By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, November 20: The British medical journal Lancet has set up an international Commission to inquire into the role of medical researchers, doctors and drug companies during the Holocaust which claimed the lives of six million Jews and people of other races considered “inferior” by the “Aryan” Germans.
The Commission will seek detailed evidence of the medical atrocities, their implications for present-day medical practice, and the teaching of medicine in the future.
“Confronting what happened to medicine in this period is crucial to recognise and modify similar tendencies today and guide and inform the ethical practice of medicine,” Lancet said in a posting on its website dated November 8.
For decades there has been a refusal by the medical community to engage with such a gory past, and as a consequence, long-standing myths about the relationship between the Nazi regime and medicine have prevailed, Lancet said.
One of the myths is that only a few fanatical physicians committed medical atrocities, and that other German and Austrian physicians and medical scientists were coerced into it by the Nazi regime.
The other myth is that science in Nazi-ruled Europe was “pseudoscience” invalid for post-war medical science.
These myths had to be shattered through a proper inquiry, Lancet said.
In the journal’s estimation, there was “extensive cooperation” of many German and Austrian physicians and medical organisations with the health and population policies of the Nazi regime.
Since not much was done after the war to find out and punish those complicit in these activities, many of them retained their positions and advanced their careers, it alleged.
On the relevance of the study for today’s medical practice, Lancet said: “One of the core questions of relevance today is what are the conditions under which physicians and scientists, despite existing bioethical regulations, are prepared to harm patients or do research on patients to devalue social groups and populations.”
The persecuted populations at the time included Jews, Sinti and Roma peoples, gays, psychiatric patients, and many others.
The Commission’s second objective will be to identify areas vulnerable to abuse of power and unethical actions in present-day medical practice, research, and health policies, and to make recommendations for moral and conscience development, for policy, and for education to prevent future abuse of power by health professionals and scientists.
The commission will inquire into the supposed value of “genetic endowment” of human populations. Calling such profiling “structural racism” Lancet said it is a “public health issue”. Such “exclusionary ethics” does not respect all groups.
The behaviour of physicians when tempted or pressured by those in power or providing financial resources will have to be probed.
Another area of inquiry will be the issue of medical scientists lobbying for deregulated spaces of research and the conditions, justifications, and implications of practising different ethical standards in different populations.
The commission will evaluate existing medical curricula and propose educational approaches that promote ethical conduct, compassionate identity formation, and moral development.
“Our work in the coming two years should complement knowledge aimed at practical application in clinical contexts, medical research, and health policies,” the journal said.
The 20 Commissioners appointed by Lancet are from diverse backgrounds in terms of geography, gender, and academic discipline.
The Commissioners are: Tessa Chelouche, Herwig Czech, Sabine Hildebrandt (Co-Chair), Astrid Ley, Etienne Lepicard, Esteban González-López, Miriam Offer, Avi Ohry, Shmuel Reis (Co-Chair), Volker Roelcke (Co-Chair), Maike Rotzoll, Carola Sachse, Hans-Walter Schmuhl, Sari Siegel, Michal Simunek, Amir Teicher, Kamila Uzarczyk, Anna von Villiez, Hedy Wald, and Matthew Wynia.
An Existing Study
Paul Weindling, Anna von Villiez, Aleksandra Loewenau, and Nichola Farron have already done work on the victims of unethical human experiments and coerced research under Nazi rule.
The authors say that experiments on humans were more extensive than often assumed, with a minimum of 15,750 documented victims. The authors had consulted the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Yad Vashem archives, court records in war crimes proceedings, and oral history collections, notably the Holocaust Foundation.
In Nazi Germany, experiments began in the 1930s and rapidly increased from 1942, reaching a high point in 1943 and sustained until the end of the war. Many survived the war with severe injuries. The victims came from diverse nationalities with the Poles (Jews and Roman Catholics) as the largest national cohort.
During the Nuremberg medical trials of 1946-47, it was stated that 90% of all medical research under Nazi rule was criminal. But the sample presented at that time was small.
The Weindling et.al., reconstructed the life histories of the Nazi research victims. This allowed them to place the survivors within a wider context.
Records showed how a single person could be the victim of research on multiple occasions. Polish Catholic priest Fr. Leon Michałowski, was subjected to malaria in August 1942 and then to freezing experiments in October 1942. Some experiments were taken to the point of death.
The experiments were part of mainstream German medical research, and were not “pseudoscience” by any means. Prestigious research institutions such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and funding agencies such as the German Research Fund were involved. Some experiments were indeed cutting-edge science.
Some experiments were sponsored by German pharmaceutical companies but more detailed research would be necessary on this, the authors said. The extent of involvement of German pharmaceutical companies like that of IG-Farben (using the branded product names of ‘Bayer’, ‘Hoechst’ and ‘Behringwerke’) remains contentious.
Victims were a highly international group. The largest national group, were the Poles, both Roman Catholics and Jews. There were smaller national groups, as Swiss, British and Irish. The victims included a Swiss conscientious objector who was used for malaria experiments at Dachau. British commandos captured in Norway were used for amphetamine experiments. Amphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant that is used in the treatment of attention deficit.
Statistics on gender indicate a proportion of male to female of approximately 2:1. This is because more men than women were held in concentration camps. However, in the case of sterilisation experiments at Auschwitz and in Greece, large numbers of women were used. Children were often victims of experiments in psychiatric clinics.
Later in the war, at Auschwitz, Roma and Jewish children were targeted for research by Josef Rudolf Mengele who was a German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer cum physician nicknamed the “Angel of Death”.
Statistics show that age distribution was the same for men and women. While there was a very wide age spectrum, the peak is of victims born in 1921, who were in their early twenties at the time of the experiments. Batches of Jewish children were dispatched for hepatitis and tuberculosis research.
As regards ethnicity, of the confirmed victims numbering 15,754, Jews were 20% (3098), Roma and Sinti 2% (335) and unknown or others were 78% (12,321).
Large scale anthropological investigations were conducted on Roma and Sinti, numbering at least another 21,498 persons. The Sinti are a subgroup of Romani people who are found mostly in Germany, France and Italy and Central Europe. They number about 200,000 and were traditionally itinerant.
The largest series of experiments was on infectious diseases. Malaria research at Dachau between 1942 and 1945 had 1091 confirmed victims. After infection, different combinations of drugs were tested.
Nearly a quarter of confirmed victims were either killed to obtain organs for research, or they died as a result of experiments which took them to the point of death. This happened in experiments on freezing and low pressure at Dachau. Euthanasia killings and executions were sources of cadavers for research.
The survivors were often seriously disabled and handicapped for the rest of their lives.
The experiments gained in numbers as the war progressed and the implementation of the Holocaust intensified. They were sustained at a high level of intensity despite imminent defeat, the authors point out.