Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Josef Mengele

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Think that mad scientists are confined only to the literary world?

Think again. The annals of history are littered with kooky researchers

and batty experiments, and many of their stories actually outdo their

fictitious counterparts.

This week, Newton Blog tells the tales of some of the past century's most loopy scientists, and

recounts their

surprisingly profound contributions to modern knowledge. Today, Josef Mengele: The Nazi's "Angel of Death."

Earlier this week, I published posts about two other "mad scientists:" Vladimir Demikhov and Jack Parsons. I'd like to preface this post on Josef Mengele by saying that he took "mad" to an entirely different level. While Parsons and Demikhov both were batty in their own unique ways, they never rivaled the cold, callous, derangement of Josef Mengele.

Little is conclusively known about Josef Mengele's early life, but one might assume that he was an exceedingly bright young man. He received his PhD in anthropology in 1935 at the age of 24. Upon reaching this educational echelon, however, his life began to take a darker turn. Two years after graduating, he joined the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, an organization focused on forwarding Aryan racial purity through scientific means. Later that year, Mengele became an official member of the Nazi Party. In 1938, he joined the SS and served in the army as a medic, where he merited numerous awards for heroism. After being wounded in combat and declared unfit for active duty, Mengele was promoted to captain and eventually reassigned to Auschwitz, where he became chief camp physician in November 1943. Here, with unfettered power, in a place where ethics were absent, Mengele's madness flourished.

357px-WP_Josef_Mengele_1956.jpgOne of Mengele's primary tasks at Auschwitz was to determine who, of the incoming prisoners, would be retained for work or experiments and who would be exterminated immediately in the gas chambers. Desensitized by the horrors of war, he carried out this duty with a stone-faced, cold-hearted demeanor, which earned him his title: "The Angel of Death."

But far more disturbing were Mengele's inhumane and immoral scientific experiments. He would inject internees with all manner of diseases and would vivisect subjects without anesthesia. His overarching, reprehensible goal was to illustrate the "inherent" inferiority of the Jewish race. 

Mengele's position also freed him to carry out a number of perverse pet interests. Meandering around the Auschwitz train depot in his off-duty hours, he would "collect" identical twins from the incoming prisoners and house them in special barracks. Using these twins as subjects, Mengele performed twisted experiments where they would be injected with diseases or even surgically conjoined. He also utilized these twin studies to look for ways to artificially boost the Aryan birthrate. Mengele sported another fixation with heterochromia, a condition in which an individual's two irises differ in coloration. This interest led him to inject various compounds into subjects' eyes in an attempt to induce a color change. Mengele would also collect the eyes of murdered victims.

After the war ended, Mengele fled to South America, where, by one historian's account, he continued his crazed infatuation with twins and eugenics in the town of Candido Godoi in Paraguay. Residents believe that Mengele posed as a doctor in order to conduct experiments on unsuspecting pregnant women.

Mengele, perhaps in denial, would vehemently dismiss the charges leveled against him until his death in 1979. When his son, Rolf, traveled to Brazil to meet Josef, and confronted him about his actions at Auschwitz, Mengele exploded, insanely dismissing the claims as "propaganda."

Mengele's exploits as a Nazi scientist were both demented and pointless. Even a dedicated devil's advocate would be hard-pressed to discern any semblance of value. Still, there is an illuminating lesson to be gleaned from his example.

The scientific method is morally neutral. Technically sound science can be conducted for evil purposes, as well as good. But in a free, democratic society with unhindered access to information, the people can decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. The ethical controversies in which we are embroiled -- over stem cells, abortion, and animal research, for example -- they are occasionally irritating, but at the same time, heartening. These disagreements prove that American science has a conscience.

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