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Nazis and Medical Ethics: Context and Lessons

Armen Hareyan's picture

The practice of medicine in Nazi Germany still profoundly affects modern-day medical ethics codes, according to Alan Wells, PhD, an expert in medical ethics with the American Medical Association (AMA) and Patricia Heberer, PhD, historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). To teach those lessons to the next generation of physicians, the AMA and the USHMM bring a lecture series on the subject to Long Island, NY medical schools this week.

Upon previewing the Museum's special exhibition, "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," which runs through Oct. 16, 2005, the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs helped initiate the collaboration between the AMA and the Holocaust Museum.

"During the 1930s, the German medical establishment was admired as a world leader in innovative public health and medical research," Dr. Wells said. "The question we are asking is: 'How could science be co-opted so that doctors as healers evolved into killers and medical research became torture?'"

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"The story of medicine under Nazism is instructive and an important theme in understanding the evolution of the Holocaust," said Dr. Heberer. "The collaboration of the USHMM and the AMA Institute for Ethics presents a unique opportunity to explore this topic, both in terms of history and contemporary issues, and to bring the lessons drawn to students, physicians, and faculty in universities around the country."

The presentations will focus on the role Nazi medical practices played in the development of medical ethics and the lessons today's physicians have learned from the period leading up to the Holocaust. The series is jointly funded by the AMA Institute for Ethics, the AMA Foundation, the Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and host institutions. The series will visit medical schools and selected universities across the country over the next year.

"Many of the most important issues in medical ethics today, from genetic testing and stem cell research to the humane treatment of prisoners of war, are directly affected by the experiences of medicine leading up to and during the Holocaust," Dr. Wells said. "Physicians need to explore these issues without getting caught up in political agendas or the results can be something we never intended and cause great harm."

According to Dr. Wells, World War II era Germans were extremely advanced in medicine, technology and public health research but these successes have largely been overlooked by history because of the medical extremes of the Holocaust. For example, Germany was the first to have a high-powered electron microscope, the first to document the link between asbestos and lung cancer, and an innovator in developing high profile public health campaigns for a variety of health issues, such as anti-smoking campaigns and promoting breast self-examination to help detect tumors at an early stage. These advances and campaigns, however, were eventually aimed exclusively at the "Aryans"