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Report: Results of Nazi Human Experiments Scientifically Worthless

May 17, 1990

BOSTON (AP) _ Some of the brutal Nazi medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners are so scientifically useless there’s no sense arguing about the ethics of their findings, a report today concludes.

Researchers and ethicists have been debating whether the results of German experiments conducted during World War II should be used by modern-day experts studying the effects of cold on the body.

At the Dachau concentration camp, Nazi doctors plunged prisoners into icy water, often for hours at a time, so they could test various methods of rewarming them.

Some experts have contended that regardless of their source, the data should still be used to help doctors treat hypothermia, or low body temperature. Others believe that no matter how valuable the information, it should be ignored because of the unacceptable methods used to obtain it.

The latest report concludes that this long-running ethical debate should end, because the Nazi data has no value to anyone.

″The implication was that there was this great information, and we could save lives if only we could use it,″ said Dr. Robert L. Berger, a surgeon at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston.

After reviewing the original Nazi data, however, Berger discovered that the experiments were so poorly set up and carried out that the results cannot be believed.

″The data are useless,″ he said. ″It’s not scientific. It should be rejected outright. There should be no ethical discussion over it. You don’t discuss scientifically useless data. You discuss data that have scientific merit but were obtained in an unethical fashion.″

Berger presented his findings and conclusions in today’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Marcia Angell, the journal’s executive editor, said, ″The notion that there exists a treasure trove of valid information on hypothermia, from which we are voluntarily and fastidiously holding ourselves aloof, seems to be baseless.″

Ethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Minnesota, who organized a conference last year on Nazi science, said other Nazi research into such areas as genetics and anthropology has already been absorbed into the mainstream of science.

″Berger appears to give a persuasive argument that there is not much to argue about with respect to hypothermia,″ Caplan said. ″That doesn’t mean the ethical debate about Nazi science and medicine should be dismissed out of hand.″

Dr. Robert Pozos of the University of Washington, who in the past has advocated use of the Nazi results, said after reading Berger’s report that the experimenters’ scientific methods were ″atrocious.″ He added, ″My opinion is that the data should not be referenced″ in other research papers. ″It should not be used.″

The experiments were intended to find the best way to treat victims of hypothermia, especially German fliers who were shot down over the cold North Sea. Male civilians of various religions and nationalities, as well as Russian prisoners of war, were forced to participate.

The subjects were plunged into a tank of ice water, often naked, and then rewarmed with various methods. Some died after spending several hours in the tank. Others were killed by the rewarming, which included throwing the men into boiling water.

Berger found that such basic details as the men’s ages, nutritional status, general health and blood pressures were missing. Also frequently unrecorded were many particulars about the experiments and their results, such as water temperatures, length of time in the water and the survival rates after various rewarming methods.

Some findings were so physiologically improbable that they were probably fabricated, Berger concluded. Among these was the conclusion that people die of hypothermia in the water only if their necks are submerged.

He also noted that Dr. Sigmund Rascher, the chief experimenter, was accused of faking other experiments and had sold saddles, riding breeches and handbags made from human skin.

Rascher was eventually executed by the Germans for kidnapping children. He had claimed that his wife had three babies in quick succession after age 48. The hoax was intended to please Heinrich Himmler, head of the German concentration camps, by proving that the growth of the Aryan people could be speeded up by extending women’s childbearing years.

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