The BMJ's Nuremberg issue

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7087.1128 (Published 12 April 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1128

Force of moral duty was greater for conscientious objectors

  1. G J Addis, Consultant physiciana
  1. a 49 Whittingehame Court, Glasgow G12 0BQ
  2. b Royal College of Physicians, London NW1 4LE

    Editor—John Pemberton's letter giving the details of the experiments in Sheffield on conscientious objectors during the second world war has the subtitle “Nobody died during experiments on vitamin C and vitamin A intakes in Sheffield.”1 This implies that the risks were less and that in that way the courage of the subjects was diminished. The letter is factual and cannot deal with the ideas of those concerned.

    I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren and agonised with my friends and contemporaries over the morality of killing for the sake of our country and to resist evil–though we did not know then just how evil that evil was. Our discussion went on continuously, at length, in depth, and without mercy, in the way that young men discuss personal matters. Several of these young men stood out for the truth that they believed in and refused to have anything to do with fighting or to support it directly. I am certain that none of them were otherwise less willing to do their perceived duty than the rest of us and to accept the risks involved.

    Thus I am sure that these Sheffield subjects would have signed informed consent forms as we know them today, and would have accepted any risk then. The fact that nobody died does not alter the risk. That the researchers did not do any direct harm or push the experiment to the point of death is, somehow, the real difference between them and their Nazi contemporaries.

    It is hard for people today to understand how we thought then, and I hope this view helps to explain us. The idea that we might die a violent and early death because of the war was common to us all. For those who might now be called slaves of conscience the force of our moral duty to accept related risks was not less: it was perhaps even greater.


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    Physicians' “form of faith” is being reviewed

    1. D London, Registrarb
    1. a 49 Whittingehame Court, Glasgow G12 0BQ
    2. b Royal College of Physicians, London NW1 4LE

      Editor—The Royal College of Physicians is grateful to Geoffrey Nicholson for drawing its attention to the “form of faith” signed by fellows.1 The college has recently adopted a “statement of purpose,” which reads: “The purpose of the Royal College of Physicians of London is to promote health and counter disease by providing education and support for physicians to practise at the highest standard and through advice to government, governmental bodies and the public.” Thus its position, both in public and in private, is that it stands for the welfare of the public it serves, ill or not. Stimulated by Nicholson, we are reviewing our forms of faith to make sure that they reflect this.


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