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Human guinea pigs and the ethics of experimentation: the BMJ's correspondent at the Nuremberg medical trial

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 07 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1467
  1. Paul Weindling, reader in the history of medicinea
  1. a Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6PE
  • Accepted 19 November 1996

Though the Nuremberg medical trial was a United States military tribunal, British forensic pathologists supplied extensive evidence for the trial. The BMJ had a correspondent at the trial, and he endorsed a utilitarian legitimation of clinical experiments, justifying the medical research carried out under Nazism as of long term scientific benefit despite the human costs. The British supported an international medical commission to evaluate the ethics and scientific quality of German research. Medical opinions differed over whether German medical atrocities should be given publicity or treated in confidence. The BMJ's correspondent warned against medical researchers being taken over by a totalitarian state, and these arguments were used to oppose the NHS and any state control over medical research.

Shortly after the close of the second world war Kenneth Mellanby, reader in medical entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, determined to “rescue the records” of German medical research during the Nazi era for evaluation by British scientists. In the period leading up to the Nuremberg medical trial in December 1946, however, visits to Germany were strictly controlled and the only way to gain entry was as a bona fide medical reporter. To this end Mellanby approached Hugh Clegg, editor of the BMJ, with the offer of articles on German human experiments and Clegg appointed him as the BMJ's first ever foreign correspondent. When the prosecution opened proceedings in Nuremberg on 9 December Mellanby joined the ranks of medical reporters from Germany, France, Belgium, and other nations.1 Despite Mellanby's later claims to have brought German experimental records back to Britain none of these has ever been identified.

Confidential evaluation of human experiments

The first trial of major German war criminals at Nuremberg was an international military tribunal of the four allies, Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. By contrast, the medical …

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