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There is a rather ferocious debate about using Nazi human experimentation and whether citation should be given for obvious ethical reasons. What I noticed however is that most of the research on humans done by the Nazis, particularly those by Josef Mengele, aren't particularly useful beyond their torture value.

My question is:

  • Was there ever any particular desire to use a specific part of Nazi experiments on humans?

  • If so, how was it resolved?


Please note, I am referring exclusively to the race and biological science done by the Nazis, not physics. Please don't reference Operation Paperclip or Alsos Mission.

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    Wikipedia addresses this (to a point), see Nazi human experimentation#Modern ethical issues. – yannis Apr 20 at 11:21
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    @yannis There are times when I'll trust Wikipedia, but frankly, covering Nazi science isn't really one of them. – Shmuel Newmark Apr 20 at 12:13
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    You don't need to trust Wikipedia at all. The section I linked to is full of references. – yannis Apr 20 at 12:53
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    @Alex No, they didn't History of decompression research and development – sempaiscuba Apr 20 at 12:59
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    @Alex Look at the timeline. Haldane's tables for the Admiralty were first published in 1908. Yarborough's US Navy tables were published in 1937. I'm pretty sure that data from Nazi experiments wasn't available to them. – sempaiscuba Apr 20 at 13:18
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Short answer:

Was there ever any particular desire to use a specific part of Nazi experiments on humans?

Yes. A concrete example would be the Dachau Hypothermia Experiments

How was it resolved?

It isn't resolved. It remains a matter of controversy.


Ethical Issues

In the 1984 Hastings Center Report, Should the Nazi research data be cited?, Kristine Moe addressed some of the ethical issues raised by the use of such research. From the abstract:

While the horror of the Nazi medical experiments has been unanimously acknowledged, debate continues over whether results of those experiments which are scientifically sound should be used and cited in publications and, by extension, over whether any ethically-suspect research should be cited or published (...) She proposes that scientists use Nazi data only where the scientific validity is clear and there is no alternative source of information, and only with acknowledgement of the incomprehensible horror that produced them.

At the time that paper was published, almost 50 papers about hypothermia which made reference to the Dachau experiments had been published. However, that represented only a small fraction of the literature on the subject, most researchers preferring not to reference those experiments.


Baruch C. Cohen came to a similar conclusion to that reached by Kristine Moe in his paper The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments, published in Jewish Law. He wrote:

"Absolute censorship of the Nazi data does not seem proper, especially when the secrets of saving lives may lie solely in its contents. Society must decide on its use by correctly understanding the exact benefits to be gained. When the value of the Nazi data is of great value to humanity, then the morally appropriate policy would be to utilize the data, while explicitly condemning the atrocities."


For examples of how the debate has played out in the media, you might find these articles informative:

These stories all relate to the proposed publication of a paper by Dr. Robert Pozos based on the results of the Dachau hypothermia experiments (see below).


The dilemma

The argument is complex, but boils down to a fairly simple question:

Is it ethical to use the results of Nazi human experimentation (which was - by its very nature - unethical) in research that may lead to treatments that save human lives? Does using their data in that research, in some sense, validate the criminal, and morally repugnant, Nazi experiments?


Application of the data in research into treatments for hypothermia

Although the Nazis had attempted to destroy the evidence of their experiments, after the war an American officer, Major Leo Alexander, studied the surviving data, interviewed witnesses from Dachau, and wrote a description of the experiments and their results.

His paper, The Treatment of Shock from Prolonged Exposure to Cold, Especially in Water, was published by the US Department of Commerce in 1946 (report No 250).

Major Alexander's report was subsequently cited in a number of research papers on the subject of the identification and treatment of hypothermia, produced by both the US Navy (see examples in Man in the Cold Environment. A Bibliography with Informative Abstracts, published in 1982) and the Royal Navy (for example, the 1973 paper Hypothermia: Recognition and Treatment of Immersion Hypothermia)


In 1988, Dr. Robert Pozos, then director of the Hypothermia Research Laboratory at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota, submitted a paper to the New England Journal of Medicine that included data from Major Alexander's report into the Dachau hypothermia experiments.

The paper was rejected by Arnold Relman, then editor of the Journal, on ethical grounds.


For more information about the debate, and the impact on research into treatments for hypothermia, see the 1990 paper, Nazi Science — The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments, by Robert L. Berger, MD, in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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    There is a historical precedent by the way. According to later writings, Alexandrian scientists of 3d century BC (in particular Herophilos) performed not only cadavers dissection but also vivisection on humans. Later these things, were prohibited everywhere in the Western world, but the results of Herophilos were widely used by medics or 2 thousand years, because there was no sources were available. – Alex Apr 20 at 13:06
  • @Alex, the difference of coarse is not everyone who stabs things with knives is a scientist or advances science. The Nazi's weren't scientists they were sadists and the folks who dismiss their data on the basis of bad methodologies and lack of scientific value of their experiments are on par with those who dismiss it on ethical grounds. – JMS Apr 20 at 16:10
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Of the 33 series of human experiments almost all have been dismissed by then the contemporary and now modern science on two counts. One, of course, is the lack of medical ethics in obtaining the results, but the other major objection is on the lack of scientific value due to bad methodology (poor premises, poor experimentation, poor documentation, poor observations, poor controls) and sloppy practices of the Nazi Doctors. The Nazi's used good scientists, but the Nazi's did not make good scientists. Their human experiments were more an exercise of sadism with no scientific basis or value. Their "scientists" like Joseph Mengala's genetics experiments on twins demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of genetic theory and was more akin to a laymen's understanding which flirted with the occult. These two arguments have made scientists since the 1940's by in large dismiss the Nazi experiments.

Nazi Human Experimentation
Andrew Conway Ivy (representative of the American Medical Association at the 1946 Nuremberg Medical Trial for Nazi doctors.) stated the Nazi experiments were of no medical value. ....... Some object to the data's purely use on ethical grounds, disagreeing with the methods used to obtain it, while others have rejected the research only on scientific grounds, criticizing methodological inconsistencies. Those in favor of using the data argue that if it has practical value to save lives, it would be equally unethical not to use it.

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As previously mentioned one exception was the experiments on hyperthermia which has been referenced in 45 scientific magazines by 1984; Although a much larger number of scientific journals like the New England Journal of Medicine prohibited their use due to general violation of human standards and the lack of trust in the data.

New England Journal of Medicine Nazi Science — The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments
Arnold Relman, editor-in-chief of the Journal, has noted that the Nazi experiments "are such a gross violation of human standards that they are not to be trusted at all" and said that the Journal would not allow citations of the Nazi work. In contrast, Robert Pozos, a physiologist specializing in hypothermia, has advocated the free use of the results, believing that they can advance contemporary research on hypothermia and save lives. By 1984 more than 45 publications had made reference to Dachau experiments. A much larger body of literature on hypothermia, however, has not referred to these controversial studies.

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Here is an interesting recent article related to the subject on BBC News:

Pernkopf: The Nazi book of anatomy still used by surgeons

from which one can learn that surgeons are still using the Nazi anatomic atlas which was made when dissecting the bodies of executed political prisoners. But apparently there is no better atlas... The main author was imprisoned as a Nazi for some time. Still the atlas has been published, translated to many languages and widely used. And yes, there is a controversy about its use.

Compare with my comment on the answer by @sempaiscuba. On my opinion, the situation is quite similar.

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