Five of the Most Heinous Nazi Medical Experiments
During the Holocaust, the Nazi Party's twisted 'ethics' yielded abominable medical experiments. When German doctors' ethos pivoted from focusing on the health of the individual to the collective health of society, horrible things could be justified at 'undesirable' individuals' expense so long as such actions promoted the wellbeing of everyone else. It was under this depraved mindset, seduced by the allure of limitless funding and resources, that Nazi scientists conducted all sorts of torturous experiments on unwilling human subjects, primarily in concentration camps. Over 15,000 people died as a result, and 400,000 more were left scarred, sterile, or crippled.
The final outcome of this horrendous episode in medical history was the Nuremburg Code, a set of ten rules devised in the wake of the "Doctors Trial" in Nuremburg, Germany, to ensure that human experimentation is conducted ethically. Among the listed principles of the Code are receiving participants' voluntary consent, avoiding all unnecessary suffering, and allowing subjects to end an experiment whenever they want.
Though decades removed from Nazi scientific atrocities, we must not forget them, lest they be repeated in some semblance. Here are five of the most heinous Nazi medical experiments:
1. Wounding Subjects to Test Drugs. Nazi doctors would regularly inflict battlefield-like wounds on participants without providing anesthesia to test the effectiveness of various compounds meant to quell infection and promote healing. Oftentimes, they would also apply bacteria to the wounds or rub in ground glass or wood shavings. As one survivor recalled:
"They made a cut, about 10 centimeters long and 2 centimeters wide, in my arm above the palm of my hand. Today I understand that the surgery that was done on me without anesthesia was done purposely with tools that weren’t sterilized to cause infection. At the time they kept exchanging the bandages with different medicated creams and liquids. The bandage was not wrapped around the arm but only covered the wound. Every day they examined the cut and each time the cut was about to heal, they reopened it and started the whole thing from the beginning."
2. Amputation and Transplant Experiments. In particularly naive and callous experiments, scientists at the Ravensbruck concentration camp cut off the limbs of prisoners – again, without anesthesia – to see if those limbs could be readily transplanted onto others, presumably hoping to provide wounded Nazi soldiers with replacement appendages. The experiments were unsuccessful.
3. High-Altitude Studies. Nazi SS Doctor Sigmund Rascher devised one of the most murderous experiments. He and members of the Luftwaffe Medical Service placed more than 200 inmates of the Dachau concentration camp into a low-pressure chamber one by one to simulate the effects of high-altitude on humans, seeking to use the results to save German pilots forced to eject high in the air. Eighty subjects died from a lack of oxygen and altitude sickness, and the rest were murdered so autopsies could be performed. It's rumored that Rascher occasionally dissected inmates' brains while subjects were still alive in order to directly observe high-altitude's immediate effects on the organ.
4. Surviving on Seawater. Also at Dachau, physician Hans Eppinger performed experiments to see if humans could survive drinking only seawater for six to twelve days. Ninety people were deprived of food and forced to endure the process. Most were seriously injured from dehydration and starvation at the study's conclusion. Why can't humans survive drinking seawater? According to NOAA, "Human kidneys can only make urine that is less salty than salt water. Therefore, to get rid of all the excess salt taken in by drinking seawater, you have to urinate more water than you drank. Eventually, you die of dehydration even as you become thirstier."
5. Freezing Experiments. Perhaps the most infamous experiment explored hypothermia. Rascher and others wanted to find the best method to treat Nazi military personnel left in freezing cold water or subjected to extreme winter cold. Thus, roughly 300 prisoners at Dachau were submerged in ice baths for hours or left naked in subzero cold. Once their bodies reached the astoundingly low temperature of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, Nazi doctors attempted various ways of resuscitating them, from warm sleeping bags, to scalding baths, to sunlamps, to even sex (yes, sex). About a third of the subjects died. Nazi physicians determined that warming people in hot water saved the most lives.