Exhibit highlights biomedical travesties of the Holocaust

The Hippocratic Oath, sworn to by all physicians, is an obligation to never deliberately harm their patients but also to act only for their good. But during the National Socialist (Nazi) era in Europe, Adolf Hitler led a broad effort using German physicians and others to racially “cleanse” European society of people seen as biologically inferior, including those with birth defects, mental illness, inherited diseases and those perceived as racial enemies of the German people.

Physicians and other scientists provided much of the scientific rationale for this effort and sterilized more than 400,000 German citizens in the 1930s and 1940s. Physicians also developed the method for the “medical killing,” or euthanasia, of those deemed “genetically inferior” or “undesirable.” The same medical professionals were eventually used in the genocide of 6 million Jews, Slavs and hundreds of thousands of the Romany and Sinti, or Gypsy, people.

A traveling exhibition from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” highlights how physicians, geneticists, anthropologists and others in the healing professions were major participants in the Holocaust. The exhibit opens Monday, Aug. 8, at the Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine and will be on display until Sunday, Oct. 30. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Visitors should be at least high school age and older.

“‘Deadly Medicine’ helps us understand how our contemporary world came to be and the human stakes involved in trying to improve the human race,” says Stephen Lefrak, MD, director of the Humanities Program in Medicine and professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “If history teaches us anything, it is that what has happened, can in fact happen. It certainly behooves an engaged citizen to comprehend that National Socialist Germany was a biological state that sought humankind’s perfection through racial and biological selection. Therefore, for medicine in the age of genomics, in vitro fertilization and the search for wonder cures, the exhibit is a striking billboard warning us to be wary of the promise of biological utopian fantasies.”

In association with the exhibit, Lefrak will give a lecture titled “Medicine Gone Awry” at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31, in Moore Auditorium in the North Building. The lecture is free and open to the public. Other events related to the exhibit will be held at the School of Medicine throughout the fall.

From 1933-1945, the Nazi government promoted an “Aryan master race” and anti-Semitism. Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess defined National Socialism as “applied biology.” The ideology stemmed from the idea known as racial hygiene, or eugenics. These were based on Mendelian genetics and Charles Darwin’s theory of “evolution through natural selection.” The movement blossomed in Germany from the 1920s to 1945. Initially it influenced policies and government-funded research frequently using the eugenics in the United States as a model.

But in 1932 when the National Socialist party was elected and Hitler became chancellor, race health became a major focus of the government. Nazis proposed policies, including tax credits, to promote large “valuable” families and negative measures, including the sterilization of those deemed to be genetically inferior. Physicians, public health officials and researchers in biomedical fields led eugenics, warning that if Germany did not produce more “fit” children, the nation would become extinct.

During World War II, midwives and physicians were enlisted to register all children born with severe birth defects. The program then expanded to include children and adults deemed “incurable.” They were sent to specialized centers, where they were gassed or starved to death. In 1942, the program and its medical personnel were moved to German-occupied Poland, and killing via gas chambers was practiced at specialized killing centers. It was to these death camps that Jews and Gypsies were transported from throughout Europe and killed.

The traveling exhibition is based on an exhibit that opened at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in April 2004. An online version of the exhibition is available at ushmm.org/deadlymedicine.

The exhibition includes photos of physicians examining patients for “fitness,” including measuring their skulls and checking the color of their eyes against a chart. It also includes videos and copies of documents and illustrations.

“It’s important that the exhibit is at the School of Medicine because its compelling images and stories stand as stark reminders to the medical school community of how research can be twisted to justify unthinkable ends and how we cannot let it happen again,” says Paul Schoening, director and associate dean of the medical library.

For more information, visit becker.wustl.edu/deadlymedicine.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.