Medical Experiments in
In order to understand how brutal and realistic the medical experiments
in Auschwitz were, a modern student, Stephen M. Scott, is quoted
as defining a doctor and noting how such a modern-day definition
of a doctor differs from that of the Nazi doctors in the mid-twentieth
century. "Think of your family doctor and try to associate
as many words as you can to describe the nature of that individual.
Most people are able to come up with words like `compassionate',
`professional' and `knowledgeable'. We count on our doctors
to care for our health and provide strategies toward maintaining
that health. Doctors are some of the most respected and intelligent
individuals in our society. So how is it that a doctor can
compromise everything that he or she has learned in medical school
in favor of political objectives and self-interested advancement?
How is it that a doctor can be transformed from a healer into a
systematic killer? One needs only to look into the recent
past to see the horrific truth: doctors were some of the most
instrumental figures in the Holocaust and its atrocities.
It has been said that "The Nazi doctor was a physician turned
inside out." Inside the barbed-wire fences of Auschwitz
and other Nazi concentration camps, unthinkable deeds were performed
by individuals whom society puts the most trust in--doctors.
"Not only were the experiments
which the doctors conducted unethical by nature, but they added
nothing of real significance to medical knowledge! In order
to insure that these events do not occur again, doctors must understand
the pressures and mechanisms that were operating within the minds
of the Nazi doctors. Codes and declarations have since been
issued to create a framework of consent and responsibility, and
councils have been set up in order to assure that the events do
not occur again. We must all face up to the legacy left behind
by the Holocaust and its practitioners. Understanding the
crimes that Nazi doctors willingly committed under the supervision
of the state is crucial in insuring that this awful segment of history
will never be repeated."
Relation of Medical Experiments to Nazi Ideology
In Mein Kampf, Hitler states
that "anyone who wants to cure this era, which is inwardly
sick and rotten, must first of all summon up the courage to make
clear the causes of the disease," (Lifton 212). As the
cause of the disease, he was referring to Jews, gypsies and all
those accused of racial contamination who were supposedly detrimental
to the German race. Thus the first stage of the medical experiments
which led to the gas chambers at concentration camps, specifically
the experiments concerning methods of "euthanasia" (the
medicalized killing of those who were a "danger" to society),
was directly related to and supposedly justified by Nazi ideology
since it purged the German race of its unwanted elements.
At places like Auschwitz the
killing was regarded as a means of healing Germany and curing it
of the racial disease, thus leading to what has been called the
"healing-killing paradox" wherein SS doctors could get
around issues of moral and ethical conscience concerning their medicalized
killing and experimentation because they equated killing with healing.
Murder was to them a furthering of their commitment as doctors to
the preservation and enhancement of life, as it was seen ideologically
as purification (Lifton 224). Therefore their sense of guilt
was minimized and, with the support and endorsement of the National
Socialist party, the doctors in question became capable of otherwise
unimaginable atrocities, all because of the twisted way in which
the Nazi ideology interpreted life and murder.
Within the context of the struggle
to form the perfect Aryan race, the Holocaust was seen by Nazis
and many others as a necessary evil, as the victims had been reduced
to a subhuman level and thus did not deserve to be treated ethically.
They supposedly did not even deserve to live unless to serve some
purpose, such as medical experimentation or labor. Thus the
experiments which took place were justified as in the name of science,
and science as defined by the Nazis at that time concerned any research
that could be implemented to help Nazi troops or to further the
purification of the German race. As such, experiments either
tested methods of sterilization or murder to purge the race of its
"unclean elements", or they tested ways of actually genetically
engineering humans to create the perfect blond-haired, blue-eyed
Therefore, all the medical experiments
that took place at Auschwitz and other such concentration camps
were done to further the cause of the Aryan race on German soil.
The same cause was being fought abroad as Germany waged war and
tried to dominate whole countries and cultures to accommodate Hitler's
theory of Lebensraum, the living space necessary for the survival
of his perfect race.
Background on Mengele
Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz
"Angel of Death" was for many years one of the most wanted
Nazi war criminals, due to his medical experiments. This geneticist
disregarded the Hippocratic Oath and sent thousands to their death
in the name of science (Gutman 317).
Mengele's career and his involvement in criminal medical practices
began with his interest in genetics, which overlapped with Nazi
ideology. The scientific basis for the theory of superiority
of the Germanic race came in the form of eugenics, a term conceived
in the mid-19th century by Sir Francis Galton, an English professor
(Gutman 317). Galton believed that the inherited traits of
an individual would benefit society and humankind by identifying
them and improving positive ones while eliminating negative ones
Eugenics did not become popular until
after Hitler's rise to power, when it changed toward racial genetics.
Eugenics provided the Nazis with a scientific foundation for removing
and killing persons suffering from mental illness, incurable disease,
and the sterilization of those suspected of carrying hereditary
In 1937, Mengele, a young promising
scientist, joined the Institute of Heredity and Racial Hygiene at
the Frankfurt University, headed by Professor Otmar Freihörer von
Verschauer, the academic center of racial genetics. Interested
in Mengele's work in racial genetics, Professor von Verschauer hired
the young researcher as his assistant (Gutman 318).
Mengele's interest in twins dates
from his early collaboration with von Verschauer, who pursued research
on twins as "the most efficient method to ascertain inherited
human traits, particularly diseases (Gutman 318)." Here
Mengele acts but does not think. Verschauer has a large impact
on his ideas and experiments at Auschwitz. All experiments
Mengele embarks upon can be traced back to Verschauer. This
shows that what Verschuer was not willing to complete Mengele would
automatically do, hence arose the in depth "research"
on twins. Mengele was molded by Verschauer and followed his
lead in the search for an Aryan race.
Experimentation on Twins
work at Auschwitz mostly consisted of identical twins. His
study of twins was motivated by a desire to learn how to induce
multiple births, in order to repopulate the world with Germans (Lifton
218). It is seen he clearly lost sight of the role of a scientist
when he used humans as guinea pigs and specimen samples. When
Mengele was not experimenting with the twins he was quite gentle
with the children under his care, made sure they received enough
food, and even gave them toys and sweets. Children repaid
him with trust and called him "good uncle" (Gutman 320).
Beginning in the middle of may 1944,
experimental subjects were picked during selections on the unloading
ramp from among Jewish transports headed toward the gas chambers
(Gutman 321). Knowing Mengele wanted twins, mothers gave up
their children hoping they would receive special treatment.
Mengele was involved in four types of experimentation: anthropometric,
morphological, x-ray, and psychiatric evaluation (Gutman 323).
In the anthropological exam, each
body part was precisely measured; twins were measured together and
results compared. Documentation includes descriptions of such
details as shape of the mouth, nose, and the auricle, color of the
eyes, and coloring of the skin in various parts of the body.
Mengele conducted the measurements personally, using the latest
Swiss precision measuring instruments, assisted by Martyna Puzyna,
a Polish prisoner and a doctor of anthropology. During measurements,
which often lasted several hours, the twins stood naked in an unheated
room, which was particularly exhausting for small children.
Mengele often personally photographed the objects of his interest
or entrusted this task to the photographic workshop (Erkennungsdienst)
in the main camp (Gutman 323).
-- Morphological, X-ray, Surgical examinations, and Sight,
Hearing, and Dental checks
In the course of dental examinations,
plaster casts of the jaws of twins were made. During ophthamological
examinations, drops of a liquid unknown to the prisoners were put
into their eyes, which resulted in suppuration; in extreme cases,
children suffered partial loss of sight (Gutman 323-24). In
an excerpt from Children of the Flames Hedvah and Leah Stern
give a description of their experience with the eye testing.
It appears that these experiments were related to attempts to change
eye color by injecting unknown chemical substances into children's
eyes (Gutman 326).
Hedvah and Leah Stern
"Mengele was trying to change the color of our eyes.
One day, we were given eye-drops. Afterwards, we could no
see for several days. We thought the Nazis had made us blind.
"We were very frightened of
the experiments. They took a lot of blood from us.
We fainted several times, and the SS guards were very amused.
"We were not very developed.
The Nazis made us remove our clothes, and then they took photographs
"The SS guards would
point to us and laugh. We stood naked in front of these
Nazi thugs, shaking from cold and fear, and they laughed (Lagnado
Up to 20 cubic centimeters of blood
was collected from each pair of twins. Blood, urine, stool,
and saliva samples were sent for analysis to the lab of the Hygiene
Institute. Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
contain numerous requests for analysis bearing Mengele's signature
(Gutman 324). As part of morphological research, Mengele performed
Blood transfusion between twins, observing their reactions.
Since these experiments were not preceded by blood cross-matching,
they often led to serious complications. There is also evidence
that Mengele performed ghastly experiments on children for no medical
purpose (Gutman 324). Vera Alexander, a Jewish prisoner posted
to the barracks for twins in the Gypsy camp, testified:
"One day Mengele brought chocolate
and special clothes. The next day an SS man, on Mengele's
instructions, took away two children, who happened to be my favorites:
Guido and Nino, aged about four. Two, perhaps three days later
the SS man brought them back in a frightening condition. They
had been sewn together like Siamese twins. The hunchbacked
child was tied to the second one on the back and wrists. Mengele
had sewn their veins together. The wounds were filthy and
they festered. There was a powerful stench of gangrene.
The children screamed all night long. Somehow their mother
managed to get hold of morphine and put an end to their suffering.
The documentation of Mengele's research,
including photographs, drawings, accounts, and analyses, was preserved
in special files, one for each person subjected to experiments.
The twins were constantly being tested and compared to one another
even after death. After weeks of tortuous medical examinations
they were taken to the dissection laboratory. Using two doctors,
each twin was simultaneously given an injection in the heart, taking
their lives. They were dissected and their organs were sent
to the Institute of Biological Racial and Evolutionary Research
in Berlin (Medical Experiments 4).
Other Medical Experiments
Though the general attitude in the
early forties concerning concentration camps and extermination of
Jews was that the whole process should be dealt with as quickly
as possible for reasons of pragmatism, many Nazis felt that they
should at the same time exploit the labor potential of their prisoners.
However since the whole point of the Holocaust was to purge the
German race of any "inferior humans" in order to create
the perfect Aryan race, if any Jewish workers were to be kept alive
they needed to be sterilized to prevent further racial contamination
Thus began experiments into mass sterilization testing operative
castration, castration by means of X-rays or injection, preferably
administered through a method that left the person unaware of the
sterilization. This was all justified by the Nazis as in the
interest of obtaining labor material, and ethics had no place in
the decision or experimentation process as the subjects were condemned
to death anyway (I). "With no ethical considerations
at issue, a more opportunistic surgical laboratory than Auschwitz
could hardly be imagined (Gutman 304)."
Almost all medical experimentation
received official encouragement as they were viewed as a direct
expression of racial theory and policy, such as that which Hitler
clarified when he maintained the necessity of not just sterilizing
but eliminating "life unworthy of life". The sterilization
and castration experiments conducted at Auschwitz by doctors Carl
Clauberg and Horst Schumann (Gutman 302-303) were supported by SS
official Himmler as he provided the adequate research materials
to the concentration camp (I).
Clauberg was the main doctor involved
with mass sterilization at Auschwitz, as the concentration camp
was placed at his disposal for his experiments on human beings and
animals (I). He worked out of "Block 10", also known
as "Clauberg's block", which was also the site of Schumann's
castration and X-ray experiments on males, trying to develop a method
of cheap and effective mass sterilization of females that could
be implemented immediately. Clauberg developed such a method
by 1943 involving a single injection of a caustic substance through
the cervix that would obstruct the fallopian tubes (II) and was
made during the course of a customary gynecological exam, leaving
the patient unawares and achieving sterilization without operation.
He estimated that one physician properly equipped could sterilize
1,000 women per day (I).
Medical experiments that involved
exposing prisoners to freezing temperatures or high altitudes to
determine the affects of hypothermia or low pressure on humans were
typically carried out in concentration camps other than Auschwitz,
such as Dachau. However, they were of the same nature as the
Auschwitz medical experiments, justified by the Nazis as scientific
research that would benefit their troops. The subjects would
be taken up to high altitudes, or would be placed in snow or cold
water in different manners to determine the various human reactions
to such environments (I).
When the subject died, as they typically
did, they would be dissected with special attention being paid to
the large amounts of either free air or free blood typically found
in the cranial cavity. Such were the experiments performed
in the name of science. Though Auschwitz did not focus on
such things because it was more a concentration camp known more so
for medicalized killing, it still played its part by providing subjects
for other camps' experiments. Auschwitz not only supplied
such things as skeletons of prisoners for anthropological research
(I), but it also exported prisoners, as the supply therein was so
plentiful. For example, it sent children away to be used in
tuberculosis experiments and shipped prepared specimens to Dr. August's
anatomical "museum" (Gutman 304).
Many other experiments were conducted
at Auschwitz on a smaller scale, such as Dr. Eduard Wirth's studies
of precancerous growths of the cervix of women, which involved the
surgical removal of most or all of the cervix and often ended in
complications or deaths. Wirth also tested typhus vaccines
by intentionally infecting prisoners with the disease, as German
military and civilian personnel were particularly susceptible to
the illness (Lifton 218). One of the more brutal experiments
associated with Auschwitz was that conducted by Dr. Herta Oberheuser,
wherein she would "kill prisoners with oil and evipan injections,
remove their limbs and vital organs, and rub crushed glass and sawdust
into the wounds of the deceased (II)."
of the Experiments
Besides resulting in the deaths of
countless prisoners, the ruthless medical experiments conducted
as Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the Holocaust
resulted in the Nuremburg and Helsinki Codes. After the war
was over and the camps were liberated, 24 German physicians were
brought to trial at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, which began in
October of 1946 and lasted until August of 1947. Eight of
the defendants were acquitted and fifteen were found guilty, of
which seven were given the death penalty and eight were imprisoned.
Dr. Herta Oberheuser received twenty years in prison and served
only ten, and Dr. Mengele was not even among the 24 accused (II).
From this trial the Nuremberg Codes
were developed, "a 10-point code of human experimentation ethics
which sets the general agenda for all future ethical and legal questions
pertaining to the conduct of human experimentation."
These codes were developed to ensure that history would not repeat
itself, but they in time became insufficient as in 1947 when they
were developed, most human experimentation was of a non-therapeutic
design and was more directed to exploring basic processes.
Thus, in 1964 the World Medical Association issued the Helsinki
Declaration which differentiated between therapeutic and non-therapeutic
clinical research (II).
The Declaration did not have an absolute
requirement of informed consent concerning therapeutic research
as it introduced the concept of guardianship as sufficient means
of obtaining consent. Such a condition seemed to undermine
the Nuremberg Codes in that it potentially allowed for the doctor
to take advantage of the patient in acting as his caretaker, just
as the Nazi doctors had in "taking care" of their imprisoned
patients (II). Nonetheless, between the two declarations much
has been done to define the area of medical experimentation to avoid
any repeat of the Holocaust atrocities, and modern-day doctors remain
well aware of the issues at stake and the necessity for the preservation
of human rights and ethics in every situation.
Gutman, Yisrael and Michael Berenbaum. Anatomy of the
Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press: Indianapolis,
Lagnado, Lucete Matalon and Sheila
Cohn Dekel. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele
and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. William
Morrow and Company: New York, 1991.
Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Concentration Camps:
Medicalized Killing in Auschwitz. Yad Vashem: Israel,
1984. p. 207-55.