April 13, 2024

The taint of Nazi medicine lingers on

Some areas of anatomy still carry the taint of Nazi atrocities.

More revelations about the medical profession under the Nazis in this week’s Slate. A riveting article by Emily Bazelon demonstrates that medicine still has not acknowledged that some areas of anatomy still carry the taint of Nazi atrocities.

One of the conclusions of Nazi medicine even surfaced during the recent US election. Representative Todd Atkin, who was running for a Senate seat in Missouri, sank his campaign when he declared that research showed that women rarely conceived after rape. The claim caused a huge furore and led for calls for his resignation even from his own party.

Atkin’s claim was based on a 1972 essay by a Dr Fred Mecklenburg. He said that Nazi doctors sent women to the gas chambers to see if the stress of imminent death would affect ovulation. This was inaccurate, but a Nazi anatomist, Hermann Stieve, the head of the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Berlin, did study this issue by examining the bodies of executed political prisoners and criminals at nearby Plötzensee Prison. (Among them was an American woman married to a member of the German resistance, Mildred Fish-Harnack.)

All 31 anatomy anatomy departments in the territories occupied by the Third Reich used the bodies of executed prisoners. It seems that only one person ever resigned rather than work on them.

Stieve was never censured and continued in his position until 1952. He was unrepentant: “In no way do I need to be ashamed of the fact that I was able to reveal new data from the bodies of the executed, facts that were unknown before and are now recognized by the whole world.”

Bazelon describes several other doctors who did similar work. Anatomical illustrations from the Pernkopf Atlas are still in use even though the models were the corpses of dissected prisoners and possibly concentration camp inmates. German universities still hold specimens taken from Nazi victims. Some have studied their holdings and acknowledged them; others have done nothing.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan has been at the forefront of efforts to identify the victims of Nazi doctors and to deal with tainted data. “If you use it, you had better be sure you don’t have any choice,” he said. “The purpose should be life-saving or very, very important. And you have to admit you are using it, but without giving credit to the person who gave you the tainted experiments. You say, ‘This came from a prominent German scientist under the Nazis.’ But you don’t recognize them by name.”

In a related area, bioethicist Gareth Jones and anatomist Maja Whitaker, both from New Zealand  are campaigning to ensure that all bodies used by anatomists have been donated. At the moment, in many countries, unclaimed bodies are given to medical schools. 

Michael Cook
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Nazi doctors
respect for cadavers