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Week of February 6, 2012

Deadly Medicine exhibit recalls Nazi horror

It started with a flawed theory born in the 19th century, that pursuing “racial hygiene” could somehow best serve humanity going forward. The theory was known as eugenics, and advocates could be found around the world including in the United States.

But in Nazi Germany, the theory led to the killing of millions. The Nazi regime was founded upon the conviction that “inferior races” and individuals had to be eliminated from German society so that the fittest “Aryans” could thrive. By the end of World War II, six million Jews and others, including Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), people diagnosed as hereditarily ill, and homosexuals had been persecuted and murdered.

The exhibit Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, presented through April 13 in the Taubman Health Sciences Library, illustrates how Nazi leadership enlisted people in professions traditionally charged with healing and the public good to legitimize persecution, murder and ultimately genocide.

The traveling exhibit is presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Taubman Library Director Jane Blumenthal says she and her colleagues have been working to bring the popular exhibit to U-M for nearly two years. “I liked that the exhibit addressed issues at the intersection of medicine and society and knew that it would be valuable and interesting to people in both the university and Ann Arbor communities,” she says.

The exhibit traces the roots of eugenics theory — and the sterilization programs guided by that theory —in the United States. A 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell endorsed state laws mandating the eugenic sterilization of “feebleminded” and “socially inadequate” people in state institutions.

That decision is the subject of the Deadly Medicine keynote address: “The Legacy of American Eugenics: Buck v. Bell in the Supreme Court,” with Paul Lombardo, professor of law at Georgia State University. It is presented from 6:45-8 p.m. Thursday in the Biomedical Research Science Building, Kahn Auditorium.

Dr. Otmar von Verschuer examines twins at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. As the head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s Department for Human Heredity, Verschuer, a physician and geneticist, examined hundreds of pairs of twins to study whether criminality, feeble-mindedness, tuberculosis and cancer were inheritable. In 1927 he recommended the forced sterilization of the “mentally and morally subnormal.” Verschuer typified those academics whose interest in Germany’s “national regeneration” provided motivation for their research. Photo courtesy Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin-Dahlem.

Lombardo will discuss details of the Supreme Court case, and how it became one of the symbolic high points for the eugenic movement in the United States. The case and the laws it validated actually preceded a 1934 Nazi law for sterilizing the “hereditarily diseased,” under which more than 400,000 operations occurred in Nazi Germany.

Alexandra Minna Stern, associate director of the Center for the History of Medicine, which collaborated with the library to bring Deadly Medicine, believes that the “visual and media components of the exhibition make it very powerful,” and allow us to “reflect on how science was misused in the name of nationalist extremism.”

“The main lesson for the medical profession is that if we sacrifice our ethical standard of care and healing of the individual for the care and healing of the ‘national body’ we lose the ethical basis of our work,” says Sabine Hildebrandt, lecturer IV in anatomical science, Medical School, adding that eugenics theory ultimately was accepted as flawed, unsupported science.

Hildebrandt, who also is using contents of the exhibit in her teaching, added that academics have a responsibility to be aware of the influences of the political system they live in.

While many photos support the exhibit’s key story line, eugenics policy and its victims in the Third Reich, the exhibit also includes photos of key contributors to the rise of eugenics theory and those who suffered from its abuses. There also are text and video presentations.

“Deadly Medicine explores the Holocaust’s roots in then-contemporary scientific and pseudo-scientific thought,” explains exhibition curator Susan Bachrach. “At the same time, it touches on complex ethical issues we face today, such as how societies acquire and use scientific knowledge and how they balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the larger community.”

The exhibit can be viewed during library hours, 8 a.m.-11:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m.-7:45 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-7:45 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-11:45 p.m. Sunday. An opening reception is scheduled for 5:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Health Sciences Library. Related events, including a panel discussion with Holocaust survivors and medical professionals are scheduled for March and April. The exhibit and related events are sponsored by the Medical School dean’s office, Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, Center for International and Comparative Studies, Institute for the Humanities, Division of Anatomical Sciences in the Department of Medical Education, History Department, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Genetic Counseling Program, Department of Human Genetics, Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, and the Program in Science, Technology and Society.



Elizabeth James, program associate, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, on growing up in a family of storytellers: “Over time you realize there are many lessons woven into the tale. I’m honored to be continuing that tradition.