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The Decline of Human Ethics and The Rise of Science: Nazi-eugenic Experiments and Dr. Josef Mengele

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During World War II, prisoners held in German concentration camps were victims to many torturous experiences. The Nazi concentration camps have been historically considered as one of the worst examples that prove how low humanity can fall. Not many circumstances show such overt disregard for ethics and basic human rights. Adolf Hitler took advantage of the war that was going on in order to completely throw ethics to the side, and conduct experiments on prisoners, no matter if they didn’t consent to it. He took up the pseudoscience of eugenics for the Aryan racial superiority and ordered the euthanasia (painless killing) of genetically unfit and mentally ill before the concentration camps were ever set up. Horrible stories have come out of the camps, most of them about the medical experiments performed by the camp doctors. Nazi doctors took complete advantage of the prisoners to carry out the tortuous, inhumane, and sadistic medical experiments. Contrary to popular belief, some of the experiments were not based on a scientific fact of any kind–they were designed specifically to wound and hurt the prisoners, putting them through agony, that would eventually end in their death.

The experiments independently caused a complete reevaluation of previous ethics and ignited the invention of new ethical laws to abide by. Once the war was over, there was a huge call for retribution and justice for what had been done by the Nazis. The Nuremberg trials held a special Doctor’s Trial as a way to try and bring justice to those who were murdered during the war. Twenty-three people were put on trial, twenty of them being Nazi doctors, and twenty were accused of conspiracy, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and membership in criminal organizations. Out of the twenty-three defendants, seven were executed, another seven were exonerated, and the rest of them served jail time (although a majority of them did not serve their complete sentence.

The trials resulted in a reevaluation of the scientific and medical ethics. In August 1947, the Nuremberg Code was created. It has been essential in shaping ethics since it’s creation. It rewrote the laws of what was allowed for human experimentation. It stated new laws for psychological research as well as medical research and pharmaceutical research. The code has ten strict ethical guidelines to be followed when conducting medical or scientific experiments on human subjects. The guidelines are: 

  1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. 
  2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature. 
  3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease, or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment. 
  4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury. 
  5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects. 
  6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.
  7. Proper preparations should be made, and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death. 
  8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through twenty-one all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment. 
  9. Throughout the course of the experiment, the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible. 
  10. During the course of the experiment, the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill, and careful judgment required of him that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject’.

The code is not just for research; the guidelines have been used in practicing medical ethics as well. The most important thing to note is the need for consent from the patients and subjects. The Nazi experiments have caused for medical and scientific ethics to become a great deal of importance in the growing scientific world of the twenty-first century. In the past, it had never been required to specify rules and laws for human experimentation, although there was an emphasis on treating humans as such. Regardless of the seriousness and importance of the Nuremberg Code, it was never acquired by any nation or institution as their new ethical code. 

Today, ethical laws reflect what came before them. A popular experiment, whose results have been useful to science today is the Hypothermia and Resuscitation of Hypothermia. The experiments were conducted for the Nazi high commands and they were conducted on men to simulate the conditions that the armies suffered on the eastern front. Thousands of German soldiers died of hypothermia or they were weakened by cold injuries. The experiments were conducted under Dr. Sigmund Rascher at Birkenau, Dachau, and Auschwitz. The freezing experiments were divided into two parts–to establish how long it takes to lower the body temperature to death and how to bring them back to life safely from low body temperatures without harming them or killing them. There were two main methods that they used to freeze the victim. They either put the person in an ice-water tub, or they put them outside naked in sub-zero temperatures. The ice water bath was proven to be the quickest way to drop the body temperature. They used healthy young Jews or Russians, usually stripped naked and prepared for the experiment. To prep them for the experiment, they inserted an insulated probe into their rectum to measure the drop in temperature. The probe was held in place by a metal ring, which was expandable, and was adjusted to open inside the rectum to keep the probe in place. The victims were then put inside the vat of cold water and started to freeze. The information gained from the experiment was that most victims lost consciousness and died when their body temperature reached 25 C. the second method, they used was to strap the victims to a stretcher and place them outside naked. Auschwitz’s extreme winters made it an easy, accessible way to test their theories.

Joseph Mengele was one of the leading doctors at the Auschwitz concentration camp, guiding many gruesome experiments, including the experiments based on eugenics. Many of the experiments were based on odd Nazi racial theories about who was “Aryan” and who was not. The problem with the existence of distinct human races is controversial in and of itself. No modern scientist will agree that there is something like the Aryan race. Once the Nazis had Germany fully under control by 1933, they decided to shape German society into their ideal image of what Germans should look like. A big step towards that goal was when the Sterilization Law (also known as the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring) was implemented on July 14, 1933. The law said that people who had or suffered for specific illnesses could be sterilized (either consensually or not) to prevent spreading hereditary diseases. The experiments done to deduce whether the Aryan race was superior to other races brought no results, leading Mengele to start a new type of experiment.

Following the inconclusive eugenics experiments conducted by Dr. Mengele, he began his own project on twins. He collected twins at docks, train stations, etc., separating them from their parents and taking them to different places than their parents. He would order that the parents get sent to different concentration camps or to be killed off. He used many different sets of experiments and continuous trials to try and figure out whether twins are connected in one way or another, no matter if they were fraternal or identical. He infected Jewish and Gypsy, fraternal and identical twins with the same amount of typhoid bacteria, and took blood on multiple occasions for chemical analysis in Berlin to follow the course of the disease and see how it progressed. According to Dr. Nyiszli (a Jewish inmate doctor and forced assistant), they also worked with tuberculous twins. The letters and reports written by Dr. Mengele to Professor Von Verschuer (a Nazi research physician) were destroyed by the latter, in order to hide the brutalities and unethical procedures done to the prisoners being held captive. 

As no original paperwork survived on the experiments, we rely on a number of eyewitness testimonies. Dr. Mengele and Professor von Verschuer did not solve their problem. As an attempt to research photogenic eye pigmentation and eye color heredity, Mengele used the twins in (painful) experiments to try and change their eye color. It was a Nazi focus to find out whether the structure and color of the eyes could be used to determine the “race” (Aryan or Jewish) of the test subject. Although it may seem incredible, many of Mengele’s theories are still being developed and have undergone further research to this day. The focus he had on twin births has manifested itself in studies regarding fertility drugs, which has resulted in some women giving birth to quadruplets up to octuplets. His previous research in genetic engineering has turned into what is now called genetic editing, which has led to scientists being able to remove defects from parents in DNA sequences. Instead of testing on humans and animals, thankfully the technology we have today has allowed scientists to turn to robotic tests where computers are used to analyze traumatic effects on mammals and come up with protective measures.

There are two important things to remember when reflecting on the research conducted by Joseph Mengele and the rest of the ‘Mad Doctors’. One is that the Nazis provided concentration camp prisoners for experiments as an intense form of torture; no one in the SS took the research seriously and Mengele submitted reports to Nazi medical departments routinely but kept the majority of his findings to himself. This ended in the developments staying unknown and unexplored. Secondly, the Nazis provided next to no financing for the program Mengele was in charge of. They spent almost all of their developmental funds on military research.

Going back to some of the most important experiments that were conducted, the hypothermia experiments is what allowed us to now have the entire ability to send people into space. The whole point of the experiment was to figure out how to help the human body deal with cold and how much pressure the human body could take. They were very eager to study hypothermia and they wrote a book about it; the book is on how to survive in cold weather conditions and it is still used today, almost completely unchanged, by all NATO troops. Some say that it was the most helpful as it taught the Nazis how the cold affected their soldiers. They also attempted to find vaccines for diseases that were commonly found in the camps such as Polio. They succeeded in curing other common diseases within the camps like Typhus and Tuberculosis. Their experiment on rapid pressurization and depressurization of the human body were conducted for studies on U-boat operations. 

The human body might experience the feeling of pressure in submarines under great depths. The results of the research done by the doctors gave them answers on how to escape the bends when swimming up from a sunken submarine. People were hurt, crippled, and killed during these experiments, but those deaths were not completely in vain. Many horrid experiments on Jews, Gypsies, and other unfortunate people led to the development of the G-suit. This is a suit used to help pilots in high-speed dives from being affected by the effects of increasing gravitational pressure on the body. The Germans, specifically the Nazi medical doctors, were the people that introduced this technology and it appears that few of their experiments using unwilling human subjects, in order to obtain this information, have been useful in technology and developments we come up with today. Without those experiments, we would not have been able to send people into deep water or space. This research is still used today to save countless lives.

A good number of the experiments came from spur of the moment, not part of a continuous study as the two previous ones. There is no original paperwork that survived on the other experiments. Therefore, we rely on several eyewitness testimonies. The peculiar experiments consisted of doing things such as: sewing twins together with the goal of creating conjoined twins, surgeries of castration, organ removal, and amputations. Experts in the field of history, medicine, and law got together to discuss human experiments. All they had to say was that Mengele’s research was useless. In some cases, that is true and the research did not even conform to the scientific methods of that day. There are some cases of the bodies of the prisoners that continued to be used after death. Some of the most long-lasting useful knowledge includes something called “Pernkopf’s Atlas” which is a medical text of color plate of the human body that was given in such fine detail that it has never been improved upon and is still being used in medical texts. Pernkopf and his apprentices acquired over 1400 dead bodies to dissect for their drawings. Almost all of the dead bodies were misused prisoners, the majority of them Jews or political prisoners, many of who may have been executed just for the purpose of the creation of the drawings. Once the drawings were completed, the artists signed them with tiny swastikas and SS runes, which were later removed in newer editions. Tens of thousands of doctors have been trained on human anatomy using this Atlas.

Drug therapies, surgical techniques, and transplant techniques designed to study war medicine were taken up, but the work was performed sloppily with poor record-keeping and controls. Even Dr. Mengele, one of the “leading” scientists, did sloppy work with few attestable results and poor record-keeping that would be out of character for a man with disposable human subjects available to experiment on. The rules of bio-ethics were dropped and disregarded for these people but their sloppy research was increasingly sadistic and less scientific as time went on. The American Journal of Bioethics defines bioethics as the study of many ethical controversies that root from advances done in biology, technology, and medicine. The issue of bioethics was not officially recognized as an area of study until the start of the 1960s over concerns with the medical practices conducted during the Nazi rule in World War II.

After World War II, the leading Nazi doctors were trialed at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Around twenty doctors were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The trials exposed evidence of the human experiments that took place at the Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Modern medicine doesn’t hold back from calling the Nazi doctors evil, but nothing is being said about the continued use of their medical research. Scholars have recently discovered that credible medical literature includes multiple references to the Nazi experiments or work from former SS doctors. The works referencing the experiments usually don’t include disclaimers about how the data was collected. Regarding that, there’s a big debate on whether the results of the experiments should even be used. A common, simple response would be to look at how good can come to those who use it now and, in the future, make it justified since there is no harm coming to those who died as a consequence of the experiment. Someone who has a bit more knowledge about the situation would say that there are subtle, indirect consequences to people related, perhaps family members, to those directly involved. Those people may be affected mentally by what their family has been through and it may be possible that their distress might overrule the good that might come from the good of the experiment. People may also argue that by using the data, it would send a message that says that the experiments weren’t that bad and might encourage some doctors to conduct their own unethical experiments.

There are complications and moral values questioned in the process of considering whether it is good or bad to use this data. Even if there are positive outcomes to using the data, it is necessary to acknowledge that the user of the data might somehow minimize what was done in the experiments that produced them. The hardest part in this ongoing argument is how to decide when it’s alright to extract good from wrongdoing. People believe that lies in what society ethically owes to the victims of those wrongdoings. Just because the abuse and wrongs that were done to the victims are over does not mean the matter is over. Victims are owed recognition that what was done to them was wrong, a sign that society is taking those matters seriously, that action was taken, or effort was done to punish perpetrators for the suffering they caused, and last but not least, that society has an obligation to not forget and to not disregard what has happened. Most of those obligations have been met by the Nuremberg trials in 1946-46 and the continuing of the global disgust of the horrible things that were done to those people in World War II. But the use of this information should be done with complete clarity about where the source of the data comes from and a disclaimer of how it was obtained. 

It’s hard to believe that the Nazis advanced medicine in any way. Medical science is supposed to focus on saving lives, and the ethical code prohibits any experiments done for the “greater good”. This data was collected from unwilling humans who were put under conditions that are considered to be torture today. It was collected brutally with no regard whatsoever for even the most basic scientific ethics. While there are some that say we should use the data, it is vitally important to remember that what happened was a crime, the type that any nation really has laws for. No matter how small, human life is invaluable. The Nazis made great leaps in chemistry, but as for medicine, the human experimentation did not contribute to medical science. They were justifications for new ways to be sadistic and cruel to the people they were holding hostage.  

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The Decline of Human Ethics and the Rise of Science: Nazi-Eugenic Experiments and Dr. Josef Mengele. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
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The Decline of Human Ethics and the Rise of Science: Nazi-Eugenic Experiments and Dr. Josef Mengele. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Jun. 2022].
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