Did Nazi Research Actually Contribute Anything Valuable To Medical Science?

Published February 25, 2016
Updated May 4, 2018

Nazi Research: Trauma Experiments

Nazi Medicine Ravensbruck Phosphorous

Inmates at Ravensbruck were often unwilling recipients of phosphorus treatments, as seen above. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

By far the most promising fields of Nazi medical research were battlefield medicine and trauma experiments. These experiments were undertaken by commission from the German military, and they usually tried to answer direct questions about the damage human beings were likely to suffer in combat. This discrete problem and narrow research focus disciplined researchers to actually generate useful data that’s still occasionally cited. Here are some examples of that trauma:

Cold Water

Nazi Medicine Freezing Experiments

Nazi doctors examine a freezing subject. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Dachau, an SS doctor named Sigmund Rascher tested survival gear for the Luftwaffe by dressing inmates in pilot uniforms and dropping them in freezing water that simulated conditions in the North Sea. Subjects’ temperatures were taken rectally and the cooling rate was carefully charted. In hundreds of experiments, Rascher tried out various methods for reheating hypothermic prisoners and found that sexual intercourse worked better than warm colonic irrigation.

The charts developed in Dachau still provide some of the most comprehensive data describing end-stage hypothermia in humans. Most patients died in these experiments.

High Altitude

Nazi Medicine Altitude Experiment

An inmate in an altitude experiment. Image Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Another Luftwaffe project at Dachau aimed to study the effects of high-altitude, low-pressure exposure on human bodies. At the time, experimental German planes were flying higher than ever before, and the unusual conditions at these altitudes needed to be studied to help German pilots who had to bail out in action.

To test the effects of low pressure, Rascher hung prisoners in parachute harnesses and sealed them inside a pressure chamber. Some of his 200 subjects were unconscious (simulating a passed-out pilot), others were wide awake. As air was pumped out of the chamber, victims clawed at their faces and chewed their lips and tongues.

Rascher later examined their swollen brains; some of them still living during the vivisection. None of the subjects survived. Eighty died during the tests. The rest were executed.

Sea Water

Nazi Medicine Seawater Experiment

A man in the throes of a seawater experiment. Image Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Another doctor at Dachau, Hans Eppinger, undertook a commission from the German navy to study the effects of drinking sea water for extended periods. He isolated 90 Gypsies in a special containment area and deprived them of fresh water. Within days, other prisoners observed them licking the mopped floors for moisture. Death from dehydration resembles high-speed kidney failure, Dr. Eppinger discovered.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.