Do doctors use Nazi data in their research?

Do doctors use Nazi data in their research?

Do doctors use Nazi data in their research?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 7 2010 6:34 PM

Mein Data

Did any useful science come out of the Nazi concentration camps?

Guantanamo Bay. Click image to expand.
Guantanamo Bay

Doctors who helped the CIA torture Guantanamo Bay detainees violated medical ethics standards, according to a report released Monday. The doctors, who recommended that the CIA use saline solution for water-boarding rather than regular water, are alleged to have conducted "experiments" on nonconsenting human subjects. That's a violation of a host of medical ethics standards, including the 1947 Nuremburg Medical Code that was formulated in response to gruesome Nazi research on Jews, Gypsies, and captured enemy soldiers. Leaving aside the question of medical ethics, did any useful science ever come out of Nazi experiments on unwilling subjects?

Very little. Concentration camp doctors conducted research on vaccines, antibiotics, fertility, transplantation, and eugenics. The majority of those experiments were either useless, scientifically unsound, or duplicative. More interesting was a series of studies on the limits of human endurance: At the Dachau concentration camp in 1942, Nazi doctor Sigmund Rascher submerged approximately 300 naked victims in ice water for two to five hours and monitored their heart rate, muscle control, and core temperature, and he noted when the subjects lost consciousness. (His stated goal was to see how long a downed pilot could survive in the North Sea.) More than 80 of the prisoners died during the experiments; nevertheless, some argue that Rascher's data are valuable and irreproducible. Dozens of medical journal articles have cited the research, which has played a minor role in the development of survival suits for cold-water fishing boats and warming techniques for hypothermia patients.

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Rascher's findings do not establish an absolute human tolerance for cold, since his victims were emaciated and suffering from weeks or months of inhumane treatment. But the results do supplement and extend modern experiments, in which subjects aren't permitted to go below 95 degrees. (The guinea pigs at Dachau were left in the ice water until their body temperatures dropped to 80 degrees or less.) From this we glean that cooling rates at very low temperatures are generally consistent with those in moderate conditions.

None of the other concentration camp experiments proved useful in any way. Many of the results were predictable, like the fact that imprisoned Gypsies could not survive on salt water alone for 12 days. Other projects, like Josef Mengele's attempts to increase the multiple birth rate among Aryans, were utter failures, while research on mass sterilization would be of no use to modern doctors if it ever did produce substantive data. The few concentration camp tests that pursued worthwhile ends, like testing the safety of novel antibiotics, were being duplicated elsewhere under humane conditions and with more reliable results. (For their antibiotic tests, the Nazis would inflict a wound on a prisoner, induce gangrene by cutting off circulation to the injury and exposing it to bacteria, and then attempt to treat the infection.)

(The concentration camp research was just one aspect of an otherwise very successful Nazi science program. WWII-era German doctors established the link between asbestos and lung cancer, and German scientists developed the electron microscope.)

After hearing the evidence against the Nazi doctors at the Nuremberg trials, the judges adopted 10 guidelines to prevent future unethical research. Informed consent, the first of the recommendations, remains the keystone of medical studies. But the scientific community still hasn't reached a consensus on how to treat valid scientific data that was obtained unethically. Most journals do not maintain blanket prohibitions on citations of Nazi data, but researchers have seen their articles rejected for referencing Rascher's studies.

Ethical standards don't preclude torture research entirely. Participants in the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program at Fort Bragg, N.C., consented to sleep deprivation, starvation, and other stresses while doctors monitored their hormone levels and psychological response. The results have been published in a series of peer-reviewed papers. At this point, no one has released data collected at Guantanamo Bay itself, so it's too early to say whether it could someday end up in a medical journal.

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Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.