- The Ethical Governance of German Physicians, 1890-1939:Are There Lessons from History?
The limitations of the traditional historiography of the ethical regulation of biomedical research are becoming increasingly well recognized. A simplistic history has been used to justify a simplistic policy, in the elaboration of regulatory instruments associated with a bureaucracy of administration and enforcement that has acquired its own material interests in self-perpetuation and jurisdictional expansion. The official history of institutionalized ethical regulation sees a clear and self-evident line of descent from the Nazi experiments of World War II to the various legal and quasi-legal instruments that now govern most scientific and, increasingly, social scientific practice. Without regulatory interventions, it is claimed, researchers will revert to barbarism.
This version of the "rise of bioethics" tends to place considerable emphasis on the Nuremberg Doctors Trial, and the Nuremberg Code promulgated at its conclusion, and to use these as an "origin myth" that legitimizes its professional project.1 As a narrative, it says little, for example, about the lengthy gap between the conclusion of the Nuremberg trial in 1948 and the development of regulatory interventions for medical research in the victor countries during the 1960s. It tends not to acknowledge the evidence, from writers like Henry Beecher in the United States and Maurice Pappworth in the United [End Page 29] Kingdom, that ethically questionable experiments continued in the victor countries well after World War II, a phenomenon explored further by Tal Bolton in a recent Ph.D. thesis and her article in this journal issue.2 However, it also tends to equate an absence of regulation with an absence of ethical concern, despite the evidence from Susan Lederer and Sydney Halpern about the effective operation of informal social controls in the United States before World War II.3 Most crucially, it neglects Jenny Hazelgrove's exploration of the difficulty that the prosecutors faced in framing charges against the Nuremberg defendants because they were unable to point to any clear set of regulations or standards in any country other than Germany that could be said to have been violated.4
The publication of further analyses of the pre-World War II German experience provides an additional resource for the critical examination of the claims being made about the importance of formal regulation in the maintenance of ethical standards in biomedical research. This body of work has documented the rise of attempts at ethical research governance in Germany from the late nineteenth century through to the 1930s. In so doing, it may seem to provide us with an opportunity to explore the limits of regulation. Why did it fail to protect the victims of the Nazi medical experiments? Why did it seemingly attract so little international interest, despite Germany's leading role in science and biomedicine over much of this period?5 However, as a number of influential historians of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany have observed, the study of this period has suffered from the imposition of narrative arcs, influenced by sociology or political science, that see it only as the precursor to the disaster of the Nazi regime.6 No actor at the time consciously sought this end for their actions: even the Nazi leadership sought power rather than defeat. Accounts that find a logic in the events from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II may overlook the unintended consequences of actors dealing with contingent events on the basis of partial information interpreted according to what were contemporaneously considered valid knowledge or theories. It is important, then, to avoid constructing an equally simplistic counter-narrative about the general ineffectiveness of regulation.
Creating Concern: The Emergence of Medical Experimentation as a Social Problem
If the search for a Grand Narrative of German history may be compared to the search for grand explanations in sociology or political science, the emphasis [End Page 30] on contingency resonates much more with some microsociological approaches that treat social order as a more local and spontaneous phenomenon. Within this framework, for example, social problems are not seen to be self-evident: they reflect processes by which problem entrepreneurs define...