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The Horrific Nazi Experiments During World War II

By Lucy Holland, VI Form

The Horrific Nazi Experiments During World War II

Presently, informed consent is a widely used and understood term – the process of receiving consent from patients before administering a medical intervention on them. But before a court case in 1957[1], only 58 years ago, informed consent was not required in medical practices, which meant that medical practitioners could do almost anything to their patients without them knowing or realizing that it was ethically wrong. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta’s cells were taken for a culture when she went into Johns Hopkins because of what the doctors eventually discovered was an extreme case of cervical cancer. This was in 1951, when African-Americans such as Henrietta Lacks had nonexistent rights when it came to medical care – they were often fortunate to even receive treatment. Thus, she and others didn’t consider any factors when the doctors took a sample from her without her consent. Her cancer cells turned out to be “immortal” and ended up helping the medical community in myriad ways, while being known as “HeLa.” In the first half of the 20th century, innumerable instances of medical malpractice and abusing patient rights such as what happened to Henrietta have been unearthed, notably among them the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the Guatemala Syphilis Experiment, and, perhaps the most horrific, the Nazi Experiments during World War II.

Among the thousands of atrocious acts that the Nazis committed during World War II, one of the most severe was the series of medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. But in the months before World War II started, National Socialist Germany had already begun planning their first strategy for mass murder, predating the Holocaust by about two years. The “Euthanasia Program,” unjustly named (euthanasia typically refers to inducing a painless death for patients who are terminally ill to prevent suffering), began with targeting children under the age of three that appeared to show evident signs of mental or physical retardation. Initiated by Philipp Bouhler, the director of Hitler’s private chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s attending physician, the program eventually grew so that parents of children with disabilities were encouraged to admit them to one of the various “designated pediatric clinics” around the country. Tragically, these clinics were, in actuality, essentially facilities for killing children. The specially enlisted medical staff murdered the disabled patients by starvation or lethal overdose. Ultimately, the clinics grew to house disabled children up to the age of 17. It is estimated that at least 5,000 mentally disturbed minors were killed during the years that the Euthanasia Program was active. Hitler signed a clandestine authorization protecting the participating parties from prosecution. In order to begin to involve disabled adults into the program, forms were sent out with the apparent purpose of simply gathering data related to mentally ill population, when in reality the forms were designed to pick out those in the population “adequate” for “euthanasia.” Beginning in 1940, patients were removed from their home and transported to any of the six gassing instillations dedicated to the Euthanasia Program. Due to the eventual public knowledge about the program, Hitler halted it in late August 1941. The “euthanasia” effort reportedly claimed the lives of 70,273 institutionalized mentally and physically disabled people between January 1940 and August 1941. Although the adult “euthanasia” halted momentarily, the child “euthanasia” program continued. Soon, the tactics used in the child program transferred to the adult program and proved to be more successful and easily kept a secret. This second phase of the program lasted until the end of the war and is estimated to have killed a total of 200,000 victims.[2]

The more well-known and publicized experiments that occurred mostly during the war began when the concentration camps started filling up with prisoners. The medical testing was done without consent by any of the patients. The experiments have been divided into three categories. The first was in the attempt to aid in the survival of Axis military personnel, and these experiments were mostly conducted at the concentration camp Dachau. The second section was based on testing and developing medicine and other treatment methods for the various injuries that German soldiers could be dealt in battle. These experimentations were concentrated in Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Natzweiler, Buchenwald, Neuengamme, and Ravensbrueck. The third category was focused on advancing the racial and ideological beliefs of the Nazi party. The main camps where these experiments were performed were Auschwitz, Ravensbrueck, and Sachsenhausen.[3]

Under the first category, lead by Sigmund Rascher, the Nazi scientists conducted high-altitude experiments on prisoners in order to investigate what happens to pilots when they are ejected at extreme heights. They put up to 200 subjects into low-pressure chambers that simulated altitudes up to 68,000 feet and then recorded their physiological responses as they collapsed and often died. Rascher was said to have dissected the brains of live patients who had been in the chamber to prove that the tiny air pockets that formed in blood vessels in a specific area in the brain were the cause of death from high altitudes. 80 of the subjects died in the chamber and the remainders were executed. Another experiment was to deal with the freezing temperatures that inflicted Nazi soldiers and what was the best way to grapple with the effects. The doctors would place selected prisoners into tubs of freezing water for hours at a time or bring them outside into the freezing weather and strip them down. As the victims succumbed to hypothermia, the scientists would record such data as their heart rates, body temperatures, and muscle reflexes. Once the patient’s body temperature fell to 79.7ºF, the scientists tried rewarming him using many tactics, including scalding baths and forced copulating. Around 80 to 100 prisoners died as a result of this line of experiments. Last in the first category, Dr. Hans Eppinger led an effort at Dachau to attempt to find a way to make seawater potable, to help the pilots who ejected into the ocean. The doctors forced around 90 Gypsies to drink only seawater while also depriving them of food, which caused severe dehydration and suffering to all who were involved.

To aid military personnel who suffered from gas gangrene (which produces gas in tissues in gangrene, which is localized tissue decomposition) on the frontlines, doctors at Ravensbrueck performed various studies to test the effectiveness of drugs to combat the effects of the gas, such as sulfanilamide. In order to do this, the doctors forced battle-like wounds on prisoners and then infected them with bacteria such as streptococcus (which causes infections such as scarlet fever and pneumonia), tetanus, and gas gangrene. The doctors then aggravated the wounds by rubbing wood and glass chippings into them.[4] All victims suffered in agony, and some even died. Researchers at Buchenwald worked to develop a method of execution by injection of cyanide and phenol. They also tested various other poisons on the prisoners by injecting them into their food or shooting them with poisoned bullets. Those who did not die from the experiments were executed so the doctors could perform autopsies. In an effort to find a vaccine for tuberculosis, Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer at Auchwitz injected the pathogen into the lungs of numerous prisoners to see if anyone had a natural immunity to the disease. Around 200 adults died, as well as 20 children that were hanged in order to hide evidence of the experiment. While trying to find an antidote to phosgene, another noxious gas used in World War I warfare, Nazi doctors exposed 52 prisoners to the gas and, due to their already present malnutrition, the subjects suffered pulmonary edema, and four died.

Essentially known as the leader in the effort to advance Nazi ideals medically, Josef Mengele was a particularly nasty SS doctor. In an effort to speed up the multiplication of the German race, Mengele worked extensively on twins in Auchwitz. After taking all the data he could while the twins were alive, Mengele would kill the twins by a single injection of chloroform into their hearts and dissect them. Only about 200 out of 1,000 pairs experimented on survived. Moreover, in attempts to find an effective way of mass sterilization of “races” that the Nazis saw as undesirable genetically (such as Romas and Jews), doctors at Auchwitz and Ravensbrueck experimented on men and women. They radiated men’s genitals and then castrated them to study the ensuing results in their testes. Women were injected with caustic substances, which caused obvious physical anguish. Unfortunately, the Nazi experimentation was extraordinarily widespread, with projects being conducted not only in concentration camps, but also in universities all over the country.[5]

When the war ended in 1945, numerous Nazi war criminals and doctors were captured and put on trial in the Nuremberg Trials. The Doctor’s Trial was part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, and in it 23 physicians and administrators (not including Josef Mengele, who managed to escape) were accused of willingly taking part in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Included were the “Euthanasia Program” and the pseudoscientific medical experimentations using concentration camp prisoners. After 140 days of proceedings, the verdict was announced on August 20, 1947. 16 of the 23 were found guilty, and seven were sentenced to death.[6] Most considered the trials an important step towards forming international law, and the findings at the trials led to the United Nations Genocide Convention in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which was the first global statement of rights to which all humans are entitled, and the Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War in 1949.[7] In addition, the trials unearthed the fact that there was no law or statement on the legality of ethical versus unethical medical experiments. In response to this, a Dr. Alexander from the U.S. who had aided the prosecution in the trial, submitted six points, which eventually expanded to ten, that became the Nuremberg Code. It remains an extremely important document regarding medical ethics to this day.[8]

Although the numerous experiments the Nazi scientists performed throughout World War II are controversial and without question unethical, the question has been raised on whether or not medical professionals and scientists today should be able to use the information gleaned from these criminals. Some of the data collected by the Nazi scientists could potentially save lives presently, such as the hypothermia studies. Some would say that there was no scientific significance to the heinous experiments and that they should be entirely discounted. Others argue that since replication of any of the studies is completely out of the question, modern day scientists should use what they can out of the data in order to save lives today and make up for the many lives lost.

Nazi Experimentation is one of many amoral and inhumane instances where doctors and administrators have violated basic human rights and consent and experimented on people. Henrietta Lacks was another case, and although it was demoralizing and unfair for her and her family, it ended up helping untold amounts of people and advancing medical research exponentially. Maybe the same could come of the atrocious Nazi experiments.

Lucy Holland is a VI Former. She is from Nantucket, MA, and her favorite color is purple. She is a starting hurler for varsity softball in the spring.

[1] Millenson, M. (n.d.). Spock, Feminists, and the Fight for Participatory Medicine. Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/770392_2

[2] Euthanasia Program. (2014, June 20). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005200

[3] Nazi Medical Experiments. (2014, June 20). Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005168

[4] Nazi Medical Experiments – Photograph. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/gallery.php?ModuleId=10005168&MediaType=PH

[5] Tyson, P. (2000, October 1). The Experiments. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/holocaust/experiside.html

[6] The Doctors Trial: The Medical Case of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-features/special-focus/doctors-trial

[7] Nuremberg Trials. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/nuremberg-trials

[8] Nuremberg Code. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-features/special-focus/doctors-trial/nuremberg-code

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