Exhibit explores scientists' role in Holocaust

Oct 19 2010 - 10:20am

LOS ANGELES -- The image of the Nazi doctor is a vivid one -- and "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race" doesn't give it short shrift.

At this traveling exhibit, now on view at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, visitors can see photos of creepy gadgets like the calipers used by Nazi physicians to quantify racial characteristics. They can watch video of doctors testing how long it takes mental patients to die after inhaling tailpipe exhaust. They can learn about Dr. Julius Hallervorden, a neuropathologist who dissected hundreds of brains harvested from "euthanized" children.

But "Deadly Medicine" also aims to show that doctors' and scientists' role in the Holocaust wasn't limited to measuring noses or conducting gruesome experiments in concentration camps.

The exhibit argues that by advancing the theory of eugenics -- and then providing cover for the Nazi regime when it used that theory to buttress its racist and genocidal policies -- German scientists helped lay the foundation upon which the Holocaust was built.

"This is important in understanding the context of the Holocaust," said exhibit curator Susan Bachrach of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "Presenting these ideas under the rubric of science made them more palatable."

"Deadly Medicine" traces the roots of Nazi science back to the early 20th century and the rise of eugenics, an outgrowth of Darwinian thought that argued it was best for society if healthy people -- and, some believed, only healthy people -- were encouraged to reproduce. Allowing the "unfit" to thrive and multiply, the thinking went, interfered with natural selection and "degenerated" the population.

Some of the eugenics research funded by Germany after World War I actually led to improvements in public health, including an emphasis on prenatal care. (One poster urges pregnant women not to drink or smoke.)

"There's been a tendency to dismiss everything done under the Nazis as pseudoscience, to distance ourselves," Bachrach said. "That's dishonest. A lot of the scientists we feature in this exhibit were legitimate."

But most of the exhibit's artifacts illustrate the dark side of Nazi eugenics, in which scientists called for mass sterilization -- and eventually "euthanasia" -- for people with a variety of sometimes haphazardly defined physical and mental illnesses.

It wasn't a terribly long leap, the exhibit suggests, from the (comparatively limited, though still horrifying) task of sterilizing or killing the ill to coordinating the mass murder of ethnic groups that the Nazis -- and their scientists -- deemed defective, including Jews. "The euthanasia program provided a model for the much larger project that was to come," Bachrach said.

"Deadly Medicine" offers some surprises. Germany wasn't the only country to dabble in eugenics -- one photograph shows a crowd at a Pasadena, Calif., exhibit that extolled the "social benefits of sterilization."

Another display reports that "doctors joined the Nazi party earlier and in higher numbers than any other professional group," some driven by the hope that forcing Jewish physicians out of German hospitals would create job opportunities.

The exhibit raises thought-provoking questions about how good science -- and good scientists -- turn bad, said Kristine Brancolini, dean of university libraries at Loyola Marymount.

"At what point does something become unethical?" she said.

For Bachrach, another question is how far scientists might be willing to go to study their ideas -- and how to stop them when they go too far.

"As a society, we've gone a long way toward establishing safeguards that didn't exist," she said. "But this exhibit continues to underscore the importance of informed leadership."

The exhibit will be on display at the university until Nov. 24.

Visit the Los Angeles Times on the Internet at http://www.latimes.com/.

 

From Around the Web

  +