Join 3,440 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"...research that is scientifically valuable but morally disturbing."
November 6, 2013 8:19 AM   Subscribe

The Nazi Anatomists. "How the corpses of Hitler's victims are still haunting modern science—and American abortion politics."
posted by zarq (28 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
To be honest, I'm sort of ambivalent about the ethics of respecting the wishes of the dead, since they are dead after all. Even given that, though, this sentiment quoted in the article fucking horrifies me:
“Why would those who have made war on society or have been a burden to it be permitted to say what shall be done with their remains?” the Washington Post asked in an 1877 editorial. “Why should they not be compelled to be of some use after death, having failed to be of value to the world during life?”
posted by invitapriore at 8:29 AM on November 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


You missed "experiments" in the tags.
posted by heyho at 8:37 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Added!
posted by zarq at 8:53 AM on November 6, 2013


"When informed consent is not the rule, the people whose bodies and tissues go to medicine have been overwhelmingly the poor and the marginalized."

If you want to read about the less sad side of learning from dead bodies, I highly recommend Stiff. Funny, respectful, and super duper interesting.
posted by Phredward at 9:14 AM on November 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


Such a haunting piece. The fact that so many anatomists who colluded with the Nazis were known, some even prosecuted, but basically all allowed to live and work with no real consequences is shocking. I know that medical advances often come from war - in plastic surgery, prosthetics, infection control etc - but the idea of scientists gleefully using the bodies of people destroyed so cruelly is hard to stand. Really thought-provoking, thanks for posting it.
posted by billiebee at 10:01 AM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also was surprised to find that so many academics could just slip away from their pasts. Not by moving or changing their names or something like that, but by standing perfectly still, just letting history pass them by. Relying on the willingness of people to forget and move on.

No quick google search when picking classes to find out which professor is easier, or a nazi collaborator...
posted by fontophilic at 10:06 AM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Phredward, Dissection is also a great book on this topic. It tells the story of modern gross anatomy study against the backdrop of student/cadaver photographs, which were common up until the mid-20th century.
posted by dr_dank at 10:42 AM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


What a penetrating article. Thank you for pointing it out.

“His research cannot be validated without justifying, at least to some extent, the entire Nazi justice system, which was instead one of injustice,”

I know that people have trouble with this process. That they are all dead and it was all so long ago. Truly though, the experiments could have led to nothing useful, as the experiments (I will not call it research) were done in violation of all justice and human dignity by people who had no right to be doing it at all.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:44 AM on November 6, 2013


Sophie1: Truly though, the experiments could have led to nothing useful, as the experiments (I will not call it research) were done in violation of all justice and human dignity by people who had no right to be doing it at all.

This isn't true, and we actually have a counter example from Nazi Germany. No one is going to argue the ethics of the issue, but whether experiments can led to something useful is entirely based upon their scientific rigor, not their moral propriety. Mengele’s “experiments” could not lead to anything useful because they were not scientifically sound, not because they were abhorrent. The Nazi rocket program was a success, and was the foundation of the even more successful American and Soviet rocket programs, even though it was under the auspices of the Third Reich. That program, unlike Mengele's, was scientific, despite its use of slave labor and its ultimate goal of destroying London.

The Nazi regime was fundamentally anti-rational; and therefore a lot of the “science” they promoted was bunk. But the scientific process, if used, works for even monsters. You can make a (perfectly valid) moral argument and say we shouldn’t use “fruit of the tainted tree”, but it’s nonsense to say morally dubious programs can't produce useful data.
posted by spaltavian at 11:09 AM on November 6, 2013 [20 favorites]


The Nazi rocket program was a success, and was the foundation of the even more successful American and Soviet rocket programs, even though it was under the auspices of the Third Reich.

Rockets are not humans. Medical research =/= engineering.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:23 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


whether experiments can led to something useful is entirely based upon their scientific rigor, not their moral propriety

First of all, even what you're putting forth as "scientific rigor" is also an ethical code — we have to trust that experiments were carried out as they're described, the resulting data weren't falsified, etc. — and there is good reason to doubt this is the case of virtually all Nazi medical science. Second (and on preview, as Sophie1 has also pointed out) medical science doesn't follow the same rules, even procedurally, as engineering; fundamental things change, epistemologically and methodologically as well as ethically, when humans are the object of study. The rocketry analogy just doesn't work.
posted by RogerB at 11:28 AM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interrogating suspects without them being made aware of their rights, or by using brainwashing techniques is reprehensible, but as long as we investigate and confirm the results, why not use them in order to convict? {/}

Some branches of science seem to have trouble with the "fruit of the poisonous tree" concept.
posted by tigrrrlily at 11:42 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I highly recommend Rebecca Skloot's book, referenced by Bazelon in the article, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It goes into the ethics of these questions in a very accessible way, focusing on Lacks' life, what research on her cells led to, but also using that as a jumping off point into other incidents, including what the Nazis did.
posted by dry white toast at 11:46 AM on November 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Some branches of science seem to have trouble with the "fruit of the poisonous tree" concept.

That's because it's science, not law. Your metaphor is broken.

The use of ill-gotten evidence to further injure a victim is an obvious injustice. The use of ill-gotten evidence to expand the knowledge of disease or injury and using that knowledge to aid someone is finding hope where harm was done. It doesn't justify the original crime, but we would be foolish to not bother to use subsequent knowledge for good.
posted by chimaera at 12:26 PM on November 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Not a victim, but a perp. In the public interest. We just don't want to give people ideas about using such means in the future.
Same applies here.
posted by tigrrrlily at 12:33 PM on November 6, 2013


Here's an article about Pernkopf and his anatomy atlas, with illustrations of the Nazi insignia inserted into people's signatures. There's also a chilling photo of Pernkopf speaking in (what I presume is) a lecture theatre.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:53 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sophie1 Rockets are not humans. Medical research =/= engineering.

You claimed that these experiements could not have produced useful information because they were "injust". They may produce results you are unwilling to use (and rightfully so), but the usefulness data has to do with the science, not the moral propriety. Can you explain why you disagree? How does the injustice make it impossible to get useful information- again, not information you are unwilling to use, but actually scientifically invalid data?

RogerB: First of all, even what you're putting forth as "scientific rigor" is also an ethical code — we have to trust that experiments were carried out as they're described, the resulting data weren't falsified, etc

Absolute nonsense. The scientific method requires that methods and outcomes are open and repeatable. We don't have to "trust" shit. Scientific rigor is not an ethical standpoint, it's a guide that we have seen time and time ago produce "useable" results. Calling it a morality is frighteningly medieval.

chimaera, you didn't understand my comment. I was saying that Sophie1 may not want to use it, and that's perfectly valid, I was not making a statement one way or the other.

Everyone: my point was only that the idea that it's impossible to acheive usable data through immoral means, regardless of the scientific rigor of the research is incorrect. I made no comment on the morality of using it.
posted by spaltavian at 2:16 PM on November 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


A really excellent article, and one that I imagine was insanely grueling to write. I have a hard time reading about medical ethics, so much of it just makes me so angry. I know that times and norms and moralities change, but how hard is it not to step on the poor, those without protection, those who are being persecuted, those who are different? (That's a rhetorical question, I know that sometimes our societies make it very, very difficult.)

"The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them." -Lois Mcmaster Bujold
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:24 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally, here's a news report from Monday's Los Angeles Times:
Military, CIA compelled medics to abuse detainees, report says
Defense Department and CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 forced medical professionals to abandon their ethical obligations to "do no harm" to those in their care and some prohibited practices, including force-feeding of hunger strikers, continue today, a report issued Monday alleges.

The report, Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror, was carried out by a 19-member task force of Columbia University's Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations. The researchers spent two years examining public records of medical professionals' involvement in military and intelligence interrogations and treatment of detainees.

It accuses the counter-terrorism operations of having "improperly demanded that U.S. military and intelligence agency health professionals collaborate in intelligence gathering and security practices in a way that inflicted severe harm on detainees in U.S. custody."
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:58 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


The scientific method requires that methods and outcomes are open and repeatable.

Wow, thanks for explaining. What do you do when step 1 in the published method involved sending people to the gas chamber?

Scientific rigor is not an ethical standpoint, it's a guide that we have seen time and time ago produce "useable" results. Calling it a morality is frighteningly medieval.

Seriously, you're going to wave around this kind of cheap positivism and go full-bore Internet Science Warrior in a thread about Nazi medical experimentation, of all places? Are you really so aggressively oblivious to the fact that science is a system of social practice, not something carried out by individual researchers in a social vacuum? The case under discussion should be the single most obvious counterexample in the entire history of the world, but since it apparently isn't, let me repeat: the social pressures imposed by the larger society make it virtually impossible for the results of Nazi human science to be worth anything. It's not just a matter of Mengele not designing his experimental methods properly, as you quite repellently seem to be suggesting. It's that the distortions of the social ideology permeated the society, and colored every result as well as every decision about what to investigate; that doctors and researchers had to investigate and promote the right ideas in order to get funded, get their work approved, and even just not get killed, to such a degree that free investigation with no regard to where it might lead was basically unimaginable. The article provides some very good examples, which a reader less invested in a simplistic and asocial ideology of "science" would pick up on. A social environment like Hitler's Germany could not have produced, and did not produce, good human-subject research, for reasons far beyond the narrowly methodological problems with individual studies' design, and it's both naive and a little disgusting to argue otherwise. Perhaps you don't actually disagree, but just mean to argue some abstract hypothetical point about abstract immorality and abstract scientific research, but at the very least doing so in this context is in incredibly poor taste.
posted by RogerB at 3:00 PM on November 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


RogerB: The scientific method requires that methods and outcomes are open and repeatable.

Wow, thanks for explaining


You're the one who said something directly contradicting this, so I don't see how you get off being sarcastic.

What do you do when step 1 in the published method involved sending people to the gas chamber?

I wouldn't use the data. That has nothing to do with the question of whether the data has any use. Why is this so hard to grasp?

If morally unjust research could never produce potentially scientifically useful data, the entire moral question posed by the article wouldn't exist.

and go full-bore Internet Science Warrior in a thread about Nazi medical experimentation

I don't know what the fuck you are talking about. I responded to one comment saying it was impossible for unjust research to ever yield positive results. I wasn't going full bore anything.

It's not just a matter of Mengele not designing his experimental methods properly, as you quite repellently seem to be suggesting.

You caught me, I'm a Nazi. In case you want to be honest at one point, I didn't "suggest" anything. I directly said that Mengele's "experiments" could not produce scientifically valid data is because they were not scientific.

The fact that they were depraved- DID YOU CATCH THAT, I JUST CALLED THEM DEPRAVED LOOK AT MY BRAVE ANTI-NAZI STANCE- however, is not reason they were scientifically invalid. That's why they were socially invalid.

but at the very least doing so in this context is in incredibly poor taste.

Again, if morally unjust research could never produce potentially scientifically useful data the question posed by this article wouldn't exist, and no one would ever do anything bad in the name of science again. But that's the question posed in the fucking article, so maybe poor taste in a discussion website is using the laziest moral cudgel ever.
posted by spaltavian at 3:45 PM on November 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


This PBS website goes through the ethics of using Nazi medical experiment data today. As we approach the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht/Reichspogramnacht on the 9th, it is worth noting that this is still pretty controversial. What I found most interesting on that website was the point of view of the survivors of the experiments--which went both ways.
posted by eleanna at 4:12 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I should note: I am personally inclined to say that particularly the kind of experiments being talked about here shouldn't be used, but the controversy is still talked about in medical ethics classes for a reason--and it isn't as black and white as one might hope. This is one case where the more I learn, the more confused I get in some cases.
posted by eleanna at 4:18 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


this sentiment quoted in the article fucking horrifies me:

“Why would those who have made war on society or have been a burden to it be permitted to say what shall be done with their remains?” the Washington Post asked in an 1877 editorial. “Why should they not be compelled to be of some use after death, having failed to be of value to the world during life?”


From around the same era, in an editorial in the precursor to Toronto's Globe and Mail, regarding the idea of a minimum wage: "Better a few should starve than an entire class be raised up to idleness." These days such sentiments are cloaked in rhetoric; it's a shock to see them voiced so openly.
posted by jokeefe at 7:38 PM on November 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


One line stood out for me in what is a remarkably well written piece - so many threads brought together, and the careful highlighting of the victims' lives and those who spoke against this - was about the neurological condition named after the Nazi doctors. My immediate thought was how terrible to be diagnosed with a condition and learn it's named after Nazis, and then to see that it had been renamed and the suggestion that the researchers have their names removed wherever possible - that is a symbolic gesture, but I thought truly valuable, taking away any power or prestige that these bastards traded their intellect and work for.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:45 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find these discussions pretty visceral,as a woman, as a person of partly Jewish descent, and as a person with dissident tendencies.

I can't read about the Third Reich without the consciousness that I likely would have died a horrible death.

I have long wondered where the anti-abortion people were getting their data on rape and pregnancy.
I simply have personally known too many people who were impregnated by their rapists.
One woman I knew who was raped actually kept and raised her child. Most of the victims I knew one way or the other got abortions.

I can't provide citations on this, but I have read that the odds of becoming pregnant due to rape actually are slightly higher than the odds of becoming pregnant by a man you love and willingly have unprotected sex with.

In any case, there were no double blind studies even possible, let alone attempted in Nazi Germany or any place else at that time.

You would have had to have equal numbers of executed women, some the victims of rape close to their deaths, and some who had made love with their husbands or lovers before being killed. The second group would have had to be unstressed. In Nazi Germany, most people were stressed.
It just would not have worked.
Why would anyone expect valid results?
As for the anatomy, well that's not been from exactly nice sources until pretty recently.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:52 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just wanted to mention the film Anatomy, which while fictional is kind of relevant.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 2:04 AM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


spaltavian: The Nazi rocket program was a success, and was the foundation of the even more successful American and Soviet rocket programs, even though it was under the auspices of the Third Reich.

Sophie1: Rockets are not humans. Medical research =/= engineering.

Sophie1, these two sentences have absolutely nothing to do with spaltavian's point. It's pretty obvious that you are unable to separate your emotional reaction to the subject at hand (which is perfectly valid, and fairly universal to good people everywhere) from the actual facts of the matter.

If the worst person ever to live did the most atrocious thing imaginable, and as a result of this horrible affair discovered something important and true that was not known before, that result can be both useful, and scientific, AND YET the act can still be unthinkably horrible.

And I am willing to stand up and applaud spaltavian's brave stance. No matter the consequences!
posted by IAmBroom at 5:57 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


« Older String Theory is a character-driven serialized com...  |  A 30 for 30 short tells the s... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments