Dr. Sigmund Rascher’s Medical Experiments

Published: 2021-11-24

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Human medical experiments performed by German doctors during World War II are considered by many people to be the worst atrocities in all of history. For example, George Annas and Michael Grodin write: “No atrocities, however, can be compared to the human experimentation carried out by Nazi medical doctors during the Second World War.”[1]

Dr. Leo Alexander wrote to his wife after the war about German medicine: “It sometimes seems as if the Nazis had taken special pains in making practically every nightmare come true.”[2] The New York Times called the German doctors’ crimes during World War II “beyond the pale of even the most perverted medicine.”[3]

Many medical doctors also state that the human medical experiments performed by German doctors during the war served no useful purpose. American Dr. Andrew Ivy, for example, stated that the Nazi experiments on humans were of no medical value.[4]

This article documents the cruel and lethal medical experiments performed by one of Germany’s most infamous doctors: Dr. Sigmund Rascher. It also shows that, contrary to Dr. Ivy’s statement, Dr. Rascher’s human medical experiments did produce useful medical information, and were no more criminal than many human medical experiments performed by American doctors during and after World War II.

Historical Background

The onset and escalation of World War II provided the rationalization for most of Germany’s illegal human medical experimentation. Animal experimentation was known to be a poor substitute for experiments on humans. Since only analogous inferences could be drawn from animal experiments, the use of human experimentation during the war was deemed necessary to help in the German war effort. Applications for medical experimentation on humans were usually approved on the ground that animal tests had taken the researcher only so far. Better results could be obtained by using humans in the medical experiments.[5]

The Dachau concentration camp was used as a center for medical experimentation on humans involving high altitudes, freezing and other experiments. This has been documented at the so-called Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg, which opened on December 9, 1946, and ended on July 19, 1947.[6] Also, Dr. Charles P. Larson, a leading American forensic pathologist, was at Dachau and conducted autopsies, interviews and a review of the remaining medical records to determine the extent of the medical experimentation at the camp.[7]

Dr. Sigmund Rascher was a 30-year-old assistant physician at Munich’s famous Schwabinger Krankenhaus hospital when he first met Heinrich Himmler in April 1939. Himmler took an interest in Rascher’s cancer research, and allowed Rascher to use Dachau concentration camp facilities in an effort to switch from animal to human experiments. Rascher’s oncological work was intermittently hampered by his conscription to the Luftwaffe just before the war. However, Rascher soon obtained authorization to perform deadly human medical experiments at Dachau.[8] At the time, Rascher was a captain in the Medical Service of the Luftwaffe, and also held officer rank in the SS.[9]

Dr. Sigmund Rascher’s Experiments

Dr. Sigmund Rascher conducted high-altitude experiments at Dachau beginning February 22, 1942, and ending around the beginning of July 1942.[10] The experiments were performed in order to know what happened to air crews after the destruction of their pressurized cabins at very high altitudes, when airmen would be subjected to a quick drop in pressure and lack of oxygen. Rascher’s experiments were performed to investigate various possible life-saving methods. To this end, a low-pressure chamber was set up at Dachau to observe the reactions of human beings thrown out at extreme altitudes, and to investigate ways of rescuing them.[11] The victims were locked in the chamber, and the pressure in the chamber was then lowered to a level corresponding to very high altitudes. The pressure could be very quickly altered, allowing Rascher to simulate the conditions which would be experienced by a pilot freefalling from altitude without oxygen.

Dr. Rascher received authority to conduct these high-altitude experiments when he wrote to Heinrich Himmler and was told that prisoners would be placed at his disposal. Rascher stated in his letter that he knew the experiments could have fatal results. According to Walter Neff, the prisoner who gave testimony at the Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg, approximately 180 to 200 prisoners were used in these high-altitude experiments. Approximately 10 of these prisoners were volunteers, and about 40 of the prisoners were men not condemned to death. According to Neff’s testimony, approximately 70 or 80 prisoners died during these experiments.[12] A film showing the complete sequence of an experiment, including the autopsy, was discovered in Dr. Rascher’s house at Dachau after the war.[13]

Rascher also conducted so-called freezing experiments at Dachau after the high-altitude experiments were concluded. These freezing experiments were conducted from August 1942 to approximately May 1943.[14] The purpose of these experiments was to determine the best way of warming German pilots who had been forced down in ice-cold seas and suffered hypothermia. The bodies of many Luftwaffe pilots had been rescued from the icy waters just minutes after they had frozen to death. The Luftwaffe wanted to know if, through medical research, doctors could learn how to bring these pilots back to life.[15]

Rascher's subjects were forced to remain outdoors naked in freezing weather for up to 14 hours, or the victims were kept in a tank of ice water for three hours, their pulse and internal temperature measured through a series of electrodes. Warming of the victims was then attempted by different methods, most usually and successfully by immersion in hot water. It is estimated that these experiments caused the deaths of up to 80 or 90 prisoners.[16] Rascher prominently reported his medical breakthroughs at a medical symposium with a paper titled “Medical Problems Arising from Sea and Winter.”[17]

Rascher also experimented with the effects of Polygal, a substance made from beet and apple pectin, which aided blood clotting. He predicted that the preventative use of Polygal tablets would reduce bleeding from surgery and from gunshot wounds sustained during combat. Subjects were given a Polygal tablet and were either shot through the neck or chest, or their limbs were amputated without anesthesia. Rascher published an article on his experience of using Polygal without detailing the nature of the human trials. Rascher also set up a company staffed by prisoners to manufacture the substance.[18] Rascher’s nephew, a Hamburg doctor, testified under oath that he knew of four prisoners who died from Rascher’s testing Polygal at Dachau.[19]

Condemnation of Dr. Rascher

Dr. Rascher has been condemned by numerous people. Historian Paul Berben wrote:[20]

“Rascher himself had in any case no moral scruples at all. He pretended to be kindly towards the prisoners and unscrupulously exploited the free labor at his disposal by having all sorts of things made for his own and his family’s use. He was determined to make the most of the fact that he was in high favor with Himmler, and he did not shrink from any crime. He had many differences with his colleagues and his chiefs, and several doctors refused to collaborate in experiments undertaken on his initiative when they realized his complete lack of professional conscience or scruples.”

Dr. Charles Larson strongly condemned Rascher’s freezing experiments. Dr. Larson wrote:[21]

“A Dr. Raschau [sic] was in charge of this work and…we found the records of his experiments. They were most inept compared to Dr. Schilling’s, much less scientific. What they would do would be to tie up a prisoner and immerse him in cold water until his body temperature reduced to 28 degrees centigrade (82.4 degrees Fahrenheit), when the poor soul would, of course, die. These experiments were started in August, 1942, but Raschau’s [sic] technique improved. By February 1943, he was able to report that 30 persons were chilled to 27 and 29 degrees centigrade, their hands and feet frozen white, and their bodies ‘rewarmed’ by a hot bath….

They also dressed the subjects in different types of insulated clothing before putting them in freezing water, to see how long it took them to die.”

Dr. Rascher and his hypothermia experiments at Dachau were also not well regarded by many German medical doctors. In an essay titled “Nazi Science—The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments,” Dr. Robert L. Berger, a “Holocaust” survivor, wrote:[22]

“Rascher was not well regarded in professional circles…and his superiors repeatedly expressed reservations about his performance. In one encounter, Professor Karl Gebhardt, a general in the SS and Himmler’s personal physician, told Rascher in connection with his experiments on hypothermia through exposure to cold air that ‘the report was unscientific; if a student of the second term dared submit a treatise of the kind, [Gebhardt] would throw him out.’ Despite Himmler’s strong support, Rascher was rejected for faculty positions at several universities. A book by German scientists on the accomplishments of German aviation medicine during the war devoted an entire chapter to hypothermia but failed to mention Rascher’s name or his work.”

Dr. Berger concluded:[23]

“On analysis, the Dachau hypothermia study has all the ingredients of a scientific fraud, and rejection of the data on purely scientific grounds is inevitable. They cannot advance science or save human lives.”

Rascher had major legal problems toward the end of the war. During 1944, he was accused of financial irregularities in connection with his experiments, and his family was charged with the illegal appropriation of children. Arrested by the police, Rascher was released on Himmler’s intervention, but with further investigation, Rascher and his wife were rearrested. Rascher was first imprisoned in the SS barracks at Munich-Freimann, and then later in Dachau Camp. Rascher’s death is obscure, but it seems probable that he was killed in his cell at Dachau shortly before the war ended.[24]

Use of Dr. Rascher’s Research

Despite the widespread criticism of Dr. Rascher’s research, his freezing experiments turned out to be useful to both German and Allied doctors. Dr. Georg Weltz told Dr. Leo Alexander shortly after the war that German doctors had solved an age-old riddle: Can a man who has frozen to death be brought back to life? Weltz said the answer is yes. Weltz said the German doctors’ rewarming techniques were dependent upon precise body temperature and duration of rewarming in direct proportion to a man’s weight. The rewarming methods the German doctors developed were so effective that the Luftwaffe air-sea rescue service successfully employed these techniques during the war.[25]

The rewarming techniques resulting from Rascher’s freezing research were adopted by British and American air-crew services after the war. Edwin Black, the New York Times best-selling, award-winning investigative author, writes:[26]

“After the war, Rascher’s conclusions were gleaned from Nazi reports and reluctantly adopted by British and American air-sea rescue services. A Nuremberg war crimes report on Nazi medicine summed up the extreme discomfort of Allied military doctors: ‘Dr. Rascher, although he wallowed in blood…and in obscenity…nevertheless appears to have settled the question of what to do for people in shock from exposure to cold…The method of rapid and intensive rewarming in hot water…should be immediately adopted as the treatment of choice by the Air-Sea Rescue Services of the United States Armed Forces.’”

Rascher reported during the war to Dr. Hubertus Strughold, the director of the Luftwaffe Institute for Aviation Medicine. Strughold also attended the medical conference that reviewed Rascher’s research. After the war, Strughold was sent to the United States as part of the top-secret Operation Paperclip program that offered German scientists immunity from prosecution in exchange for their scientific expertise.[27]

Strughold became the leader in American aviation medicine. His work was directly and indirectly responsible for many aeromedical advances. One such advance was the ability of people to walk effortlessly in a pressurized air cabin. This advance was developed largely as a result of Rascher’s high-altitude medical experiments at Dachau. Strughold was called “the father of U.S. Space Medicine,” and was honored by Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, which named its Aeromedical Library in his honor.[28]

Conclusion

Obviously, Dr. Rascher’s medical experiments constitute major war crimes. Paul Hoedeman writes in regard to Rascher’s high-altitude experiments:[29]

“In total, Rascher used 200 prisoners for his tests, of which 60 died in the most dreadful circumstances.”

Rascher should rightfully be condemned for conducting such cruel and lethal medical experiments regardless of their benefits.

However, it would be inaccurate to state that Rascher’s experiments served no useful purpose. Rascher’s freezing research showed that rapid and intensive rewarming in hot water was the best way to help people in shock recover from exposure to cold. His conclusions were reluctantly adopted by British and American air-sea rescue services after the war. Dr. Hubertus Strughold also used Rascher’s high-altitude experiments to help in the aeromedical advance of enabling people to walk effortlessly in pressurized air cabins.

It would also be inaccurate to claim that American physicians were morally superior to the German physicians. During the Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg, Dr. Karl Brandt and the other defendants were infuriated at the moral high ground taken by the U.S. prosecution. Evidence showed that the Allies had been engaged in illegal medical experimentation, including poison experiments on condemned prisoners in other countries, malaria experiments, and cholera and plague experiments on children.[30]

Dr. Robert Servatius, the Doctors’ Trial defense attorney, expanded on the theme of U.S. Army human experimentation. American journalist Annie Jacobsen writes:[31]

"Servatius had located a Life magazine article, published in June of 1945, that described how OSRD [the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development] conducted experiments on 800 U.S. prisoners during the war. Servatius read the entire article, word for word, in the courtroom. None of the American judges was familiar with the article, nor were most members of the prosecution, and its presentation in court clearly caught the Americans off guard.

Because the article specifically discussed U.S. Army wartime experiments on prisoners, it was incredibly damaging for the prosecution. ‘Prison life is ideal for controlled laboratory work with humans,’ Servatius read, quoting American doctors who had been interviewed by Life reporters. The idea that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and that both nations had used human test subjects during war, was unsettling. It pushed the core Nazi concept of the Untermenschen to the side. The Nuremberg prosecutors were left looking like hypocrites."

The U.S. prosecution flew in Dr. Andrew Ivy to explain the differences in medical ethics between German and U.S. medical experiments. Interestingly, Dr. Ivy himself had been involved in malaria experiments on inmates at the Illinois State Penitentiary. When Dr. Ivy mentioned that the United States had specific research standards for medical experimentation on humans, it turns out that these principles were first published on December 28, 1946, 19 days after the opening of the trial. Dr. Ivy had to admit that the U.S. principles on ethics in human medical experimentation had been made in anticipation of Dr. Ivy’s testimony at the Doctors’ Trial.[32]

Notes

A version of this article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of The Barnes Review.
[1] Annas, George J. and Grodin, Michael A. (editors), The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 6.
[2] Jacobsen, Annie, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014, p. 123.
[3] Ibid., p. 241.
[4] Michalczyk, John J. (editor), Medicine, Ethics, and the Third Reich: Historical and Contemporary Issues, Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1994, p. 87.
[5] Kater, Michael H., Doctors under Hitler, Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, p. 226.
[6] Schmidt, Ulf, Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor, New York: Continuumbooks, 2007, pp. 359-383.
[7] Cobden, John, Dachau: Reality and Myth in History: Costa Mesa, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1991, pp. 34-38.
[8] Kater, Michael H., Doctors under Hitler, Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, p. 125.
[9] Annas, George J. and Grodin, Michael A. (editors), The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 71.
[10] Spitz, Vivien, Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, Boulder, Colo.: Sentient Publications, 2005, p. 74.
[11] Berben, Paul, Dachau, 1933-1945, The Official History, London: The Norfolk Press, 1975, p. 126.
[12] Ibid., pp. 127-128.
[13] Ibid., p. 130.
[14] Spitz, Vivien, Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, Boulder, Colo.: Sentient Publications, 2005, p. 85.
[15] Jacobsen, Annie, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014, p. 119.
[16] Berben, Paul, Dachau, 1933-1945, The Official History, London: The Norfolk Press, 1975, p. 133.
[17] Black, Edwin, Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003, p. 381.
[18] Berben, Paul, Dachau, 1933-1945, The Official History, London: The Norfolk Press, 1975, pp. 133-134.
[19] Ibid., p. 133.
[20] Ibid., p. 126.
[21] McCallum, John Dennis, Crime Doctor, Mercer Island, Wash.: The Writing Works, Inc., 1978, pp. 67-68.
[22] Michalczyk, John J. (editor), Medicine, Ethics, and the Third Reich: Historical and Contemporary Issues, Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1994, p. 96.
[23] Ibid., p. 97.
[24] Berben, Paul, Dachau, 1933-1945, The Official History, London: The Norfolk Press, 1975, p. 134.
[25] Jacobsen, Annie, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014, pp. 119-120.
[26] Black, Edwin, Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003, p. 381.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid., pp. 381-382.
[29] Hoedeman, Paul, Hitler or Hippocrates: Medical Experiments and Euthanasia in the Third Reich, Sussex, England: The Book Guild Ltd., 1991, p. 154.
[30] Schmidt, Ulf, Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor, New York: Continuum Books, 2007, p. 376.
[31] Jacobsen, Annie, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014, p. 274.
[32] Schmidt, Ulf, Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor, New York: Continuum Books, 2007, pp. 376-377.

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Author(s): John Wear
Title: Dr. Sigmund Rascher’s Medical Experiments
Sources: Inconvenient History, Vol. 13, No. 4 A version of this article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of The Barnes Review.
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Published: 2021-11-24
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