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."
To contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, contact Andrew Hollinger at 202-488-6133 or at

American Medical Association

Related Public Health Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health
Indigenous self-determination, leadership and knowledge have helped protect Indigenous communities in Canada during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and these principles should be incorporated into public health in future, argue the authors of a commentary in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal)

Public health consequences of policing homelessness
In a new study examining homelessness, researchers find that policy such a lifestyle has massive public health implications, making sleeping on the street even MORE unhealthy.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic likely to cause long-term health problems, Yale School of Public Health finds
The coronavirus pandemic's life-altering effects are likely to result in lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people--particularly those from vulnerable populations--a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds.

The Lancet Public Health: US modelling study estimates impact of school closures for COVID-19 on US health-care workforce and associated mortality
US policymakers considering physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult trade-off between closing schools to reduce transmission and new cases, and potential health-care worker absenteeism due to additional childcare needs that could ultimately increase mortality from COVID-19, according to new modelling research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain
The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009-2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.

BU researchers: Pornography is not a 'public health crisis'
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have written an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health special February issue arguing against the claim that pornography is a public health crisis, and explaining why such a claim actually endangers the health of the public.

The Lancet Public Health: Ageism linked to poorer health in older people in England
Ageism may be linked with poorer health in older people in England, according to an observational study of over 7,500 people aged over 50 published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Study: Public transportation use linked to better public health
Promoting robust public transportation systems may come with a bonus for public health -- lower obesity rates.

Read More: Public Health News and Public Health Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to