In this history of science and medical ethics, one of the most controversial periods would probably be the 1930s and 1940s in Nazi Germany. We can jump outright into the conclusion that Nazi Germany was the breeding ground for scientific and medical breakthroughs which, no matter how grandiose, are questionable in term of ethics. We can readily suppose that Nazi Germany was the epitome of “medicine gone bad” during such years, with barbarism and cruelty existing alongside important scientific breakthroughs.
The article of Robert Proctor entitled “Nazi Science and Nazi Medical Ethics: Some Myths and Misconceptions” presents a different perspective of viewing Nazi science and medical ethics. It opens our eyes to the reality that science under fascist Germany is “more than a narrative of suppression and survival” (Proctor, 2000, p. 337) and that we need to look at things in a different, albeit more complex, light in order to grasp that Nazi science “transformed but did not abandon ethics” (Proctor, 2000, p. 3337).
To cite a few evidences, Germany at that time “was home to the world’s foremost tobacco-cancer epidemiology, the world’s strongest cancer prevention policy, or the world’s first recognition that asbestos could cause lung cancer” (Proctor, 2000, p. 339). Furthermore, there were also established ethical standards in science and the medical profession in Germany then (Proctor, 2000). For example, students in medical schools were required to enroll in medical ethics courses despite the fact that there was no organized study of medical ethics under the Nazi regime.
In German journals, the obligations of doctors to the society, the state, and individuals are outlined. Clearly, these indicate that a distinction must be made between the total absence of ethics and the presence of evil ethics (Proctor, 2000). However, Proctor made it clear that the purpose of his work was not to rescue the Nazi regime and its brutal scientific experiments on unwilling victims. The world would never forget the ruthless human experiments of the likes of Karl Brandt and Herman Voss regardless of the scientific and medical breakthroughs that emerged from these experimentations.
Proctor’s point was to emphasize that science and politics were closely related. Scientists and doctors were themselves drawn to fascism, and so they did not challenge common practices. Instead, they evidently served as accomplices in the goal of addressing Germany’s problems through surgical and medical means (Proctor, 2000). Overall, Proctor’s article is an interesting read especially for majority of us who hold stereotypes on Nazi Germany.
Without a doubt, most of us are quick to judge at the state of science and medical ethics at that time since our common knowledge of the brutal Nazi regime is not only with reference to genocide but also the horrid use of humans in experiments. Although Proctor directly said that he is not in any way “cleansing” the image of the Nazi regime nor “balancing the historical record” (Proctor, 2000, p. 340), his work certainly motivates us to ponder deeper into the topic and set aside our conventional conceptions.
This is so we can arrive at a truly rational and informed analysis and understanding of the issue. In summary, fascist Germany’s science and medical profession during the 1930s and 1940s deserve a second look beyond our original perspective that they embodied the height of brutality and unethical standards. Proctor’s clever presentation of the other side of the picture tells us there is certainly more than what meets the eye. As in everyday life, there are some things that need not be taken at face value and that the line demarcating the black from the white is more often than not blurred.
In relation to Proctor’s work, we need to look further into the complexities of science and medical ethics during the Nazi regime. With this, we can conclude that fascism was not necessarily a detriment to the promotion of science at that time, which could even help us obtain a deeper understanding of how fascism succeeded as a political ideology and system of government (Proctor, 2000). Reference Proctor, R. (2000). Nazi Science and Nazi Medical Ethics: Some Myths and Misconceptions. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 43(3): 335–346.