During the second World War, Nazi medical doctors conducted medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. This work was extremely cruel, the prisoners underwent incredible suffering and very often died. Nevertheless, in some cases, the experiments yielded scientifically valid results that could help save lives today. The question as to whether it is ethical to use such results was discussed by bioethicist Prof Lynn Gillam in The Conversation, in June 2015.
The Nazi experiments fell into three categories: medical-military research; miscellaneous experiments and racially-motivated experiments. The medical-military experiments, carried out under orders from Heinrich Himmler, were designed to help the German Luftwaffe. I will briefly describe the freezing experiments and high-altitude experiments conducted by Dr Sigmund Rascher at Dachau concentration camp. Expanded details can be consulted in the online encyclopaedia the Jewish Virtual Library .
The Germans wanted to know how long downed Luftwaffe pilots could survive the ice-cold North Sea and how best to revive rescued pilots. Rascher immersed prisoners in ice-water baths or left them outside in freezing winter cold and recorded body temperature, muscle response, heart rate and urine composition as body temperature dropped.
Rascher’s high-altitude experiments were designed to find optimum methods of protecting pilots from the effects of low atmospheric pressure when they bailed out at high altitude. Rasher simulated high-altitude conditions using a decompression chamber.
Rascher used about 300 prisoners in his freezing experiments of whom about 90 died and of 200 prisoners tested in high-altitude testing, 80 died and the rest were executed.
An example of racially-motivated experiments was the research on twins by Dr Joseph Mengele at Auschwitz. Mengele was obsessed with racial purity and wanted to further understand reproduction and multiple births to assist the "master race" to multiply and repopulate the world with Germans. Mengele used about 1,000 pairs of twins, of whom about 200 pairs survived.
The enormous suffering inflicted on helpless prisoners by this research is mind-numbing to contemplate and distressing to document. And the indifference displayed by the Nazi doctors to the suffering they inflicted induces a sense of shame that scientists behaved in this manner.
For example, Rascher asked to have the low-temperature research relocated to Auschwitz, which was bigger than Dachau and where his concentration would not be so frequently interrupted by the agonised shrieking of the experimental prisoners as their extremities froze white. And, in the high-altitude experiments Rascher sometimes peformed dissections while victims were still alive in an attempt to demonstrate air bubbles in blood cause altitude sickness.
Despite the horrible circumstances under which the Nazi experiments were conducted, some results are scientifically reliable enough to contribute to saving lives today. For example, Rascher discovered a “rapid active rewarming” technique to resuscitate frozen victims and showed it to be the best method of revival. He also published comprehensive tables of rates of body cooling in water down to temperatures well below those that could now be studied in ethical research. These tables are very useful when designing cold-water survival suits worn on fishing boats in Arctic waters.
Robert Pozos, an American hypothermia researcher, argued in the 1980s that Nazi data was essential to develop improved methods of reviving people rescued from ice-cold water after boating accidents, but the New England Journal of Medicine refused his proposal to publish Nazi data openly. However, Nazi experimental data was cited in scientific papers from the 1950s to the 1980s, with no indication of its source.
Should Nazi experimental data be used that could save lives today? A simple utilitarian approach would say yes, despite the horrible ways in which the data was generated. After all, using the data will not further harm those who died. However, this simple approach is unacceptable to Gillam because it risks downplaying the evil means used to generate the data and could encourage others to cut ethical corners today.
Nevertheless, as Gillam points out, our society does not completely reject the idea of rescuing good out of something bad – for example, some murder victims become organ donors. She would not rule out publishing relevant data from Nazi experiments in this same spirit and as a testament to the original helpless victims.
However, she insists in that event it should be made clear where the data came from, the suffering involved and that the scientific community strenuously condemns this Nazi research.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC