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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Medical Student Varun Bora

Robert Proctor was widely acclaimed for his 1988 book Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. He did not receive similar acclaim for his 2000 book The Nazi War on Cancer, perhaps because he pointed out some of the successes of Nazi medicine—occupational carcinogenesis, the campaign against tobacco, and opposition to additives in food, for example—that are similar to public health programs in contemporary Western liberal democracies. Baylor College of Medicine medical student Varun Bora’s essay examines the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Nazi physicians and sums up this way: “Thus, while their actions were abominable, appreciation for their contributions to modern medicine as well as an examination of their perspective remains paramount to preventing history from repeating itself.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Varun Bora

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Nazis of Germany conducted some of the most heinous acts the world has ever seen. From medical experiments on children to “mercy killings” of those deemed to possess harmful genes to mass genocide, the Nazi’s actions are attributed to the nefarious intentions of Adolf Hitler and his political supporters. However, Hitler’s regime gained its legitimacy due to the backing of scientists and doctors, who provided the medical expertise and justification that allowed Hitler to kill so many innocent people. Even more terrifying remains the fact that these doctors truly believed that their actions were noble and at the cutting edge of science. As a medical community today, we dismiss the actions of some of our infamous predecessors as outliers and cast them aside; however, doing so prevents us from examining the invaluable contributions they made to modern medicine as well as the similarities we share with physicians such as Josef Mengele – the “Angel of Death” – and his colleagues. To ignore these qualities represents in itself another danger in that we believe ourselves immune to the “brainwashing” and false logic these Nazi doctors possessed. Thus, while their actions were abominable, appreciation for their contributions to modern medicine as well as an examination of their perspective remains paramount to preventing history from repeating itself.

Many of modern medicines hallmarks owe their conception to the Nazi doctors. For instance, large scale vaccination began with Nazi research in the internment camps. There, doctors performed innumerable experiments on the Jewish prisoners, formulating and reformulating their mixtures until they were able to synthesize vaccines to diseases such as tuberculosis1 . These internment camps provided human subjects who the doctors themselves believed were no better than animals and that by sacrificing their lives in the experiments, these prisoner’s lives finally were given some value and meaning. Today, we would abhor such actions, yet we use vaccines on a daily basis to protect ourselves and our children. Thus, we owe the doctors some degree of appreciation, although their methods were completely wrong; furthermore, from them, we can learn the dangers of taking science too far. As doctors, we straddle the edge of known knowledge, and in our quest to push the boundaries, we may be blind enough to lose sight of the ethics underlying the quest itself. However, not all of the Nazi’s contributions were attained using inhumane methods. One of their greatest successes lie in legitimizing the anti-tobacco movement. Through years of research and meticulous data collected, Dr. Franz Miller – a Nazi scientist – provided the first convincing proof of the link between cigarette smoking and tobacco. These results were found using ethically sound science and illustrate that the Nazi doctors were not inherently evil, but rather, simply disillusioned and ignorant to their actions – something we all are capable of. Thus, despite some of their dubious beliefs and methods, we shouldn’t just cast these doctors and their contributions aside; rather, we owe these doctors some of the same appreciation we offer to famous predecessors such as Salk and Banting while at the same time learning from their greed and ignorance.

The second – and more important – aspect of the Nazi doctors that we cannot ignore lies in the relevance of their situation to each and every one of us. We forget today that the Nazi doctors and scientists were the finest in the world during that time period; they made countless contributions to all fields – not just medicine. Many of our most famous doctors, including Dr. Michael DeBakey, traveled to Germany for a stellar education. Thus, it wasn’t inferior medical training or ineptitude that led to these doctors committing such heinous acts. Rather, it was their belief that they were absolutely in the right to act in the manner in which they did. Today, we know these actions to be wrong and claim to never repeat the same mistakes. However, the Nazi doctors probably said the same things regarding themselves and the doctors that came before them while they performed cruel experiments on children and innocents. We are in the same position that these doctors before us were in; while the circumstances themselves are vastly different, we still hold the same heightened status in society and are still looked upon as leaders. People trust us with their lives and we owe it to them to not make the same mistakes our predecessors did. Issues such as stem cell research and genetic engineering could put our generation of physicians in the same situation that the issues faced by the Nazi doctors put them in, and thus, we should make it a priority to learn from the Nazi doctors, rather than label them as ignorant individuals with whom we have no relevance.

In conclusion, modern day physicians have been quick to dismiss the Nazi doctors as a different breed of people with whom we today have no similarities. We find it more appeasing to delineate ourselves from them in order to separate their brand of medicine from our own. However, we still base much of our medicine on breakthroughs made by the Nazi physicians and thus, owe them their due respect, however terrible their methods were may have been. Even more importantly, many of the issues we face today and moving forward will put us in similar situations the Nazi doctors faced. One false step or misguided belief and we could end up committing actions that our successors will vilify. At the cutting edge of science, there is a fine line between morality and immorality, and the promise of breaking barriers can entice even the best of us to overreach and turn a blind eye towards our ethics, just as it did for the Nazi doctors. Thus, in the educational setting and as a community as a whole, we should make it a priority to study both the good and bad of these physicians.

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