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The Nazi doctors still casting a shadow over medicine


The one psychiatric diagnosis that probably everyone has heard of is the mild autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s syndrome. But there’s a good chance it won’t be called that for much longer. New research published this month casts its originator, Dr Hans Asperger, as a Nazi “fellow traveller” who actively cooperated with a euthanasia program.

The exhaustively researched study, published in the journal Molecular Autism, found that Asperger, a paediatrician who practised in Vienna during the Nazi period, sent children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, where hundreds of disabled children were murdered as a part of a “race hygiene” program. The study’s author, medical researcher Herwig Czech, says that although Asperger was not himself a member of the Nazi Party, he joined several organisations affiliated with the Party which supported race hygiene policies such as forced sterilisations, and worked closely with the top figures in Vienna’s euthanasia program.

The new research has led to calls to stop using the term Asperger syndrome. Writing in the New York Times, researcher Edith Sheffer comments that “naming a disorder after someone is meant to credit and commend, and Asperger merited neither”. Stopping using the term Asperger’s would be one way “to honour the children killed in his name as well as those still labelled with it”, she writes.

But medicine remains littered with diseases named after doctors who were either Nazis or closely associated with Nazism. Take the case of Dr Hans Reiter, who while on the Western Front in 1916 reported the case of a severely ill lieutenant who had developed urethritis, arthritis and conjunctivitis. He recognised that all these symptoms were part of a single rheumatological condition which later became known as Reiter’s syndrome.

Reiter became an avowed Nazi, signing an oath of allegiance to Hitler in 1933. He was later convicted of war crimes at the Nuremburg trials for his knowledge of gruesome medical experiments at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and for personally overseeing an experiment with a typhus vaccine that killed over 250 inmates.

Nonetheless, Reiter went on to an illustrious postwar career as a professor of hygiene, and his misdeeds were only rediscovered in the late 1970s. The disease has since been renamed reactive arthritis, but a quick glance at Pubmed reveals that “Reiter’s syndrome” is still in use, as recently as in a paper published this year.

Oddly enough, Reiter’s syndrome is not the only condition named after a Nazi rheumatologist. There is also the case of Friedrich Wegener, who in 1934 performed an autopsy of a man who had died of kidney failure. He discovered a type of necrotising inflammation with granulomas, and theorised that the patient had suffered from a hitherto undescribed form of vasculitis. This became known as Wegener’s granulomatosis.

Wegener had joined the Nazi Party the year before his discovery, and he spent the war working as a pathologist three blocks away from the Lodz ghetto in Poland, whose inhabitants were almost all murdered in extermination camps. Wegener’s granulomatosis has since been renamed granulomatosis with polyangiitis, although, as with Reiter’s syndrome, the old name still lingers in the contemporary literature.

Those two rheumatological conditions are far from the only medical phenomena named after Nazi doctors. There is the “Clara cell”, a type of cell which lines airways in our respiratory system, and which is named after Dr Max Clara. An outspoken Nazi, Dr Clara discovered the cells named after him using tissues from Nazi victims.

Then there is Hallervorden–Spatz disease, a type of neurodegeneration partly named after Julius Hallervorden, who admitted after the war that his research had used brains of children killed in Nazi euthanasia programs. Or there is a type of dystrophy known as Seitelberger disease, named after a Viennese neurologist who was also a member of the SS. And there are several other neurological conditions named after doctors who obtained brains from euthanasia programs, and who in some cases were actively involved in them.

Although all of these conditions have since been renamed, new names don’t always stick. But, as one physician says in an opinion piece in the Scientific American, there is a moral duty not to allow doctors who committed terrible crimes to live on forever in the medical literature.

“Here is my humble request to doctors,” writes Dr  Ilana Yurkiewicz. “Please introduce these terms without their Nazi affiliations. If a tainted term has had another one substituted, please, just use the newer term.”