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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.

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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    @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
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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).

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    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
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Yes, most definitely!

While many of the Nazi experiments were unscientific in their abhorrent cruelty, other cruel abhorrent Nazi experiments were quite scientific indeed and were taken up by non-Nazis after 1945.

According to a 2004 article in The Lancet:

Experiments in the context of aviation medicine were aimed at finding methods to help pilots survive after their planes had been hit at very high altitudes, or after an emergency landing at sea. The experiments, carried out in the Dachau concentration camp, focused on physiological questions, such as the effects on the human body of low pressure at high altitude, or of drinking salt water. The researchers responsible, such as Siegfried Ruff, Sigmund Rascher, and Georg Weltz, were all associated with university institutes or the German Air Force. For the high-altitude experiments, about 200 people were chosen from the camp prisoners, at least 70 of whom died during the experiments in a specially designed low-pressure cabin, or were killed afterwards to study the pathological changes in their brains. Judged strictly on scientific terms, the methods and results of some of these experiments were apparently innovative and useful. The US Air Force continued some of this research after the war and published the results in cooperation with a number of German physicians involved in the original experiments.

By contrast to historical narratives postulating the irrationality of Nazi science, it must be noted that medical research programmes in this political context pursued questions that were in some cases outdated, but which in other cases were in line with the prevailing standards of the international scientific community. The methods and techniques used also represented a broad range, from the conventional, even obsolete, to the innovative. In most cases, the practical implementation of these methods and techniques was brutal and showed total disregard for the suffering of the individuals concerned.

Nazi medicine and research on human beings

According to a 1989 article by William Seidelman in the International Journal of Health Services:

Data derived from research conducted on unknowing and unwitting subjects in death camps continue to be cited in authoritative contemporary medical literature.

Mengele Medicus: Medicine's Nazi Heritage

Still, the availability of the knowledge has not always resulted in its application in medicine. Besides the well-publicized hypothermia experiments, Nazis also learned about a poison, phosgene gas.

Use of data generated by the Nazis from the deadly phosgene gas experiments has also been considered, and rejected by the US Environmental Protection Agency, even though it could have helped save lives of those accidentally exposed.

http://theconversation.com/is-it-ethical-to-use-data-from-nazi-medical-experiments-39928

To address a different, though related, question:

Did Josef Mengele's unethical collaborators continue to practice after 1945?

To the extent that medical knowledge is first-of-all personal and sometimes scientific, there can be no doubt that Nazi horrors have figured into modern medicine according to this article:

The leadership of the World Medical Association has, in fact, included physicians [who worked in Nazi medicine]. The president of the World Medical Association for 1973-4 was Dr Ernst Fromm (b 1917), of Hamburg, who had been a member of the SA (Nazi stormtroops) and SS terror organisations. In 1992 the World Medical Association appointed as president elect for 1993-4 Professor Dr Hans Joachim Sewering (b 1916), of Dachau. During the Hitler period Sewering was a member of the Nazi party and the SS, and he has been linked with the death of a 14 year old girl, Babette Froewis. In October 1943, on Sewering's order, Babette Froewis was sent from an institution for handicapped children where Sewering worked to the killing centre at Eglfing-Haar. Sewering was the German medical profession's representative to the World Medical Association from 1968 and in 1973 was appointed treasurer of the association. He was forced to step aside in January 1993 when his past was revealed outside Germany.

Nuremberg Lamentation: For the forgotten victims of medical science

According to this long-form newspaper article from 2003:

...Mengele's boss [Otmar Freiherr von] Verschuer escaped prosecution. Verschuer re- established his connections with California eugenicists who had gone underground and renamed their crusade "human genetics." Typical was an exchange July 25, 1946, when Popenoe wrote Verschuer, "It was indeed a pleasure to hear from you again. I have been very anxious about my colleagues in Germany . . . I suppose sterilization has been discontinued in Germany?" Popenoe offered tidbits about various American eugenics luminaries and then sent various eugenics publications. In a separate package, Popenoe sent some cocoa, coffee and other goodies.

Verschuer wrote back, "Your very friendly letter of 7/25 gave me a great deal of pleasure and you have my heartfelt thanks for it. The letter builds another bridge between your and my scientific work; I hope that this bridge will never again collapse but rather make possible valuable mutual enrichment and stimulation."

Soon, Verschuer again became a respected scientist in Germany and around the world. In 1949, he became a corresponding member of the newly formed American Society of Human Genetics, organized by American eugenicists and geneticists.

Eugenics and the Nazis -- the California connection, by Edwin Black

Conclusion

The takeaway from all of this, according to The Lancet's Volker Roelcke, is:

The historical experience strongly suggests the necessity of setting clear limits on research involving human beings. These limits should be defined with full respect for the participant's integrity and interests, and in accordance with the best available medical knowledge. The impetus to produce new knowledge, and the interests of society, or of potential future patients, are legitimate considerations, but these must not take priority over the research subject's free will and wellbeing. Finally, such regulations should be linked to forceful sanctions in case of violation. The debates surrounding the formulation, and the later revisions of the Declaration of Helsinki amply document the difficulties in implementing such regulations. Their practical application remains a constant challenge.

The Lancet

  • "scientific" has no inherent connection to cruelty, either way. Unethical experiments can be scientific. The experiments and their cruelty excelled at being highly immoral and inhumane etc. Some or even most of them were unethical and unscientific. Or scientifically worthless as driven by unscientific ideology and sloppy methodology on top. You may want to differentiate that. – LangLangC Oct 8 '18 at 19:11
  • I was definitely trying to keep that distinction clear, @LangLangC... thanks for looking at it with me. How's that look now? – elliot svensson Oct 8 '18 at 19:14

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