Time flies….BMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7207.458b (Published 14 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:458
- Gwen Adshead, consultant psychiatrist
To what extent are doctors agents of the state and does it matter? At a recent meeting organised by the Human Values and Health Care Forum, Professor Michael Burleigh presented historical data on the role of doctors—mainly psychiatrists and paediatricians—in the execution of the so called euthanasia policy, pursued and legalised in Nazi Germany in 1933. A contemporary account of the complexities of doctors' involvement in state business was provided by a forensic psychiatrist who explored the ways that doctors are involved—with varying degrees of intimacy—in the punishment of those who offend against the state.
Burleigh's paper contained material both fascinating and awful. It is clear from his research that most doctors were not coerced into murdering their patients, but rather volunteered for a course of action with which they were in political sympathy. Such behaviour is a nice example of distinction between the doctor as a medical scientist, and the doctor as a citizen, or, perhaps more clearly, as a political animal. Clearly people can be citizens, or political agitators, and can also be doctors. Their …