Book Book

The Nazi War on Cancer

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 11 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:721
  1. Roger Cooter, director.
  1. Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of East Anglia, Norwich

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    Robert N Proctor

    Princeton University Press, £18.95, pp 390 ISBN 0 691 00196 0

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    Is “mad and bad” what springs to mind when you think of Nazi medical science?Is the late 20th century United States where you locate the groundswell of support for natural foods, vocal concerns over ill health and the environment, and campaigns against passive smoking? And is it the famous 1950 study of Doll and Hill that you associate with establishing the link between smoking and cancer? If so, this book is essential reading, but prepare to be shocked.

    The medical fraternity of the notorious Third Reich emerge here in unconventional guise, not only as the champions of wholegrain bread, soya beans (popularly denominated “Nazi beans“), and extensive medico-botanical gardens at Dachau and Auschwitz, but also as the guys who launched a powerful antismoking campaign, waged war on cancer (in pursuit of its “final solution”), identified many workplace causes of cancer, and imposed bans on asbestos and carcinogenic pesticides. Nazi researchers were the first to prove conclusively that smoking was the major cause of lung cancer. Indeed, as early as 1936—the year that the young Richard Doll was attending the lectures in Frankfurt of the SS radiologist Professor Hans Holfelder—they had gathered sufficient statistical evidence to prove the cancerous hazards of what they labelled “passive smoking” (passivraucher). Furthermore, suggests Proctor, it is probably as a result of the preventive measures that the Nazi regime undertook with regard to smoking—health education and the banning of “lung masturbation” in trams, trains, and public buildings—that significantly lower rates of smoking related mortality from cancer occurred among German women after the war compared with US women.

    The author's aim is not to turn some of humanity's greatest sinners into saints. Nor is it to entertain banalities about good coming out of evil. Even less is Proctor interested in resurrecting Hitler's denunciation of tobacco as “one of man's most dangerous poisons” in order to castigate as crypto-fascist those seeking to ghettoise or prohibit smoking today. (Hitler took puritanical, not to say ideological, satisfaction from the fact that neither he nor Mussolini, or Franco, were victims of the weed, whereas Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt were.) Proctor's purpose, rather, is to reveal that the boundaries between good and bad science and moral and immoral politics are far more permeable and historically complex and contingent than is usually admitted. One cannot, he shows, simply translate between Nazi science and Nazi ideology and policy. The point is powerfully made in the perception of life preserving cancer research in the same context as hideous experiments on humans—not to mention Nazi praise for wheatgerm in the same breath as genocide.

    And it's a point worth making, for the fiction that bad science only comes from bad politics—a fiction routinely sustained by holding up the caricature of the mad Nazi doctors—has long served to cloak a good deal of bad science and medicine undertaken in otherwise benign regimes. The Nazi War on Cancer is thus a powerfully ironic history of political correction. It is also a thoroughly engaging, highly professional, myth destroying work of scholarship.

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