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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.3 (2000) 325-334

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The Legacy of Academic Medicine and Human Exploitation in the Third Reich

William E. Seidelman * **

Symposium: Medical Research Ethics at the Millennium: What Have We Learned?

The medical crimes of the Third Reich were the result of a dynamic triad involving the state, the medical profession, and an academic enterprise comprising the universities and the research institutes. It was a potent relationship. The academic enterprise legitimized the Nazi state's policy of eugenic and racial discrimination and persecution. The medical profession facilitated the implementation of the state eugenic and racial programs [1]. The leadership of the medical profession and their constituent organizations paid fealty to the Nazi state, receiving in return economic and political rewards [2]. The academic enterprise benefited from the availability of human subject material for teaching and experimentation. Every human captive of the Nazi state was considered to be a potential subject for inhuman research. The cadaver of every victim murdered in a "euthanasia" killing center, concentration/death camp, or Gestapo execution chamber was a potential object for exploitation. [End Page 325]

The academic enterprise was led by the foremost professors and scientists in the land--many of international repute. It was the professors and scientists who constituted the vanguard in the process of devaluation of human life, and in so doing scientifically defined the victims [3]. German medical science made it professionally acceptable to define and describe human beings as "subhuman," "life without value," "useless eaters," "useless life," "ballast." Not being considered human, the victims were stripped of any pretense of protection and dignity [4]. As helpless victims, they were available to the academic enterprise for exploitation through inhuman research.

In Nazi Germany animals were afforded strict legal protection from abuse from medical experimentation. Yet the rules governing experimentation with dogs and cats, which had been introduced by the Holocaust architect Hermann Goering, did not apply to human beings scientifically robbed of their humanity [5].

The German university was the intellectual fatherland of eugenics and racial science. The universities of Germany and Austria and their constituent faculty played critical roles in the development and advancement of eugenics and racial selection: they enforced sterilization, euthanasia, and inhuman experimentation on the living, as well as the exploitation of the bodies of victims of state terror for the teaching of human anatomy and pathology. After the war, the universities served as the refuge for many of the leaders of Nazi medical science--professors who should have been prosecuted at Nuremberg.

Four medical scientists and academics--professors Eduard Pernkopf, Otmar von Verschuer, Hermann Stieve, and Hermann Voss--best exemplify the role of the academic enterprise of the Third Reich.

A noted anatomist, Eduard Pernkopf was the director of the Institute of Anatomy of the University of Vienna and the founding editor of a landmark atlas of human anatomy that continues to be published in his name. A leading Austro-fascist, Pernkopf was appointed dean of the Vienna Faculty of Medicine shortly after the Anschluss. In 1942 he was named Rector Magnificus of the University of Vienna. Pernkopf as dean and rector led the purge against Jewish faculty which took place faster in Vienna that in any medical faculty in Germany [6].

A notable photograph of the first meeting of the Vienna medical faculty after the Anschluss shows Dean Pernkopf in Nazi uniform standing under a portrait of Adolf Hitler, surrounded by Nazi icons, addressing the Vienna medical faculty. Pernkopf wore the uniform as dean, the academic leader of what had once been the foremost medical school and university in the world. The University of Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries represented the height of academic medicine. The University of Vienna under Pernkopf, as dean of medicine and Rector Magnificus of the entire university, represented the abyss. [End Page 326]

Pernkopf's magnum opus, the Atlas of Human Anatomy, was tainted by his fascism. Paintings in the original editions of Topographische Anatomie des Menschen included Nazi icons incorporated in the signature of...


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