Take the 2-minute tour ×
Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Josef Mengele, a.k.a. the “Angel of Death”, was an infamous physician and SS officer in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he performed inhumane experiments on inmates.

To give a taste,

He supervised an operation by which two Romani children were sewn together to create conjoined twins […] Mengele also sought out pregnant women, on whom he would perform vivisections before sending them to the gas chambers.

The cruelty and perversion of these experiments can hardly be overstated. Since similar experimentation on live humans is fundamentally unethical, not much of his “research” can ever be repeated.

Ironically, this means that this situation did present a unique opportunity to perform potentially valuable experiments. For instance, he could unscrupulously perform dissections on intact dead bodies and did a lot of twin studies:

Once Mengele’s assistant rounded up 14 pairs of Roma twins during the night. Mengele placed them on his polished marble dissection table and put them to sleep. He then injected chloroform into their hearts, killing them instantly. Mengele then began dissecting and meticulously noting each piece of the twins' bodies. [1]

We sometimes hear claims that the results from those experiments have fundamentally influenced our modern understanding of human physiology. For instance, the data from the Nazi experiments on hypothermia are sometimes cited in medical literature [2, 3], although it’s been deemed “unscientific” by others.

A stronger claim is that in fact, all modern text books on physiology incorporate fundamental facts which were gained through these experiments. That is, modern physiology is, at least in some regards, fundamentally dependent on these experiments (since they cannot be repeated). For instance:

Contemporary knowledge concerning the manner in which the human body reacts to freezing is based almost exclusively on these Nazi experiments. [4] (emphasis mine)

I want to know: is this claim true? Have these experiments any scientific value whatsoever (were they performed rigorously, did they test hypotheses, did they result in new insights?), and are they used in modern medicine. The second, stronger claim might not be falsifiable (too conspiracy-ey?) so feel free to disregard that in your answer, though if somebody does have a definitive answer here, I’d appreciate that.

share|improve this question
I think you should also add Unit 731 to the question. It functions were very similar and the methods as extreme to Nazi Germany ones. –  Daniel Iankov Aug 24 '11 at 10:07
I started looking at this, but have got a bit depressed on reading examples. Anyway, this is one link I found jlaw.com/Articles/NaziMedEx.html. You might have seen this already –  JoseK Aug 24 '11 at 10:41
Not an answer, but a link that might be helpful for the discussion: Seven Creepy Experiments That Could Teach Us So Much (If They Weren’t So Wrong) (Wired). –  Peter Beattie Aug 24 '11 at 12:20
How should these experiments be scientifically useful, if they can't be repeated? If they can't be repeated, they're anecdotal - aren't they. Did every other Nazi scientist verify them independently at least? If Mengele was very ambitious, and knew, that rarely somebody would repeat the experiments, the risk for exaggerating results, to forge results, would have been very high. –  user unknown Aug 25 '11 at 3:37
@user That’s indeed a problem. However, circumstantial evidence can still be used to support those findings, show them to be consistent with our current knowledge, etc. Interestingly, I’ve read a lot since asking this question yesterday and have found extensive discussions of all those problems – yet still no definitive assertion whether the results are essential to modern medicine. For instance, in the seminal paper by Cohen (linked to by JoseK above) it sometimes sounds as if they are routinely used, and sometimes as if they aren’t. –  Konrad Rudolph Aug 25 '11 at 7:10
show 6 more comments

1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted

They probably did provide some marginally useful information, but in general they were not done scientifically. The Nazi regime's version of genetic research (which was the main focus of his research, hence the focus on identical twins) was more influenced by racial propaganda than actual scientific method, and in his specific case, many of the experiments seem to be devoid of any scientific purpose, many other could be easily done on animals, where using human subjects provide little scientific benefit.

In any case, most of his results were destroyed before the war ended.

Mengele sent all his findings to his mentor Dr Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. It took two trucks to carry all of his 'findings'. Verschuer destroyed them - so the full extent of what Mengele did at Auschwitz will never be known. If Mengele himself kept any notes, they have never been found.

Source: Chris Trueman BA (Hons), History Learning Site

Specifically, see http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/history/mengele/research_5.html.

The question seems to mix between Mengele's research and similar but separate research done by the Nazi regime, this answer only refers to the former. A reasonably comprehensive source regarding Nazi experimentation can be found in http://www1.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%208152.pdf (A hebrew PDF file).

share|improve this answer
I looked at the second reference, and found the section supports your claims, and quoted it. I note that the source isn't peer-reviewed, nor is from a noted expert on the subject. I didn't do the same for the other link, because it is much longer. I would suggest you do the same for that to support your claims. –  Oddthinking Sep 14 '11 at 15:06
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.