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Nazi human experimentation was a series of controversial medical experiments on large numbers of prisoners by the German Nazi regime in its concentration camps during World War II. Prisoners were coerced into participating: they did not willingly volunteer and there was never informed consent. Typically, the experiments resulted in death, disfigurement or permanent disability.
At Auschwitz and other camps, under the direction of Dr. Eduard Wirths, selected inmates were subjected to various experiments which were supposedly designed to help German military personnel in combat situations, develop new weapons, aid in the recovery of military personnel that had been injured, and to advance the racial ideology backed by the Third Reich. After the war, these crimes were tried at what became known as the Doctors’ Trial, and revulsion at the abuses perpetrated led to the development of the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics.
According to the indictment at the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, these experiments included the following:
Experiments on twins
Experiments on twin children in concentration camps were created to show the similarities and differences in the genetics and eugenics of twins, as well as to see if the human body can be unnaturally manipulated. The central leader of the experiments was Josef Mengele, who performed experiments on over 1,500 sets of imprisoned twins, of which fewer than 200 individuals survived the studies. Whilst attending University of Munich (located in the city that remained one of Adolf Hitler’s focal points during the revolution) studying philosophy and medicine with an emphasis on anthropology and paleontology, Mengele got swept up in the Nazi hysteria and even said that “this simple political concept finally became the decisive factor in my life”. Mengele’s newfound admiration for the “simple political concept” led him to mix his studies of medicine and politics as his career choice.
Mengele received his PhD for a thesis entitled “Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups”, which suggested that a person’s race could be identified by the shape of the jaw. The Nazi organization saw his studies as talents, and Mengele was asked to be the leading physician and researcher at Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in May 1943. There, Mengele organized genetic experiments on twins. The twins were arranged by age and sex and kept in barracks between experiments, which ranged from injection of different chemicals into the eyes of twins to see whether it would change their colors to literally sewing twins together to try creating conjoined twins.
A cold water immersion experiment at Dachau concentration camp presided over by Professor Ernst Holzlohner (left) and Dr. Sigmund Rascher (right). The subject is wearing a Luftwaffe garment.
In 1941, the Luftwaffe conducted experiments to learn how to treat hypothermia. One study forced subjects to endure a tank of ice water for up to three hours. Another study placed prisoners naked in the open for several hours with temperatures below freezing. The experimenters assessed different ways of rewarming survivors.
The freezing/hypothermia experiments were conducted for the Nazi high command. The experiments were conducted on men to simulate the conditions the armies suffered on the Eastern Front, as the German forces were ill prepared for the bitter cold.
The experiments were conducted under the supervision of Dachau and Auschwitz. Rascher reported directly to Heinrich Himmler, and publicised the results of his freezing experiments at the 1942 medical conference entitled “Medical Problems Arising from Sea and Winter”.
The freezing experiments were in two parts. First, to establish how long it would take to lower the body temperature to death, and second how to best resuscitate the frozen victim.
The icy vat method proved to be the fastest way to drop the body temperature. The selections were made of young healthy Jews or Russians. They were usually stripped naked and prepared for the experiment. An insulated probe which measured the drop in the body temperature was inserted into the rectum. The probe was held in place by an expandable metal ring which was adjusted to open inside the rectum to hold the probe firmly in place. The victim was put into an air force uniform, then placed in the vat of cold water and started to freeze.
From about February 1942 to about April 1945, experiments were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp in order to investigate immunization for treatment of malaria. Healthy inmates were infected by mosquitoes or by injections of extracts of the mucous glands of female mosquitoes. After contracting the disease, the subjects were treated with various drugs to test their relative efficiency. Over 1,000 people were used in these experiments, and of those, more than half died as a result.
Mustard gas experiments
At various times between September 1939 and April 1945, experiments were conducted at Sachsenhausen, Natzweiler, and other camps to investigate the most effective treatment of wounds caused by mustard gas. Test subjects were deliberately exposed to mustard gas and other vesicants, which inflicted severe chemical burns. The victims’ wounds were then tested to find the most effective treatment for the mustard gas burns.
From about July 1942 to about September 1943, experiments to investigate the effectiveness of sulfonamide, a synthetic antimicrobial agent, were conducted at Ravensbrück. Wounds inflicted on the subjects were infected with bacteria such as Streptococcus, gas gangrene and tetanus. Circulation of blood was interrupted by tying off blood vessels at both ends of the wound to create a condition similar to that of a battlefield wound. Infection was aggravated by forcing wood shavings and ground glass into the wounds. The infection was treated with sulfonamide and other drugs to determine their effectiveness.
Sea water experiments
From about July 1944 to about September 1944, experiments were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp to study various methods of making sea water drinkable. At one point, a group of roughly 90 Roma were deprived of food and given nothing but sea water to drink by Dr. Hans Eppinger, leaving them gravely injured. They were so dehydrated that others observed them licking freshly mopped floors in an attempt to get drinkable water.
From about March 1941 to about January 1945, sterilization experiments were conducted at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and other places by Dr. Carl Clauberg. The purpose of these experiments was to develop a method of sterilization which would be suitable for sterilizing millions of people with a minimum of time and effort. These experiments were conducted by means of X-ray, surgery and various drugs. Thousands of victims were sterilized. Aside from its experimentation, the Nazi government sterilized around 400,000 individuals as part of its compulsory sterilization program. Intravenous injections of solutions speculated to contain iodine and silver nitrate were successful, but had unwanted side effects such as vaginal bleeding, severe abdominal pain, and cervical cancer. Therefore, radiation treatment became the favored choice of sterilization. Specific amounts of exposure to radiation destroyed a person’s ability to produce ova or sperm. The radiation was administered through deception. Prisoners were brought into a room and asked to complete forms, which took two to three minutes. In this time, the radiation treatment was administered and, unknown to the prisoners, they were rendered completely sterile. Many suffered severe radiation burns.
Experiments with poison
In or around December 1943 and October 1944, experiments were conducted at Buchenwald to investigate the effect of various poisons. The poisons were secretly administered to experimental subjects in their food. The victims died as a result of the poison or were killed immediately in order to permit autopsies. In September 1944, experimental subjects were shot with poisonous bullets, suffered torture and often died.
Incendiary bomb experiments
From around November 1943 through to circa January 1944, experiments were conducted at Buchenwald to test the effect of various pharmaceutical preparations on phosphorus burns. These burns were inflicted on prisoners using phosphorus material extracted from incendiary bombs.
High altitude experiments
In early 1942, prisoners at Dachau concentration camp were used by Rascher in experiments to aid German pilots who had to eject at high altitudes. A low-pressure chamber containing these prisoners was used to simulate conditions at altitudes of up to 20 km (66,000 ft). It was rumored that Rascher performed vivisections on the brains of victims who survived the initial experiment. Of the 200 subjects, 80 died outright, and the others were executed. (See also Hubertus Strughold.)
Many of the subjects died as a result of the experiments conducted by the Nazis, while many others were murdered after the tests were completed or to study the effect post mortem. Those who survived were often left mutilated, suffering permanent disability, weakened bodies, and mental duress. On August 19, 1947, the doctors captured by Allied forces were put on trial in USA vs. Karl Brandt et al., which is commonly known as the Doctors’ Trial. At the trial, several of the doctors argued in their defense that there was no international law regarding medical experimentation.
However, informed consent in German medicine was not original to issues surrounding WWII. In 1900, Dr. Albert Neisser infected patients (mainly prostitutes) with syphilis without their consent. Despite support from most of the academic community, public opinion was against Neisser, led by psychiatrist Albert Moll. While Neisser went on to be fined by the Royal Disciplinary Court, Moll developed “a legally based, positivistic contract theory of the patient-doctor relationship” that was not adopted into German law.
Eventually, the minister for religious, educational, and medical affairs issued a directive stating that medical interventions other than for diagnosis, healing, and immunization were excluded under all circumstances if “the human subject was a minor or not competent for other reasons” or if the subject had not given his or her “unambiguous consent” after a “proper explanation of the possible negative consequences” of the intervention. However, this was not legally binding.
In response, Drs. Leo Alexander and Andrew Conway Ivy drafted a ten point memorandum entitled Permissible Medical Experiment that went on to be known as the Nuremberg Code. The code calls for such standards as voluntary consent of patients, avoidance of unnecessary pain and suffering, and that there must be a belief that the experimentation will not end in death or disability. However, the Code was not cited in any of the findings against the defendants and never made it into either German or American medical law.
Modern ethical issues
The modern body of medical knowledge about how the human body reacts to freezing to the point of death is based almost exclusively on these Nazi experiments. This, together with the recent use of data from Nazi research into the effects of phosgene gas, has proved controversial and presents an ethical dilemma for modern physicians who do not agree with the methods used to obtain these data. Similarly, controversy has arisen from the use of results of biological warfare testing done by the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. However, the results from Unit 731 were kept classified by the United States and the majority of doctors involved were given pardons.
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