November 18

1945: Dr. John W. Thompson gathers evidence of Nazi Doctors’ Atrocities

At the end of the war, Allied and Soviet military intelligence officials were on a competitive mission to locate the weapons arsenals, radar, rockets and jet engines, and to obtain Germany’s military, scientific and technical information, in the hope of obtaining advanced beneficial results from their research. During the war and afterward, Allied governments and international organizations, including the British Foreign Office, the International Red Cross, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, looked on concentration camps, the Holocaust, and the ethics of medicine in Germany as issues that were not of great importance and that would detract from their major goals.

Dr. John W. Thompson, a U.S. psychiatrist who had specialized in aviation medicine, was deeply affected by his encounter with the ghastly horrors at Bergen-Belsen — its acre of corpses, dying people and emaciated skeletal survivors — it changed the course of his life. As an intelligence officer in a British-Canadian Air Force group (RAF 84), he conducted extensive interviews, traveling to German universities and hospitals to interrogate doctors and scientists from whom he obtained copious research documents. The content of those documents led him to conclude that “90 percent of the members of the German medical profession at the highest level were involved one way or another in the sacrifice of humans as experimental subjects.”

Dr. Thompson was aghast at the perversion of science and medicine under the Nazis and was determined to deal with what he termed, “medical war crimes.” To do so he had to overcome strong opposition from the British Foreign Office and U.S. intelligence officials. The Nazi Doctors Trial at Nuremburg (1946–1947) was largely the result of Dr. Thompson’s persistent efforts and Col. David Marcus, the American Chief of the War Crimes Branch in the U.S. military who approved preparations for a medical war crimes trial. Dr. Thompson contributed to the formulation of the Nuremberg Code (Weindling. John W. Thompson . . . 2010).

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