save Luftwaffe pilots downed in the North Sea: working at Dachau, SS doctor Sigmund Rascher had prisoners strapped down naked in freezing weather or submerged in ice water for hours at a time; blood, urine, and mucus samples were taken regularly while their body temperature dropped. On one hand, Rascher obtained data that no responsible researcher ever could, and he developed the life-saving hypothermia treatment technique called rapid active rewarming. On the other hand, he killed as many as 90 people to do it.
The Dachau data were published in a 1946 report by a U.S. medical advisor at the Nuremberg trials and quietly used by various researchers over the years until in 1988 Dr. Robert Pozos of the University of Minnesota’s Hypothermia Laboratory brought Rascher’s work to wider attention in hopes of starting a discussion about bioethics. He got one: impassioned doctors, ethicists, and Holocaust survivors weighed in; conferences were organized. The editor of the New England Journal of Medicine flatly declared the data unusable.
At around the same time, authors of a draft report for the Environmental Protection Agency cited Nazi data on phosgene from 1943, when doctors exposed 52 prisoners to the gas (used as a chemical weapon in World War I) and timed how long it took them to die. This information was relevant to regulating phosgene use at U.S. plastics and pesticide plants, but 22 EPA scientists wrote a letter objecting, and the cite was deleted.
Josef Mengele’s work didn’t pose such ethical quandaries. He’d published one prewar paper on hereditary cleft palates, but his notorious experiments at Auschwitz on hundreds of pairs of twins produced no notable conclusions. He did, however, contribute significantly to a subtler Nazi plot: the channeling of thousands of victims’ brains and other organs, cadavers, and blood and tissue samples to major research institutions, including the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research. Many prominent German neuroscientists worked with the brains: Julius Hallervorden, for example, went on to discover a rare neurodegenerative disorder that until recently bore his name (now it’s called NBIA). Most of these doctors died with their reputations intact.
But that was legitimate lab work. By contrast, the camp experiments were never likely to be good science: besides being overly concerned with efficient methods of killing people, they were tainted by racial bias and the use of atypically unhealthy subject groups. Their only really useful outcome was the Nuremberg Code — the first major enumeration of international research ethics, written into the verdict of the Nazi doctors’ trial in 1947. It took humanity 200,000 years, but we finally developed the moral maturity to realize you shouldn’t feed unwitting schoolchildren radioactive breakfast cereal just to see what happens.
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