The Other Side of the Human Genome

Henri R. Manasse, Jr.


Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2005;62(10):1080-1086. 

In This Article

Eugenics and the Nazis

The Nazi party, of course, would take eugenics to previously unfathomed extremes during its 12-year reign of conquest, oppression, and genocide. Adolf Hitler was a vocal admirer of the American eugenicists, poring over their publications and writing them fan mail from his prison cell during his nine-month incarceration for mob involvement during the early 1920s.[21] In his manifesto Mein Kampf (in English, My Struggle ), whose first edition he also wrote during his prison term, Hitler decried the impingement of Jews and other non-Aryans on the German identity and blood-line.[22] Hitler proclaimed, "The Peoples' State must set race at the center of all life... the demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of the clearest reason and, if systematically executed, represents the most humane act of mankind." Hitler applauded the United States for its achievements in eugenics policy and practice: "By simply excluding certain races from naturalization, [the United States] professes in slow beginnings a view which is peculiar to the Peoples' State [referring to the present German polity]." The future fuhrer's contempt for Jews was certainly not of America's making, but he did use American eugenics "science" to legitimize his horrific ambitions and garner support for the Nazi policies that grew from his purported love for Germany. The American eugenics intelligentsia observed with admiration the Nazis' audacity upon seizing power in 1933. Within months, the Nazis enacted a compulsory sterilization policy, which would result in the sterilization of 400,000 Germans, mushroom into a full-fledged "euthanasia" program, and serve as the immediate predecessor of the wholesale extermination of millions of Jews, gypsies, and others excluded from the Nazis' vision for a master Aryan race and German super state.

It is common knowledge that many new arrivals at Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration and extermination camps were dispatched immediately to huge gas chambers and murdered. Less widely chronicled is the arguably worse fate that awaited those selected by the camps' physicians, notably Mengele of Auschwitz, as suitable subjects for the Nazis' medical research.[23] Mengele was particularly obsessed with finding and studying twins, as he supposed them to be ideal grist for studying how to genetically engineer the new and all-powerful Reich. He experimented with eye color by injecting blinding dyes into his subjects' eyes and with immunologic responses by deliberately introducing pathogens and performing unmatched blood transfusions. He sewed children's veins and skin together to simulate conjoined twins. Subjects were routinely shot by Mengele or his assistants once their value as in vivo subjects was expended and would subsequently be dissected for examination of the experiments' effects. Sometimes twins would be intentionally sent to the gas chambers rather than the medical laboratories, but not before the Nazi doctors marked their bodies with chalk, so that their corpses could be plucked from the carnage for research purposes, rather than being sent to the crematoriums with the other gassing victims. Blood and brains were shipped to Mengele's colleague Dr. Otmar Verschuer in Berlin for further study.

After the liberation of the death camps by the Allies in 1945, 23 Nazi physicians and researchers were brought to account for their atrocities before the medical trials at Nuremberg, the former seat of Hitler's power. Seven of the defendants were condemned to death; eight were imprisoned for life or shorter terms; some individuals had committed suicide or, like Mengele, had fled and escaped punishment altogether.[24] Some, like Verschuer, returned to positions of leadership and influence in postwar Germany and elsewhere. The testimonies heard at Nuremberg were sufficiently harrowing to compel the judges to issue a 10-point statement, now known as the Nuremberg Code.[25] The Nuremberg Code inspired current legislation in the United States governing medical research, which ensures the accountability of researchers for upholding the principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice throughout the conduct of experimentation on humans. A 1988 University of Illinois conference, sponsored by the Berlin Society for History of Medicine, titled "Nazi Medicine" and chaired by Kenneth Vaux concluded that it is not morally or ethically acceptable to allow findings from unethically conducted experiments to be used in subsequent research and that persons engaged in medical research need to be vigilant about the sources of the human research that undergirds their investigations.[26,27]

Troubling, though, is the reality that many of the observations gleaned from the Nazi-run experiments have been admitted into the canon of legitimate science and have facilitated subsequent innovation. For instance, aviation medicine (and the subsequent design and specifications of military and commercial aircraft) has benefited from the results of horrific experiments involving cold-water immersion, low-pressure cabin environments, and high-altitude tolerance that were conducted on prisoners at the Dachau camp.[28] The hereditary brain disease still commonly known as Hallervorden-Spatz disease (neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation) is named for two German physicians who, despite their identification of the disease in 1922, continued their experimentation after the Nazis took power, using brains harvested from Hitler's euthanasia program. Tissue samples from the Nazis' victims languish in laboratories in formerly Nazi-occupied parts of Europe to this day.[29] The past few decades have seen efforts to remove and respectfully bury many of these remains and to acknowledge the injustice visited posthumously upon these victims.


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