Intended for healthcare professionals


Nuremberg lamentation: for the forgotten victims of medical science

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 07 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1463
  1. William E Seidelman, professora
  1. a Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of Toronto and The Wellesley Central Hospital, Toronto, Canada
  1. Correspondence to: The Wellesley Health Centre, Toronto, Ontario M4X-1K2, Canada.
  • Accepted 7 November 1996

Fifty years after the Nuremberg medical trial there remain many unanswered questions about the role of the German medical profession during the Third Reich. Other than the question of human experimentation, important ethical challenges arising from medicine in Nazi Germany which have continuing relevance were not addressed at Nuremberg. The underlying moral question is that of the exercise of professional power and its impact on vulnerable people seeking medical care. Sensitisation to the obligations of professional power may be achieved by an annual commemoration and lament to the memory of the victims of medical abuse which would serve as a recurring reminder of the physician's vulnerability and fallibility.

The Nuremberg medical trial saw the prosecution of a few people who exploited the opportunities when medical science defined some human beings as “subhuman” and therefore qualified as subjects for inhuman medical experiments. Absent from the dock were the leaders of the medical profession of the Third Reich, in particular the academic and scientific elite. It was this elite who legitimised the devaluation of human life and set the stage for medical crimes—crimes in which leading academics and scientists were either principals or accomplices. Of the 23 defendants at the Nuremberg medical trial, only Gerhard Rose (sentenced to life imprisonment) and Paul Rostock (acquitted) were internationally recognised scientists and academics (fig 1).1 2 3

Fig 1

German doctors and scientists in the dock at Nuremberg, 12 December 1946. Paul Rostock is in the front row, third from left; Gerhard Rose is in the back row, first on left

Doctors as “selectors”

The operant paradigm of medical practice during the Hitler period was that of the physician as a “selector” acting on behalf of the state in order to improve the health of the nation (Volksgesundheit). Having defined people as an underclass or a risk to …

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