Nazis and medical ethics: Context and lessons

October 13, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The practice of medicine in Nazi Germany still profoundly affects modern-day medical ethics codes, according to Alan Wells, Ph.D., an expert in medical ethics with the American Medical Association (AMA) and Patricia Heberer, Ph.D., historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). To teach those lessons to the next generation of physicians, the AMA and the USHMM announced plans today to deliver a lecture series on the subject to medical schools around the country.

The collaboration between the AMA and the Holocaust Museum coincides with the Museum's special exhibition, "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," which runs through Oct. 16, 2005.

"During the 1930s, the German medical establishment was admired as a world leader in innovative public health and medical research," Dr. Wells said. "The question we want to examine is: 'How could science be co-opted in such a way that doctors as healers evolved into killers and medical research became torture?'" Dr. Wells and Dr. Heberer spoke today at the American Medical Association's 23rd Annual Science Reporters Conference in Washington D.C.

"The story of medicine under Nazism is instructive and an important theme in understanding the evolution of the Holocaust," said Dr. Heberer. "The collaboration of the USHMM and the AMA Institute for Ethics presents a unique opportunity to explore this topic, both in terms of history and contemporary issues, and to bring the lessons drawn to students, physicians, and faculty in universities around the country."

The presentation will focus on the role Nazi medical practices played in the development of medical ethics and the lessons that today's physicians have learned from the period leading up to the Holocaust. The series is being jointly funded by the AMA Institute for Ethics, the AMA Foundation, the Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and host institutions. The series will visit 12 to 15 medical schools as well as selected universities over the next year.

"Many of the most important issues in medical ethics today - from genetic testing and stem cell research to caring for prisoners of war are directly affected by the experiences of medicine leading up to and during the Holocaust," Dr. Wells said. "Physicians need to explore these issues without getting caught up in political agendas or the results can be something we never intended and cause great harm."

According to Dr. Wells, World War II era Germans were extremely advanced in medicine, technology and public health research but these successes have largely been overlooked by history because of the medical extremes of the Holocaust. For example, Germany was the first to have a high-powered electron microscope, the first to document the link between asbestos and lung cancer, and an innovator in developing high profile public health campaigns for a variety of health issues - such as anti-smoking campaigns and promoting breast self-examination to help detect tumors at an early stage. These advances and campaigns, however, were eventually aimed exclusively at the "Aryans" - the Nazi ideal of the "master race."

"Adolf Hitler spoke of Germany as a body with himself as the doctor," Dr. Wells said. "He wanted to make Germany 'healthy' by eliminating diseased, unhealthy parts of the body. At first this meant killing the disabled. But because the Nazis also believed that Jews possessed 'bad' genes, they, too, came to be portrayed by public health 'experts' and 'scientists' as a threat to racial purity and a healthy nation."

These actions grew from a theory called "eugenics" (using selective breeding to improve the genetic quality of a species), which came from a distortion of Charles Darwin's theories of "survival of the fittest," according to Dr. Heberer. Some eugenics programs, such as laws sanctioning the sterilization of the "feeble minded," initially met with resistance throughout the world, including in Germany. But when the Nazis came to power, and particularly during World War II, these constraints disappeared as the Nazi regime was able to implement its radical version of medicine.

"We want to understand why healers became killers and use our understanding as a guide for medicine today," Dr. Wells concluded. "Even though the horrors of the Holocaust seem to be so long ago, we can never forget this history because it continues to affect medical ethics today. For example, one reason doctors today are so concerned about racial and ethnic health disparities is because our codes of ethics demand that we treat every person equally, without regard to race or ethnic background. This ethical obligation is a direct outgrowth of the horrors of Nazi medicine."
-end-
To contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, contact Andrew Hollinger at 202-488-6133 or at ahollinger@ushmm.org.

American Medical Association

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