In the Name of Science? - World War Two Experimentation and Torture


Published: 04 November 2018

The horrific crimes of Germany’s Third Reich are well-known.  Experiments were carried out on prisoners in concentration camps, all in the name of science.

During this time, Japan conducted similar experiments as they overran China and Korea, and then on their prisoners of war in the many POW camps set up in World War Two.

These experiments included testing the effects of altitude on humans; hypothermia and its effects on the body; trials of drugs such as sulphanilamides; the effects on the body of war wounds and how best to treat them; and how to sterilise people efficiently and effectively.

This is but to name only a few. (There were many other types of experiments conducted – too numerous to list here – however, more exhaustive lists can be found online.)

Prisoners were used as ‘lab rats’ – they were totally expendable, given no choice, no informed consent, and many of the prisoners were either executed after their use had expired, or they died as a result of the experiments.

Females prisoners in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The blame for these experiments and egregious war crimes has been laid at the feet of the doctors who conducted them. What is often overlooked or ignored is the role of nurses.

Many of these experiments, whether in Europe or Asia, were conducted in the hospitals set up in concentration and POW camps. Nurses were recruited to work in these hospitals; some came from the mother countries, and some nurses were prisoners themselves who saw their service as a means to survive.

For the latter group, of course, resistance would have meant that they too would be sent to the gas chambers. But, others were there of their own free will, believing that what they were doing was going to help win the war for their respective countries.

At the end of the war, certainly in Europe, some of the nurses were tried, a small handful executed, and many went back to work as nurses in their communities.

Very little is known about the nurses involved in these Japanese experiments.

What Did the Nurses Do?

There are two main sources to determine this. Firstly, transcripts of the trials of the few nurses who were indicted for war crimes. The second source is testimony given by prisoners who survived.

One of the most readily accessible sources is the transcript of the trials of those who worked at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp near Hamburg, Germany, that was set up as a women’s camp.

Concentration Camp Ravensbrück Memorial Site – Prisoner labor station on the area of the former womens camp. (CC) 2005, Norbert Radtke.

Ravensbrück’s experiments were carried out on Polish women who had their legs cut open, and ground glass, dirt, and sawdust inserted to simulate the conditions of wounds in battle.

Some of the women were treated with sulphanilamide drugs, others were left as a control group to test the effects of the drug.

Some women were injected with bacteria that caused gas gangrene and other battlefield infections such as typhus.

Limbs and muscles were transplanted from one prisoner to another.

At Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, prisoners were used to test methods of sterilisation. Both women and men had their gonads bombarded with hazardous levels of radiation. Accounts report some women had chemicals such as phenol injected into the uterus or fallopian tubes.

It was also rare for any of this to be performed under anaesthetic, which was only given solely so that women would remain still during the procedures. It was even rarer for any pain relief to be provided post-operatively.

Nurses prepared prisoners for the operations; they washed them, shaved areas, gave any required premedication, took them to the theatres where the experiments were carried out, assisted with the operations, took the prisoners back to the hospital wards, and cared for them afterwards.

Ravensbrück (CC) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-0417-15 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Why Did They Do This?

Some of the nurses had no choice. They were prisoners themselves, and if they did not obey they would have been executed.

The testimony of survivors records that some prisoner nurses did their best to provide what pain relief they could, and tried to help the victims to the best of their abilities in dreadful conditions.

However, other evidence reports that some of the prisoner nurses were even crueller than those employed to do the job. At the trials, these nurses explained that they were trying to be cruel to be kind – if they had not been seen to be unkind, then the Nazi doctors and guards would have been even more brutal towards the prisoners.

In some instances, this excuse was not accepted, and at least one prisoner nurse from Ravensbrück, Vera Salvequart, was executed, as was Elisabeth Marschall, who was employed as the matron of Ravensbrück’s hospital.

What was the motivation of those who are employed to do this work? What were they thinking? Why did they consider that such abrogation of their nursing role was acceptable?

They had taken an oath, as had all nurses in Germany at the time, to obey the Führer (Adolf Hitler) in everything. However, does this justify intentionally causing pain and suffering, and going against every code of ethics by which nurses are expected to act?

For further reading, see:

  • Benedict, S 2003, ‘The nadir of nursing: nurse-perpetrators of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp’, Nursing History Review, vol. 11, pp. 129-46.

You can read more about the ethics of nursing and midwifery. and how these were abrogated during the Nazi Germany era in Linda Shields’ book, Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany: The Euthanasia Programs (Routledge Studies in Modern European History)