Holocaust Medical Experiments

Learning About the Holocaust: A Student’s Guide. Editor: Ronald M Smelser. Volume 3. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.

Experiments on human beings are an accepted practice in medical research. But they are generally governed by strong restrictions. They must not be intended for “pure” research—research that does not have the immediate purpose of developing a new medicine or treatment. They also must not have the sole purpose of advancing the researcher’s career. Human beings may be involved only in those phases of an experiment for which they are absolutely essential. High-risk medicines and experimental treatments may be tried out only when no cure exists and where an illness is already fatal. Under no circumstances may a person in good health be deliberately infected with a dangerous disease in order to try out a new medicine or treatment. Low-risk experimental medicines and forms of treatment may be tried out on people who are in good health. This may be done on a voluntary basis only, and the volunteer must be fully informed of all possible risks. Accidents do occur in medical experiments on human beings; the subject’s health might be damaged, or even death may result. But under no circumstances may bringing about these results be a deliberate, essential element of the experiment.

In Nazi Germany and German-occupied countries, between 1933 and 1945, medical experiments were carried out in which these fundamental rules and the general standards of medical ethics were ignored. At least seventy pseudo-medical research projects of various kinds were conducted in Nazi concentration camps between September 1939 and April 1945. These projects involved medical experiments performed on human beings against their will. At least 7,000 people are known to have been subjected to these experiments; other cases are believed to have occurred, but neither documentary nor testimonial evidence has been presented to verify how many victims were affected.

Government medical services were involved in these experiments, as were the army medical corps and the medical services of the SS. As soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, he put all the health and medical services in Germany under a single national authority. In 1942, he named Karl Brandt, a member of his staff, chief of all medical services in the country, including those of the military and the SS. Hitler authorized Brandt to plan, direct, and supervise all medical services. Medical institutions conducted experiments and treatments that went against the code of medical ethics and were designed to serve Nazi ideology, which had a strong element of racism. This ideology promoted the exclusive advancement of the “Aryan” race. It rejected equality—and even the right to exist—of races and groups that were viewed as “inferior.” Among these other groups were the Jews, the special target of Nazi hatred.

Racisim and Nazi Medical Practice

The Nazis introduced racist-inspired measures relating to the field of medicine. A law was passed to prevent people with genetic diseases from having children. In 1935, a law was passed to protect the “German people’s” genealogical heritage, as well as the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. To satisfy this racist policy, German doctors and other medical personnel carried out the following measures:

  1. The sterilization, between 1933 and 1937, of 200,000 young men and women who were found to have supposedly genetic diseases;
  2. The killing of 90,000 mentally and chronically ill people in the euthanasiaprogram;
  3. The establishment of departments for genetic research and for genetic, anthropological and genealogical surveys of the entire “non-German” population to which the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor applied. The purpose was to identify people who qualified as being of “pure Aryan” blood.

Some 200 German medical doctors were stationed in the concentration camps where Nazi medical experiments took place. Universities and research institutes in Germany and Austria planned their research projects and advised the camp doctors in their work. Their laboratories received blood samples and human tissue for examination from these experiments.

Every medical experiment had to have the approval of SS head Heinrich Himmler. At first, every application had to be submitted directly to Himmler. Beginning in 1944, Dr. Ernst Robert Grawitz, chief medical officer of the SS, screened the applications first. He solicited “expert” opinions before passing them on to Himmler. One, from a medical viewpoint, was from Dr. Karl Gebhardt, Himmler’s personal physician and chief surgeon of the SS and police. The other opinion, from Richard Glücks and Arthur Nebe, had to do with the victims to be chosen for the proposed experiment.

The medical experiments fell into two broad categories: (1) experiments whose objectives satisfied professional medical ethics and the purposes of medical practice, but whose methods broke with moral law; (2) experiments whose very purposes violated medical ethics and that could not meet the accepted norms of medical research.

Immorality of Methodology

The first category of experiments consisted of two groups: experiments related to survival and rescue, and those involving medical treatment.

Survival and Rescue

Survival and rescue experiments were designed to test the human potential for survival under harsh conditions and adaptation to such conditions, and to determine how to save lives. Experiments involved high altitudes, freezing temperature, and the drinking of seawater. They were conducted by the Luftwaffe (the German air force) in cooperation with the SS, on prisoners in the Dachau camp.

High-altitude experiments were meant to learn the maximum altitude at which air crews of damaged aircraft could be saved. They also examined what equipment air crews needed in order to save themselves at an altitude of 13 miles (21 kilometers). (That was the maximum altitude reached by Allied aircraft at the time.) The victims of these experiments were put into pressure chambers that duplicated the conditions prevailing at 13-mile altitudes—low pressure and a lack of oxygen. The experiments were carried out with the knowledge that, for the most part, human beings cannot function properly at an altitude of 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) and above without a supply of oxygen. Under conditions that simulated parachuting from an altitude of 8 miles (13 kilometers) without an oxygen supply, the victims went through spasms and lost consciousness. Beginning at 9 miles (15 kilometers), they had breathing problems. There were cases in which victims stopped breathing altogether. Still, the experiments, without an oxygen supply, went on to an altitude of 13 miles. Some 200 Dachau prisoners were used for these experiments, and seventy to eighty lost their lives as a result. The experiments were carried out by Dr. Siegfried Ruff and Dr. Hans Romberg, civilian doctors from the German Experimental Institute of Aviation in Berlin, and by Dr. Sigmund Rascher, an air force doctor and SS officer.

The freezing experiments were designed to learn the most effective method of treating people who were in a state of shock after prolonged immersion in freezing seas or exposure to dry cold. The victims of the first of these experiments were put into a tank of ice water and kept there for 70 to 90 minutes, or as long as it took for them to lose consciousness. At this critical stage, they were taken out of the freezing water. Attempts were then made to restore their normal body temperature, by various means. No painkillers were used to relieve the victims’ suffering. About 300 people were used in these experiments. Eighty to ninety of them lost their lives.

Some experiments explored humans’ exposure to dry cold. The victims were put naked into the snow-covered courtyard of the experiment compound. They were kept there for nine to fifteen hours, from 6:00 in the evening to 9:00 the next morning, at a temperature of 8.4°F (-6°C). Their terrible screams of pain were ignored, and they were given no means of relief. But their screaming had the effect of forcing these experiments to be discontinued, because they disturbed the civilian population living near the Dachau camp. The dry-cold experiments were carried out by Professor Ernst Holzlöhner and Dr. E. Finke of Kiel University, who had been drafted to the air force for this purpose, and by Dr. Rascher. Experiments were performed on 60 prisoners, providing new information on the proper treatment of cold victims.

The experiment with salt water was designed to establish a reliable method of making seawater drinkable. The aim was to improve the chances for survival of air crew or naval personnel stranded in the sea. The experiment was conducted on 44 people, 41 of them GYPSIES (Romani). The main purpose was to learn the chances of survival when the only liquid available to drink was seawater, or seawater whose taste had been improved by a chemical agent (named Berkatite), without any change in the salt content. The experiment was conducted in series of 15-day periods. During those times, the victims were forced to drink .53 to 1.06 quart (.5-1.0 liters) of seawater or Berkatite per day. Dr. Wilhelm Beiglböck, an air force adviser, was in charge. The experiment confirmed what was already known—that there was no difference between seawater and Berkatite as far as their dehydrating effect on human beings was concerned.

Medical Treatment

The Nazi experiments for medical treatment consisted of three main categories: (1) experiments relating to the treatment of battle injuries; (2) those relating to the treatment of victims of gas attacks; and (3) those testing immunization compounds or medicines for the prevention or treatment of contagious and epidemic diseases.

One experiment for the treatment of war wounds took place in the Ravensbrück camp. The victims were 75 Polish political prisoners, all women. The experiment’s purpose was to establish the effectiveness of sulfanilamide in preventing infection and putrefaction from taking place in limbs as a result of wounds. The doctor in charge was Dr. Gebhardt, who had been the attending physician of Reinhard Heydrich after he was attacked by an assassin. When Heydrich died of his wounds, it was hinted that he could have been saved if enough sulfanilamide had been available. Himmler asked Gebhardt to prove, by experiment, that sulfanilamide was not effective against putrefaction caused by gangrene (the immediate cause of Heydrich’s death). A special effort was made to induce severe infections in the bodies of the victims. When Dr. Grawitz learned that there had not yet been deaths in the experiment, he demanded that the infections be worsened. As a result, five women died because they were not given proper surgical treatment, since the experiment demanded that only sulfanilamide be used. The remaining women were ill for a long time and were disabled for life. Infection by gangrene bacilli is a frequent occurrence in battle wounds, so the purpose of the experiment was justifiable. But the methods used turned it into a criminal act.

Another series of experiments relating to war wounds involved the treatment of fractures and the transplantation of bones, muscles, and nerves. Dr. Gebhardt conducted these experiments on Polish women prisoners at Ravensbrück. The purpose was to find solutions to problems in the treatment of severe wounds in the upper and lower limbs. At first, the leg bones of physically sound young women were broken, and they were given various treatments. In later experiments, entire bones and other tissues were extracted in order to transplant them into patients at the SS hospital in Hohenlychen. In fact, whole limbs were amputated from the prisoner victims for transplants. These amputations were carried out on mentally ill prisoners, who were then put to death. The experiment cost the lives of 11 out of the 24 victims; the rest were maimed for life.

Yet another war-wounds experiment tested the effectiveness of the biochemical treatment of infected wounds. In this experiment, pus was injected into the soft tissue of the victims in order to generate infected wounds. This took place in the Dachau hospital. The victims were 20 German prisoners and 40 prisoners of other nationalities, and cost the lives of 19 of them. Experiments relating to second- and third-degree burns were conducted at Auschwitz, while Buchenwald was the scene of experiments dealing with phosphor burns caused by incendiary bombs.

Another experiment in the treatment of wounds was designed to test the effectiveness of blood-coagulating agents. This experiment was carried out by Dr. Rascher at Dachau. The specific substance being tested was Polygal 10, which is taken orally to stop bleeding resulting from wounds or after surgery. To conduct the experiment, four victims were shot point-blank in parts of the body that are prone to heavy bleeding, after they were forced to swallow a certain amount of Polygal. The victims died instantly. This bizarre experiment replaced the simple method, used by hospitals, of determining the effectiveness of a coagulating agent by measuring the duration of bleeding and the time it takes for the blood to coagulate.

Experiments on the treatment of chemical-warfare victims were conducted throughout the war. In March 1944, however, Hitler ordered Karl Brandt to intensify medical research on the effects of chemical warfare. As a result, all studies conducted in this field became part of Nazi Germany’s overall research program on gas warfare. In 1939, experiments on the use of mustard gas were carried out in the Sachsen Hausen concentration camp by Dr. Walter Sonntag and Dr. Heinrich Baumkötter. At the same time, Dr. August Hirt was conducting experiments in this field, on a larger scale, at the Ganzweiler camp. Of the 220 persons he used as subjects, 50 died as a result of the experiments. Ganzweiler was also the scene of experiments in the treatment of phosgene poisoning. (Phosgene is a gas that causes suffocation; if absorbed in large doses, it leads to death by asphyxiation.) These experiments, which tested the effectiveness of hexamethylene tetramine, were carried out by Professor Otto Bicken-bach, a member of the Strasbourg University faculty. At the Neuengamme camp, 150 prisoners were made to drink water containing chemical-warfare substances, as part of a research project for the purification of drinking water. There were other experiments in this field, but no details concerning them have come to light.

Another area of experiments had to do with the immunization and treatment of infective and epidemic diseases such as malaria, infective hepatitis, and typhus. The malaria experiment was a civilian venture. It was carried out at Dachau by Dr. Claus Schilling. The experiment used 1,200 prisoners, most of them Catholic priests, and cost the lives of 300 to 400 people. Of them, no more than 30 died of the disease itself. The others died from overdoses of the medicines that were being tried out on them. Infective hepatitis was the subject of experiments at Sachsenhausen, carried out by Dr. Arnold Dohmen, as well as at the Natzweiler and Buchenwald camps. In some of these experiments, it was expected that the human subjects would die. For these, Dr. Grawitz asked Himmler to put at his disposal Jewish prisoners, who were already condemned to death. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans in June 1941, typhus fever became widespread among the German army. From 1941 to the end of the war, a broad program of experiments was conducted at Buchenwald and Ganzweiler to test the effectiveness of various immunization inoculations. Hundreds of prisoners were used in these experiments, and hundreds died as a result.

In the typhus experiments at Buchenwald, one group of “test persons” (TPs, in SS usage) was inoculated with various serums then in general use. A second “control” group was not inoculated. A third group was infected with the disease at the start of the experiment, to serve as a “bank” for live viruses to be used in the infecting of other victims with the disease. As a rule, typhus is transmitted by fleas, which carry the virus. When the experiments were started, the “natural” means of transmission was tried out. Later, the “test persons”—those who had been inoculated, as well as the control group, who had not been inoculated—were infected by having blood from a typhus patient injected into their bodies. Of the 729 people used in the experiment, 154 died as a result. Of the 120 people who had served as a live-virus bank, 90 died.

Another set of typhus-immunization experiments began at Ganzweiler in late 1943, by Professor Eugen Haagen of Strasbourg University. Haagen asked for 300 physically fit prisoners of military age, of whom he selected 90. Using a live-virus serum that he had developed, Haagen infected both the non-immunized control group and the immunized group. His experiments cost the lives of 30 people.

Among other experiments involving contagious and epidemic diseases was one related to yellow fever. This disease was widespread in North Africa, where German forces were fighting. In the experiment, 485 people were inoculated with a yellow-fever serum to test its effectiveness. Other experiments dealt with smallpox, paratyphoid A and B, cholera, diphtheria, and influenza. Tuberculosis experiments were conducted on 114 “test persons” at Dachau and on 100 men and 20 children at Neuengamme. Ganzweiler was the scene of immunization experiments on 1,700 people relating to diseases of an unknown nature.

The above experiments were for the most part carried out on behalf of the army or civilian health authorities, and at their request. Many other experiments, however, simply served the interests or the medical specialization of the doctor who devised and conducted them.

“Racial” Experiments

The second broad category of experiments—those that violated medical ethics—involved (1) experiments designed to provide biological and physiological findings to support the Nazi ideology based on differences between the “Aryan” race and other races; and (2) experiments to further the aims of Nazi Germany’s ideological policy by medical means—that is, to bring about the destruction of the Jews.

Three types of experiments were conducted to provide biological evidence to support Nazi racist ideology: experiments on dwarfs and twins; serological (blood-related) experiments; and a study of the skeletons of Jews.

The experiments on dwarfs and twins were carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. The only firsthand evidence on these experiments comes from a handful of survivors and from a Jewish doctor, Miklós Nyiszli, who worked under Mengele as a pathologist. The victims were twins and dwarfs, ages two and above. Mengele subjected them to clinical examinations, blood tests, X-rays, and anthropological measurements. In the case of the twins, he drew sketches of each twin, for comparison. He also injected his victims with various substances and dripped chemicals into their eyes (apparently in an attempt to change their color). He then killed them himself by injecting chloroform into their hearts, to carry out comparative pathological examinations of their internal organs. Mengele’s purpose, according to Dr. Nyiszli, was to establish the genetic cause of the birth of twins. The goal was to develop a program to double the birth rate of the “Aryan” race. The experiments on twins affected 180 people, adults and children.

Mengele also carried out a large number of experiments in the field of contagious diseases (typhoid and tuberculosis) to find out how human beings of different races withstood these diseases. He used Gypsy twins for this purpose. Mengele’s experiments combined scientific research with the racist and ideological aims of the Nazi regime.

The serological experiments, conducted by Professor Werner Fischer of the Koch Institute for Contagious Diseases and Dr. Karl Georg Horneck, were intended to prove that there were serological differences among the races—that is, differences in blood serum. The experiments were carried out on Gypsies in the Sachsenhausen camp. Similar experiments had been conducted earlier by the same doctors. In 1938, Fischer had made a comparative study of the blood serum of whites and blacks; and in 1941, Horneck had made such a study of black prisoners of war.

The project on skeletons of Jews was carried out by Dr. August Hirt at Strasbourg University. His purpose was to prove the racial inferiority of “Jewish-Bolshevik commissars” by means of an anthropological study of their skeletons. For this experiment, 115 Jews in a good state of health were selected and killed in gas chambers. Their corpses were sent to the anatomical institute at Strasbourg University, where Hirt hoped to show that communism and Judaism affect the structure of the skeleton, and thus to demonstrate the inferiority of the human beings concerned.

Experiments designed to support Nazi ideological policy included those involving methods of mass sterilization and of killing individuals as well as masses of human beings. From the very beginning of Hitler’s rule, sterilization was part of Germany’s health policy. As early as 1933, a program was launched in Germany to sterilize all genetically diseased, retarded, and alcoholic individuals, so as to protect the well-being of the “Aryan” race. Similar programs were put into effect in some of the German-occupied countries.


Experiments in mass sterilization began in 1942. They were not designed as a means of installing the “Aryan” race as the future ruler of the world. Instead, they aimed to provide an alternative to the immediate destruction of the Jews and of other people who, according to Nazi racist ideology, should not be permitted to live. Such a method would also enable the Nazis to interfere as little as possible with the Mischlinge (persons of “mixed blood”) and use them to meet labor requirements. The sterilization experiments were carried out on Hitler’s own initiative, but Hitler was also responding to proposals made by several doctors who had a professional interest in them. They suggested to Hitler that sterilization could serve as a powerful weapon in the total war against Nazi Germany’s enemies.

Dr. Horst Schumann, in Auschwitz, first sterilized men, women, and children by means of radiation. He exposed them to large doses of X rays, which caused severe burns. He then removed the men’s testicles and sent them to a Breslau institute for examination. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people of different nationalities were used in these experiments. Most of them were sent to the gas chambers soon afterward, since their radiation burns made them unfit for work. Sterilization experiments were also conducted on women and children in Ravensbrück. Viktor Brack, the author of this group of experiments, suggested to Himmler that the method be used on 3 million Jews—out of the total of 10 million earmarked for extermination— provided they were fit and could be used as forced laborers.

Other sterilization experiments were carried out at this time by Professor Carl Clauberg at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. Their aim was to study mass sterilization by one-time injection of a chemical substance into the womb. Thousands of women were used in this experiment; most of them Jewish, and the rest were Romani (Gypsy) women. Himmler had asked Clauberg how much time it would take to sterilize 1,000 women by means of an efficient, speedy, inexpensive, and dependable method. Clauberg found that by using the method he had devised and tested, a team consisting of one doctor and ten assistants could sterilize up to 1,000 people a day. Clauberg used a routine gynecological examination to inject a chemical into the womb that had the effect of totally destroying the lining membrane of the womb and severely damaging the ovaries. The second stage of the experiment was to surgically remove the damaged ovaries and send them to Berlin for study. Clauberg’s experiment resulted in the permanent sterilization of the victims and in irreversible damage to their wombs and ovaries.

During the war, sterilization programs were also carried out in the occupied countries. These programs were based on racist grounds. In 1942, a number of doctors and political figures—including Clauberg—suggested to Himmler that non-surgical experiments in mass sterilization be carried out in the concentration camps. Mass sterilization, they argued, would be the answer both to the labor requirements for the war effort (by keeping the concentration camp prisoners alive for this purpose) and to the major objective of Nazi racist policy: the rapid and total destruction of all the Jews of Europe.

Military Tribunals

On October 25, 1946, The Medical Case, tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, opened. Twenty-three defendants, including twenty doctors, were put on trial. Many had held senior posts in the administration or the army. Sixteen were found guilty under Allied Control Council Law No. 10, providing for the punishment of war crimes and crimes against peace and humanity. All the defendants were accused of crimes against humanity, and of several other crimes under that law. They were found guilty of planning and executing experiments on human beings against their will, in a cruel and brutal manner involving severe torture, and of the deliberate murder of some of the victims, in cold blood and with full awareness of the seriousness of their deeds. The Nuremberg Military Tribunals found that the medical experiments were crimes that served the ideological objectives of the Nazi regime. They also found that none of the many experiments carried out by the Nazis was of any scientific value.

Five people who had played a central role in the medical experiments were not tried at Nuremberg. Ernst Grawitz committed suicide in 1945, Carl Clauberg was tried in the Soviet Union, Josef Mengele escaped to South America, and Horst Schumann disappeared and has not been traced. Siegmund Rascher was executed on Himmler’s orders in February 1945 for falsely claiming that his wife gave birth to children after age forty-eight.

During the 1950s and 1960s, other German physicians who had been involved in experiments in concentration camps were brought before German courts, tried, and in a number of cases, convicted. Among them was Dr. Heinz Baumkötter, former SS doctor at Sachsenhausen.