August 20, 1947: Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg
All sixteen Nazi doctors were found guilty; seven were sentenced to death and executed, nine were convicted and sentenced to prison, and seven were acquitted. Karl Gebhardt was found guilty of “crimes against humanity” and war crimes for his experimental atrocities at Ravensbrück and was hanged. His two assistants, Fritz Fischer and Herta Oberheuser, the only woman doctor tried in the Doctors Trial, were both convicted of “crimes against humanity,” however, they received prison sentences; Fischer to life imprisonment and Oberheuser to 20 years. However, both were released after only 5 years. Oberheuser went on to practice family medicine until she was recognized by a survivor and her license was revoked in 1958. Fischer regained his medical license and resumed his career at the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim until his retirement at age 90.

The Nuremberg verdict also set forth universal parameters of “Permissible Medical Experiments” known as the Nuremberg Code, this landmark document serves as the cornerstone for international medical research ethical standards. The first principle mandates: “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential” for medical research with human subjects. (Weindling. Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From Medical War Crimes to Informed Consent, 2004)

Dr. Leo Alexander, principal co-author of the Nuremberg Code, concluded that the German medical and scientific community had perverted medicine by harnessing their knowledge for lethal aims; they were “devoted to methods of destroying or preventing life.”

The Nazi experimental wards were death mills from which few emerged alive; running throughout all the experimental work, one could see a “fine red thread” of measures designed either to kill or sterilize. (Weindling. John W. Thompson…, 2010)

The revelations at Nuremberg were extremely discomforting to the American medical establishment: the sheer unprecedented scale of immorality of the Nazi doctors was staggering — and the potential of guilt by association. The fact that the American medical profession had also enthusiastically embraced eugenics; American physicians had conducted unethical experiments that were cited by several Nazi doctors in their defense at the Nuremberg Doctors Trial; American physicians supported and participated in forced sterilizations; and some American physicians even entertained medical murder.

In 1942, at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatrist Foster Kennedy, president of the American Euthanasia Society, advocated killing “feebleminded” “defective” children and adults whom he called “Nature’s mistakes,” “hopeless ones who should never have been born.” (Jay Joseph. The Missing Gene. . . 2006) An anonymous editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry sided with Kennedy, advocated for “enabling legislation” to facilitate the process legally. No one at the APA expressed the opinion that it would be unethical to kill disabled individuals (Rael Strous. Psychiatry During the Nazi Era, 2007).

Americans provided financial support for Nazi racial hygiene research; they adopted Germany’s medical education model and research methods; and American medical researchers continued to perform unethical human experiments long after the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial (see below).

Indeed, in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Alexander wrote:

American physicians are still far from the point of thinking of killing centers, but they have arrived at a danger point of thinking, at which likelihood of full rehabilitation is considered a factor that should determine the amount of time, effort and cost to be devoted to a particular type of patient. . . . Americans should remember that the enormity of a euthanasia movement is present in their own midst. (L. Alexander. NEJM, 1949)