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Nazi experimentation is fairly well known even to a layman of history. However, the specific details and the central figures. might be lesser known.

The following is a guest post from Zackery Ward. 


nazi experimentation

The Nazis performed several terrible experiments on human subjects in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Most of these experiments were designed under the assumption that the subjects would be killed during the process, and some of them were incapable of producing meaningful scientific information from the start. These pseudo-scientific experiments were often nothing more than torture disguised as the pursuit of knowledge. Nazi Germany enacted strong legal restrictions on animal abuse and medical experimentation. The humans living in the concentration camps were awarded no such protection, legal or otherwise.
Several of the scientists leading these efforts were extremely well-regarded in the academic community, but many were barely qualified to work in any scientific capacity. The neuroscience division is an excellent example of the lack of qualifications of the people assigned to produce meaningful scientific data. There were sixty-eight physicians employed by the Third Reich for neuroscience research. Of these, thirty-eight specialized in neuroscience, and thirty specialized in unrelated fields. Twenty-four were professors, two had PhDs and the other forty-two had only recently received their certification to work in the medical field in general. This article will focus on the more notorious scientists and the heinous acts they committed during the Nazi regime.

Nazi Experimentation- Dr. Ernst Rudin

Rudin was internationally recognized for his research into psychiatric genetics, most notably on the inheritance of schizophrenia, and was a professor of the notorious Josef Mengele. His research was used to justify the enforced eugenic sterilization program, which sterilized approximately 50,000 people a year beginning in 1934. He helped design the program and decide who should be sterilized. Rudin’s work was able to remain relevant in the scientific community after the way, and his research on schizophrenia was cited in medical journals well into the 1980s.

Nazi Experimentation- Dr. Verschuer

Verschuer was also a widely recognized geneticist, but he focused closely on twins. He was the founding director of the Institute of Heredobiologic Research in Frankfurt. His main academic focus outside of twins was the genetics of tuberculosis and eye color. He was so well respected during his time that he presented a paper at the Royal Society of London in 1939 about his research on twins. He was Josef Mengele’s professional mentor. The experiments carried out by Mengele in Auschwitz were funded by a grant from the German Research Council awarded to Verschuer, and any material taken from the victims, including human eyes, heads, and blood samples, were sent to the Kaiser Willhelm Institute in Berlin, headed by Verschuer himself.

Nazi Experimentation- Josef Mengele

Mengele received his Ph.D. in physical anthropology in 1935 when he was twenty-four years old, received a medical degree in 1938, and assisted Verschuer in his research on twins. His ultimate goal was to use the information from his experiments as a way to attain a university position. He was the one who determined what prisoners would be sent for execution or forced labor in Auschwitz, and he headed up the human experiments performed at the camp.
Mengele had two main focuses for his experiments. The first was continuing the research he had been performing on twins with Verschuer. He believed that through experimenting on twins he would find a way of spreading the Aryan gene faster. Any twins that arrived at Auschwitz were to be sent to his research area immediately, and they were given special treatment from the other prisoners. They were allowed to wear their own clothes and fed a better diet than the average Holocaust victim. This did not mean that their lives would be easier, however. Twins unfortunate enough to end up under Mengele had extreme amounts of blood taken regularly, to the point where they would pass out, wake up, and immediately have more taken. If an experiment resulted in the death of one twin, the other was killed so Mengele could dissect them both at the same time. Eva Mozes (a survivor of Mengele’s twin experiments) said she witnessed two gypsy twins who had been sewn together to create artificial Siamese twins. “The twins screamed day and night until gangrene set in, and after three days, they died.”
Mengele’s other focus was on people with dwarfism. He believed he could remove certain features from the gene pool that the Nazis had deemed undesirable. Their blood was drawn in the same brutal method as the twin research subjects. X-rays were regularly performed with no protective equipment. Healthy teeth were extracted, eyelashes were plucked, and a type of water torture was performed where their ears were kept full of water. Some of the victims were even forced to procreate with gypsy women to try and find the percentage of children that would have dwarfism.

Gerhard Rose

Rose was tasked with testing a dead virus vaccine for Rickettsia Typhi. This was one of the few experiments that, while done through entirely unacceptable means, could have provided some type of useful information for the scientific community. Pre-vaccinated and non-vaccinated controls were injected with live typhus rickettsia, and the two groups’ death rates were compared. The Matelska strain was discovered to be non-virulent after several rounds of testing. This could have resulted in the development of a live vaccine, but instead, Gerhard became upset that the control group did not die during the experiment and discarded this specific strain. There was a high potential for providing a vaccine for an incredibly deadly disease, and this potential was abandoned because they would rather have killed off their experiment’s subjects than produce results.

Dr. Gebhardt

Gebhardt was ordered to perform the gangrene experiments as a way of clearing his name. He was unable to treat SS General Reinhard “The Hangman” Heydrich for gangrene and was instructed by Himmler to determine if people died from gas gangrene, whether they were treated with sulfonamides or not. The experiment consisted of cutting the subject’s limbs and purposefully infecting them with necrosis by adding wood, dirt, and glass to the wounds. Gebhardt having a vested interest in his subjects dying from the disease meant that he likely went out of his way to ensure they did not survive this ordeal.

Sigmund Rascher

Rascher was held in extremely low regard by his fellow scientists and was turned down for several university positions, but he managed to find favor with both Himmler and Hitler. His experiments were assigned to improve the survival rate of German soldiers during the war. Himmler wanted Rascher to develop a way to prevent soldiers from bleeding out on the battlefield. Rascher attempted to create a coagulant that could be taken before any possible injuries, and to test this, he measured the number of blood drops from freshly cut amputation stumps of living and conscious prisoners at the Dachau crematorium, as well as from bullet wounds to the spleen of Russian POWs.
One of these experiments involved simulating pressure drops in pilot cabins that had been shot down. These tests were meant to end in the death of the prisoners, and their brains were then pathologically examined.
Another of his experiments is one of the most notorious ones performed during the Holocaust, and arguably the most heavily studied. The hypothermia experiments consisted of placing subjects in a bath ranging from two to twelve degrees Celsius. It included seven different warming methods to determine the best way to prevent death from hypothermia for pilots that are stranded in cold ocean temps. Not only were these experiments heavily flawed, but there is evidence to suggest that some of the findings were doctored to fit the narrative Rascher wanted to present to Himmler. The only surviving record of the results of these experiments is contained in a fifty-six-page report from Holzloehner, Fink, and Rascher to Himmler. The raw data was destroyed with much of the results of the experimentation during the evacuation of the camps by fleeing SS members. Specific temperature, time spent in bath, and specific body temperature of the subjects are not contained in the report. No information was given about each heat source or time between cooling and heating. Blood pressure was never measured. Rascher’s own words contradict the report several times concerning the amount of time required for a subject to die and at what temperature. The report also says that brain swelling and hemorrhaging are major causes of death in hypothermia victims, however, testing on animals has shown that the brain shrinks when dealing with hypothermia. Rascher also stated that it takes between fifty-three and one hundred minutes to kill a person through submersion in cold water, but his own records and statements made by his associates showed that it took between eighty minutes to five or six hours to kill an undressed person and between six or seven to kill someone in an aviator’s uniform.
Rascher and his wife were both executed after he was caught lying about succeeding in extending the natural child-birthing age. He claimed that his wife had given birth to three children quickly at the age of forty-eight, but during her fourth pregnancy she was arrested for the attempted kidnapping of an infant, afterwards, there was an investigation that revealed that the other three children were also either kidnapped or bought.

Nazi Experimentation: The Victims

The pool of subjects for human experimentation was made up of prisoners held in concentration camps. There was a sixty-forty split in favor of men and Jewish people made up thirty percent of all test subjects. The majority of the subjects were underfed, which would seriously impact any findings that could have possibly been gleaned from the torture these people were submitted to. Experiments focusing on hypothermia, gangrene, or blood clotting would not have produced the same results compared to someone at a healthy weight. Subjects used for neuroscience experiments were mostly of German and Austrian descent, and they were usually much younger than people that were experimented on in other fields. Mengele focused on twins and little people. Twins were immediately brought to Mengele upon arrival at the camp, housed separately, fed better food, and allowed to wear their clothes. A specific family of little people was designated non-expendable by Mengele and allowed to wear non-prison clothes.

This post is part of our larger historical resource on the Holocaust. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Holocaust.

Nazi Experimentation References

Alexander, Leo. “Medical Science under Dictatorship.” Culture & Civilization 241, no. 2 (July 14, 1949): 108-29. doi:10.4324/9780203794142-6.

Barbier, Mark Kathryn. “Josef Mengele – “Angel of Death”.” In Spies, Lies, and Citizenship: The Hunt for Nazi Criminals. Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2017.

Berger, Robert L. “Nazi Science — The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments.” New England Journal of Medicine 322, no. 20 (1990): 1435-440. doi:10.1056/nejm199005173222006.

Loewenau, Aleksandra, and Paul J. Weindling. “Nazi Medical Research in Neuroscience: Medical Procedures, Victims, and Perpetrators.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 33, no. 2 (2016): 418-46. doi:10.3138/cbmh.33.2.152-27012015.

Moe, Kristine. “Should the Nazi Research Data Be Cited?” The Hastings Center Report 14, no. 6 (1984): 5. doi:10.2307/3561733.

Seidelman, William E. “Mengele Medicus: Medicine’s Nazi Heritage.” The Milbank Quarterly 66, no. 2 (1988): 221. doi:10.2307/3350031.

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