August 12, 2022

Doctors need to study the lessons of the Holocaust, says ethics journal

A sound medical education must recall Nazi atrocities

The illustration for the editorial of the January issue of the AMA Journal of Ethics comes from the “doctor’s trials” at Nuremburg in 1947. A young and sullen-looking young woman wearing earphones stands between two helmeted soldier in the dock. She is Dr Herta Oberhauser, the only woman in the trials, and she was being sentenced to 20 years imprisonment (of which she served only five) for crimes against humanity. She experimented on women at the Ravensbruck concentration camp – deliberately creating gangrenous wounds to test the efficacy of sulpha drugs. She also gave lethal injections to several of her patients.

Oberhauser was one of the small fry amongst the Nazi doctors and nurses who committed medical atrocities before and during World War II.

The journal’s special issue is intended to help doctors not to forget what can happen if healthcare workers misuse their special skills and status. Surprisingly, the editors say that many American doctors are unaware that bioethics arose from the experience of the Nuremburg trials.

the historical impact or resonance of the Holocaust in bioethics has generally been at a low frequency in the United States. This painful history has largely been overlooked in American medical education, perhaps because to examine it closely one must first disturb the comfortable view of our nation and our profession as entirely heroic actors in the Second World War.

They argue that the year 2020, with the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, has shown American doctors that they, too, need to be aware of dark corners of medicine in their own country.

it became widely recognized as problematic—and not just in the United States—to view medical professionals as purely altruistic, color-blind healers, blameless in creating and sustaining health care systems that predictably and consistently generate racial and ethnic health disparities.

The medical history of the Holocaust remains relevant – and essential – in a sound medical education.

[P]erhaps the year 2021 will become the year in which every health professional training program awakens to the fact that health sciences students (and practitioners) must learn about and reflect upon the historical roles of health professionals in creating both the atrocities of the Second World War and the different but related atrocities of racial injustice that we witness today. After all, these legacies are deeply entwined. Our profession’s involvement in providing the pseudoscientific foundations that supported ethnic and racial violence during the Second World War cannot be disentangled from the history of scientific racism and its ongoing, powerful, and pervasive influence on the world today.

This fascinating issue of the journal contains several articles about aspects of the Holocaust and medical education. It is well worth reading.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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