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Me and Mengele

Dianne N. Irving
October 18, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

As a biochemistry major at the end of my Junior year, I had already had some of my research published earlier, so my department head suggested that I could do something "different" for my senior thesis if I wanted - like medical ethics (bioethics didn't exist yet!). I thought about it, and remembered being touched by a small book we had read in a Junior year Chemistry Conference Course - courses each student was required to take in their major for their last two years in order to integrate their own special fields or "concentrations" with the other areas of knowledge. Junior year's course usually took the students through their academic field's long historical development, and in chemistry we had read a small book by J. Bronowski, a philosopher/scientist/journalist who wrote during and after World War II, especially about the Nazi medical experiments used to achieve eugenics which soon became the focus of the Nuremberg Trials.

Bronowski recalls the time when the bombs had just been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He found himself on a small ferry filled with military personnel who were assigned to observe, study and report the immediate consequences of these bombings as the ferry drifted closely along the Japanese shoreline. He tries to describe the devastation but has profound difficulty finding words that could describe the horrific scene drifting surreally before them. He recalls the strange, piercing, and awkward silence on the ferry stuffed with so many "observers" - all but one sound. From the metal megaphones fixed in the ceilings of the ferry drifted the haunting music of one of the popular tunes of the day, and he was struck by how it captured so perfectly what he was finding so difficult to articulate. The name of the song was, "Is you is, or is you ain't my baby?", and as a philosopher of science it had haunted him ever since. The devastation that lay before them had a signature.

And his words had made me stop and ponder about any moral obligations and moral accountability I might have as a brand new research scientist myself. What exactly had taken place in those Nazi medical experiments with human subjects? How could such brilliant scientists and physicians have conceived and carried out such abominable crimes against humanity in the name of "science" and "the greater good"? "Well, they were going to die anyway; might as well get some good out of them"! And given that the first moral obligation of a researcher is that the science being performed on human subjects is as accurate as possible, and performed only by those academically credentialed and qualified [Nuremberg Code], just how did the Nazi human medical experiments measure up to even that initial but critical international moral standard? I would do my senior thesis on the Nazi medical war crimes - even though the war seemed so long ago (!) (This was 1963).

It was difficult for me to narrow my topic for my thesis, and my department head kept forcing me to get more and more selective. For a year and a half I haunted the halls of the Library of Congress, my desk constantly piled high with books, manuscripts, films, etc. Indeed, they were still finding such documents and items almost on a weekly basis, and often the clerk would simply bring me a wicker basket stuffed with the latest items. For months at a time I even watched the hundreds of raw film footage of the Nazi concentration camps that was pouring into the Archives - although I always had to stop at times, because I simply couldn't take it any more. At such times I would just shut down my desk, grab my coat, and get out of there - arriving back at school with one huge Excedrin headache.

One of those items they brought me in a wicker basket one day was the actual lab book that belonged to Dr. Mengele, along with piles of random photographs taken in his lab of his "patients" during his experiments. [[For some odd reason it is claimed today that no such lab book exists; but it did, as I held it in my hands several times]]. One set of twin experiments attracted my attention - those performed on about three-year old blonde hair, blue eyed Eastern European Gypsy twins. One twin would be held as the "control" of the experiment; the other twin was subjected to serial experiments, designed to mimic wounds of Nazi soldiers in the battle fields.

The twins were kept in cages right in Mengele's laboratory, just off his office. The cages measured 1  by 1  by 1  meters. During the mornings Mengele would come into the lab to visit with his "girls"; such times he was always dressed impeccably in his suit. He would take the girls out of their cages and bounce them on his knees, asking them to call him "Papa". But in the afternoons he would come back to the lab wearing his starched white lab coat, and the girls knew then that it was time for more experimenting. He would take one of the twins into a small narrow closet-like space, where he would take a knife and remove more and more of her femur bone in one leg - and then observe. No anesthetic, no pain killers, no antibiotics, no ice, no bandages, no nothing - thus resembling the conditions of the battle field. After he finished cutting the twin's leg bone, he would simply carry her over to a "stretcher" and let her remain there until she was ready to be placed back into her cage with her sister. The photos of the tiny suffering little girl in that dense and dark "recovery" room, so butchered, and bloody and pathetic, would be etched into my memory for a long long time - a memory that I would carry with me into the rest of my work to come.

After finally graduating, I worked at the bench at NIH (NCI), doing research in radiation biology and in viral oncology, and eventually given a career appointment as a research biochemist/biologist. But I left NIH after 7 years to study the brand new field of "bioethics" -- mostly because of the many ethical issues I "experienced" at NIH as a bench researcher, especially seeing the patients there to whom our research was being applied - sometimes ethically, sometimes not so ethically. So I became a member of the First Generationers - the first graduate class to go through the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. This was 1979, one year after the publication of The Belmont Report of the National Commission - fulfilling their Congressional mandate to "identify the ethical principles that the United States government should use in dealing with issues concerning the use of human subjects in experimental and therapeutic research" (National Research Act 1974)! This was the formal "birth of bioethics", and the "new ethics" would be grounded in the new Belmont bioethics principles of autonomy, justice and beneficence (all quite oddly defined). We First Generationers had no clue.

I won't go into how utterly un-Catholic, much less unscholarly, we all found this new "bioethics" to be; long, brutal, ugly battles, dirty tricks, and deceptions. All of us graduate students knew that there was something VERY wrong with that "bioethics" picture. But I finally got to the point where I was required to submit my proposal for my doctoral dissertation to the Graduate Dean. At first I was going to do it on the use of human subjects in research; too broad. Since the real uncharted territory was the use of "Group Two's" in research - i.e., human subjects who were particularly vulnerable and thus needed stricter legal and ethical governmental protections - I finally narrowed it down to the MOST vulnerable research subjects, i.e., the use of living human fetuses in experimental research (an on-going scandal in the research community at the time). I ordered and studied all of the current international guidelines on fetal research; too broad. How could I get this topic narrow enough for the Graduate Dean?

Perhaps I should do it on human embryo research -- a then-uncontroversial issue that was just beginning to get noticed in Australia. I started compiling the bioethics literature on human embryo research that had already started moving into our U.S. bioethics literature. Still worried that this too was too broad a topic, I immersed myself into these articles to identify an even narrower issue. It was about three o'clock in the morning; I was blurry-eyed, when I finally came to the journal writer's conclusion after a very long, contorted and flimsy argument as to why "surplus" IVF human embryos could be "ethically" used in destructive experimental research - for "the advancement of science" and for "the greater good". His final statement nearly made me leap out of the couch - "Well, they are going to die anyway, so we might as well get some good out of them"! Good God! Where had I heard THAT before!? Years earlier. No, I just couldn't bear to go there again, too complicated; somebody else would have to do it. NOT ME! I slammed the journal closed and shot up to bed to get a few hours of sleep before I had to catch a plane the next day for Minnesota.

I had earlier received a call from bioethics guru Art Caplan. He was organizing the first-ever conference on Bioethics and the Holocaust, in Minnesota. He had remembered that I had told him one time about my earlier thesis on the Nazi medical war crimes and especially that I had bought films about the Holocaust from the National Archives - could he borrow them for the conference, etc.? If I could help him with this, he would be sure to get me into the by-invitation-only (and heavily guarded) conference. [[You can hear the various presentations at this conference, available from http://www.chgs.umn.edu/educational/confAudio.html]].

So there I was in Minnesota, sitting in the audience after already three of five days of this amazingly tense conference. Oddly enough, the Holocaust -- like abortion -- was one issue that we bioethics students were not allowed to talk about in class, nor was it ever addressed in the rapidly bulging bioethics literature, so I was eager to attend this conference dedicated to such a "verboten" issue in bioethics. The fellow on my left turned out to be a German Lutheran pastor. While a young boy he remembered how his house's back yard backed up to the woods near Bergen Belsen, and he recounted to me so sadly how often they would see sick, tortured, bone-bare starved, often naked escaped prisoners wandering fearfully, desperately and aimlessly through those tangled woods. Sometimes the local people would sneak them food and water, but they too were terrified to be caught giving aid. Those memories of his boyhood were also etched into his memory as well - so much so that it was the major reason why he became a pastor, and why he had traveled all the way from Germany to attend this unique conference in Minnesota.

The very tense program had consisted of researchers, bioethicists, and Holocaust victims taking turns presenting their arguments as to why the data which resulted from those horrific experiments should or should not be used now to help others. Of course, the Holocaust victims who presented their arguments were in total agreement that such blood-tainted data should not be used. They were getting older and grayer now, sometimes barely able to hobble to and from the microphone, but powerfully persuasive speakers. One researcher, who for two days argued vehemently that the data should be used, walked up to the microphone again this day and began his same drill yet again. So we were totally astonished when, right in the middle of his paper, he stopped, became very silent, put his head down, shook with grief, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeve, and laid bare the various tattoos from Dauchau on his arms! No, he recanted, he was so sorry, he just couldn't do it, he must change his argument and agree with the other Holocaust victims that such data should not be used!

As he pathetically apologized and slumped off of the stage, the next Holocaust victim slowly limped with great effort to the microphone to present her own arguments. I noticed at once that she was so young - how could she have been a Holocaust victim and yet be so young? She didn't even look Jewish. The blonde, blue-eyed victim began her speech. At the very young age of about 3, she and her sister had been used by Mengele in his infamous twin experiments. Her sister was the "control"; she was the "patient". Mengele kept them in cages right in his laboratory, just off his offices. The cages measured 1 by 1 by 1 meters. During the mornings Mengele would come into the lab to visit with his "girls"; such times he was always dressed impeccably in his suit. He would take the girls out of their cages and bounce them on his knees, asking them to call him "Papa". But in the afternoons he was come back to the lab wearing his lab coat, and the girls knew then that it was time for more experimenting!

I really thought I was hallucinating! I literally felt my body sinking right straight through the seat of my chair, even down through the hard wooden floor itself, and below. I grabbed the leg of the poor German pastor on my left to keep me from free-falling through to the basement - it was HER! This was the pathetic little girl I had done my biochemistry thesis on, whose photo of her tortured pain-wracked tiny body had been etched on my brain since those days long ago in the Library of Congress! It just couldn't possibly BE! But it was. I listened to her entire presentation, almost mouthing the words before she could even say them. The kind pastor understood; I had told him my story the afternoon he had told me his. "Go meet her", he insisted, "You must"! So trembling, and somehow deeply embarrassed and oddly mortified, I waited for her on the steps of the building as she came out. As soon as I (rather awkwardly) explained things to her she completely lost her composure, and the two of us just sank down onto the steps together and talked and cried for quite a while. My little Gypsy girl now has a name - Susan Seiler Vigorito. The final title of my doctoral dissertation at Georgetown was, A Philosophical and Scientific Analysis of the Nature of the Early Human Embryo (finally defended university-wide in 1991).

I realize now that the war has never really ended; nor has the quest for "eugenics". What could not be accomplished on the battle field is now being accomplished behind locked doors in laboratories around the world. And I ask myself on a daily basis now Bronowski's piercing question, "Is you is, or is you ain't my baby?"

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