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A victim of medical experiments at Auschwitz sits with a bandaged head in an infirmary.
Source: William Gallagher Collection, via the USHMM Photo Archives.
6.2.3 - Deadly medical experiments

Between September 1939, and April 1945, at least seventy medical - research projects of various kinds were conducted in Nazi concentration camps, consisting of medical experiments performed on human beings against their will. At least 7000 persons were subjected to such forced experiments. This figure, based on existing documentation and testimonies, does not include numerous similar projects for which no documentation exists or on which no detailed testimonies have been submitted.

Though experiments on human beings are an accepted and recognized practice in medical research, they are generally subject to severe restrictions. They must not be intended for "pure" research, that is, for research that does not have the immediate purpose of developing a new medicine or a new kind of treatment; they must not have the sole purpose of advancing the researcher's career; and human beings may be involved only in those phases of an experiment for which they are absolutely essential, but never against their will.

In Nazi Germany, medical experiments on human beings were carried out in which these fundamental rules were disregarded. The Nazi medical experiments were carried out by the established institutions of the Third Reich - the state and party civil medical services, the army medical corps, and the medical services of the SS.

The large - scale medical experiments carried out in Germany and the occupied countries during World War II fitted the ideological policy pursued by the Third Reich. Some of them directly served the regime's ideological goals, and all contained elements that violated the norms of medical research, reflecting the researchers' Nazi ideology and aiding them to put into effect, with great efficiency, the most inhuman objectives of Nazi racism.

Some two hundred German medical doctors were stationed in the Nazi concentration camps, conducting Selektionen, medical services and research.It is impossible to differentiate between the medical and scientific establishments, on the one hand, and the political establishment on the other. In compliance with such policy, German doctors and other medical personnel carried out the following measures:

1.1 - Sterilization and Castration

Between 1933 and 1937, of 200,000 young men and women who were found to be suffering from supposedly genetic diseases.

From about March 1941 to about January 1945 sterilization experiments were conducted at the Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck concentration camps, and other places. The purpose of these experiments was to develop a method of sterilization which would be suitable for sterilizing millions of people with a minimum of time and effort. These experiments were conducted by means of X-ray, surgery, and various drugs. Thousands of victims were sterilized and thereby suffered great mental and physical anguish. The defendants Karl Brandt, Gebhardt, Rudolf Brandt, Mrugowsky, Poppendick, Brack, Pokorny, and Oberheuser are charged with special responsibility for and participation in these crimes.

Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum #093
Operating room in Barrack R1 of sick-bay in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. With a secret SS decree in November 1942, concentration camp commandants were authorized to order the castration of prisoners in unspecified, "special cases," thus permitting the compulsory castration of incarcerated homosexuals.

1.2 - Euthanasia Program

The killing of 90,000 mentally and chronically ill persons.

1.3 - Genetic Research

The establishment of departments for genetic research and for genetic, anthropological, and genealogical surveys of the entire non-German population to which the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor was applicable. The purpose was to identify those individuals who qualified as being of "pure Aryan" blood.

In the period from 1942 to 1945, medical experiments were conducted in concentration camps, rather than in hospitals and research institutions. They were carried out on human beings regarded as racially inferior, in locations that were the most concrete expression of Nazi ideology. Every medical experiment had to have the approval of Heinrich Himmler, who took a personal interest in them, interfered in them, and allocated the resources required for their implementation.

The medical experiments fell into two broad categories:

1 - experiments whose objectives were compatible with professional medical ethics and the purposes of medical practice, but whose mode of implementation violated moral law;

2 - experiments whose very purposes violated medical ethic and which were irreconcilable with the accepted norms of medical research.

2 - Experiments compatible with professional medical ethics

Survival and Rescue Experiments

Relate to physiology, their purpose being to test the human potential for survival under harsh conditions and adaptation to such conditions, and to determine the means required to save lives. Experiments involving high altitudes, freezing temperature, and the drinking of seawater were conducted by the German air force in cooperation with the SS, on prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp.

2.2 - High-altitude Experiments

Had the purpose of determining the maximum altitude at which air crews of damaged aircraft could be saved. The victims of these experiments were put into pressure chambers that duplicated the conditions prevailing at 13 - mile altitudes - low pressure and a lack of oxygen. Under conditions that simulated parachuting from an altitude of 8 miles (13 km) without an oxygen supply, spasms began and the victims lost consciousness. At 9 miles (15 km) they had breathing problems, and there were instances when they stopped breathing altogether. Nevertheless, the experiments, without an oxygen supply, went on to an altitude of 13 miles. Some 200 Dachau prisoners were used for these experiments and 70 to 80 lost their lives as a result.

High altitude experiments
A prisoner in a compression chamber loses consciousness (and later dies) during an experiment to determine altitudes at which aircraft crews could survive without oxygen. Dachau, Germany, 1942.
From about March 1942 to about August 1942 experiments were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp, for the benefit of the German Air Force, to investigate the limits of human endurance and existence at extremely high altitudes. The experiments were carried out in a low-pressure chamber in which atmospheric conditions and pressures prevailing at high altitude (up to 68,000 feet) could be duplicated. The experimental subjects were placed in the low-pressure chamber and thereafter the simulated altitude therein was raised. Many victims died as a result of these experiments and others suffered grave injury, torture, and ill-treatment.

2.3 - Freezing Experiments

Were designed to establish the most effective method of treating persons who were in a state of shock following prolonged immersion in freezing seas or exposure to dry cold. No painkillers were used to relieve the victims' suffering. About 300 persons were used in these experiments, 80 to 90 losing their lives.

2.4 - Exposure to Dry-cold Experiments

In the experiments involving exposure to dry cold, the victims were put naked into the snow - covered courtyard of the experiment compound and kept there for nine to fifteen hours, from 6: 00 in the evening to 9: 00 the next morning, at a temperature of 8.4F (- 6C). Their terrible screams or pain were ignored and they were given no means of relief.

Freezing experiment
Victim of a medical experiment immersed in freezing water at the Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, between August 1942 and May 1943.
From about August 1942 to about May 1943 experiments were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp, primarily for the benefit of the German Air Force, to investigate the most effective means of treating persons who had been severely chilled or frozen. In one series of experiments the subjects were forced to remain in a tank of ice water for periods up to 3 hours. Extreme rigor developed in a short time. Numerous victims died in the course of these experiments. After the survivors were severely chilled, rewarming was attempted by various means. In another series of experiments, the subjects were kept naked outdoors for many hours at temperatures below freezing. The victims screamed with pain as their bodies froze.

2.5 - Drinking of Sea-water Experiments

From about July 1944 to about September 1944 experiments were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp, for the benefit of the German Air Force and Navy, to study various methods of making sea water drinkable. The subjects were deprived of all food and given only chemically processed sea water. Such experiments caused great pain and suffering and resulted in serious bodily injury to the victims.

drinking of sea water experiments
A Romani (Gypsy) victim of Nazi medical experiments to make seawater potable. Dachau concentration camp, Germany, 1944

3 - Medical Treatment Experiments

Experiments involving medical treatment took place in far greater numbers and consisted of three main categories; those relating to the treatment of battle injuries; those relating to the treatment of victims of gas attacks; and those testing immunization compounds or medicines, for the prevention or treatment, respectively, of contagious and epidemic diseases.

3.1 - Treatment of War Wounds Experiments

One of the experiments for the treatment of war wounds took place in the Ravensbruck camp; the victims were 75 female Polish political prisoners. Its purpose was to establish the effectiveness of sulfanilamide in preventing infection and putrefaction from taking place in limbs as a result of wounds. The doctor in charge of this experiment was Dr. Karl Gebhardt. Gebhardt had been the attending physician of Reinhard Heydrich.

Another series of experiments relating to war wounds involved the treatment of fractures and the transplanting of bones, muscles, and nerves. These were conducted at Ravensbruck by Dr. Gebhardt on Polish women prisoners, the purpose being to find solutions to problems in the treatment of severe wounds in the upper and lower limbs.

These amputations were carried out on mentally ill prisoners, who were then put to death. The experiment cost the lives of 11 out of the 24 victims; the rest were maimed for life.

3.1.1 - Bone, Muscle, and Nerve Regeneration and Bone Transplantation Experiments

From about September 1942 to about December 1943 experiments were conducted at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp, for the benefit of the German Armed Forces, to study bone, muscle, and nerve regeneration, and bone transplantation from one person to another. Sections of bones, muscles, and nerves were removed from the subjects. As a result of these operations, many victims suffered intense agony, mutilation, and permanent disability.

3.1.2 - Incendiary Bomb Experiments

From about November 1943 to about January 1944 experiments were conducted at the Buchenwald concentration camp to test the effect of various pharmaceutical preparations on phosphorous burns. These burns were inflicted on experimental subjects with phosphorous matter taken from incendiary bombs, and caused severe pain, suffering, and serious bodily injury.

wounds experiments
Photo of wounds left by a medical experiment. The victim had been burned with phosphorous so that medicaments could be tested.

3.2 - Treatment of Chemical Warfare Victims Experiments

Experiments on the treatment of chemical - warfare victims were conducted under army auspices throughout the war. In March 1944, however, Hitler ordered Karl Brandt to intensify medical research on the effects of chemical warfare. At the same time, Dr. August Hirt was conducting experiments in this field, on a larger scale, at the Ganzweiler camp; of the 220 persons he used as subjects, 50 died as a result.

The Neuengamme camp was the place where 150 prisoners were made to drink water containing chemical - warfare substances, as part of a research project for the purification of drinking water.

3.2.1 - Lost (Mustard) Gas Experiments

At various times between September 1939 and April 1945 experiments were Conducted at Sachsenhausen, Natzweiler, and other concentration camps for the benefit of the German Armed Forces to investigate the most effective treatment of wounds caused by Lost gas. Lost is a poison gas which is commonly known as mustard gas. Wounds deliberately inflicted on the subjects were infected with Lost. Some of the subjects died as a result of these experiments and others suffered intense pain and injury.

3.2.2 - Experiments with Poison

In or about December 1943, and in or about October 1944, experiments were conducted at the Buchenwald concentration camp to investigate the effect of various poisons upon human beings. The poisons were secretly administered to experimental subjects in their food. The victims died as a result of the poison or were killed immediately in order to permit autopsies. In or about September 1944 experimental subjects were shot with poison bullets and suffered torture and death.

3.3 - Treatment of Diseases Experiments

Another area of experiment related to the immunization and treatment of infective and epidemic diseases such as malaria, infective hepatitis, and typhus. The malaria experiment was a civilian venture, carried out at Dachau of Dr. Leonardo Conti, Reich chief of civilian medical services. The experiment involved 1,200 prisoners, most of them Catholic priests, and cost the lives of 300 to 400 persons. Of them no more than 30 died of the disease itself; the others died from over doses of the medicines that were being tried out on them. In some of these experiments the death of the human subjects was a foregone conclusion, and for these Dr. Grawitz asked Himmler to put at his disposal Jewish prisoners, who were already condemned to death in any case. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans in June 1941, typhus fever became widespread among the German army. From 1941 to the end of the war a broad program of experiments on human beings was conducted at Buchenwald by Ganzweiler to test the effectiveness of various immunization inoculations. Hundreds of prisoners were used in these experiments and hundreds died as a result.

3.3.1 - Malaria Experiments

From about February 1942 to about April 1945 experiments were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp in order to investigate immunization for and treatment of malaria. Healthy concentration-camp inmates were infected by mosquitoes or by injections of extracts of the mucous glands of mosquitoes. After having contracted malaria the subjects were treated with various drugs to test their relative efficacy. Over 1,000 involuntary subjects were used in these experiments. Many of the victims died and others suffered severe pain and permanent disability.

3.3.2 - Epidemic Jaundice Experiments

From about June 1943 to about January 1945 experiments were conducted at the Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler concentration camps, for the benefit of the German Armed Forces, to investigate the causes of, and inoculations against, epidemic jaundice. Experimental subjects were deliberately infected with epidemic jaundice, some of whom died as a result, and others were caused great pain and suffering.

3.3.3 - Spotted Fever (Fleckfieber) Experiments

From about December 1941 to about February 1945 experiments were conducted at the Buchenwald and Natzweiler concentration camps, for the benefit of the German Armed Forces, to investigate the effectiveness of spotted fever and other vaccines. At Buchenwald numerous healthy inmates were deliberately infected with spotted fever virus in order to keep the virus alive; over 90 percent of the victims died as a result. Other healthy inmates were used to determine the effectiveness of different spotted fever vaccines and of various chemical substances. In the course of these experiments 75 percent of the selected number of inmates were vaccinated with one of the vaccines or nourished with one of the chemical substances and, after a period of 3 to 4 weeks, were infected with spotted fever germs. The remaining 25 percent were infected without any previous protection in order to compare the effectiveness of the vaccines and the chemical substances.

As a result, hundreds of the persons experimented upon died. Experiments with yellow fever, smallpox, typhus, paratyphus [It was definitely ascertained in the course of the proceedings, by both prosecution ad defense, that the correct translation of "Fleckfieber" is typhus. A finding to this effect is contained in the judgment. A similar initial inadequate translation occurred in the case of "typhus" and "paratyphus" which should be rendered as typhoid and paratyphoid] A and B, cholera, and diphtheria were also conducted. Similar experiments with like results were conducted at Natzweiler concentration camp.

3.3.4 - Sulfanilamide Experiments

From about July 1942 to about September 1943 experiments to investigate the effectiveness of sulfanilamide were conducted at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp for the benefit of the German Armed Forces. Wounds deliberately inflicted on the experimental subjects were infected with bacteria such as streptococcus, gas gangrene, and tetanus. Circulation of blood was interrupted by tying off blood vessels at both ends of the wound to create a condition similar to that of a battlefield wound. Infection was aggravated by forcing wood shavings and ground glass into the wounds. The infection was treated with sulfanilamide and other drugs to determine their effectiveness. Some subjects died as a result of these experiments and others suffered serious injury and intense agony.

4 - Experiments whose very purposes violated medical ethic

4.1 - Racial Experiments

The second category that violated medical ethics, comprised experiments designed to provide biological and physiological findings to substantiate the differentiations made by Nazi ideology between the "Aryan" race and other races; and experiments to further the aims of the Third Reich's ideological policy by medical means, that is, to facilitate the destruction of the Jews.

4.2 - Experiments on Dwarfs and Twins

The experiments on dwarfs and twins were carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. The only firsthand evidence on these experiments comes from a handful of survivors and from a Jewish doctor, Miklos Nyiszli, who worked under Mengele as a pathologist. Mengele subjected his victims - twins and dwarfs aged two and above - to clinical examinations, blood tests, X-rays, and anthropological measurements. He then killed them himself by injecting chloroform into their hearts, so as to carry out comparative pathological examinations of their internal organs. Mengele's purpose, according to Dr. Nyiszli, was to establish the genetic cause for the birth of twins, in order to facilitate the formulation of a program for the doubling of the birthrate of the "Aryan" race. The experiments on twins affected 180 persons, adults and children.

4.3 - Serological Experiments

The serological experiments, conducted by Professor Werner Fischer of the Koch Institute for Contagious Diseases and Dr. Karl Georg Horneck, were intended to prove that there were serological difference among the races. The experiments were carried out on Gypsies in the Sachsenhausen camp.

4.4 - Anthropological Experiments

The project on skeletons of Jews was carried out by Dr. August Hirt at Strasbourg University. His purpose was to prove the racial inferiority of "Jewish-Bolshevik commissars" by means of an anthropological study of their skeletons. For this experiment, 115 Jews in a good state of health were selected and killed in gas chambers.

4.5 - Mass Sterilization Experiments

Experiments in mass sterilization, begun in 1942, were not designed as a means of installing the "Aryan" race as the future ruler of the world, but to provide an alternative to the immediate destruction of the Jews and of other people who, according to Nazi racist ideology, should not be permitted to live. Such a method would also enable the Nazis to interfere as little as possible with the mischlinge (persons of "mixed blood", that is, those with at least one Jewish grandparents) and use them to meet labor requirements. The sterilization experiments were carried out on Hitler's own initiative.

Dr. Horst Schumann, in Auschwitz, first sterilized men, women, and children by means of radiation, exposing them to large doses of X-rays, which caused severe burns. He then removed the men's testicles and transmitted them to a Breslau institute for a histopathological examination. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of persons of different nationalities were used in these experiments. Most of them were sent to the gas chambers soon afterward, since the radiation burns from which they suffered mad them unfit for work. Sterilization experiments were also conducted on women and children in Ravensbruck. Viktor Brack, the author of this group of experiments, proposed to Himmler that the method be used on three million Jews - out of the total of ten million earmarked for extermination - provided they were fit and could be used as forced laborers.

Other sterilization experiments were carried out at this time by Professor Carl Clauberg at Auschwitz and Ravensbruck; their aim was to determine the feasibility of mass sterilization by one-time injection of a chemical substance into the womb. Thousands of women were used in this experiment, most of them Jewish and the rest Gypsies. Clauberg was seeking the answer to a question put to him by Himmler regarding the time it would take to sterilize one thousand women by means of an efficient, speedy, inexpensive, and dependable method, which could then be applied in a mass sterilization program. He was soon able to inform Himmler that by using the method he had devised and tested, a team consisting of one doctor and ten assistants could sterilize up to one thousand persons a day.

Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust
©1990 Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY 10022

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